Safe Passage
Posted in History Today Feed
August 24, 2022

Safe Passage

A Fleet of East Indiamen at Sea, by Nicholas Pocock, 1803. These large ships were armed and often sailed in convoy in eastern seas without warship escort.
A Fleet of East Indiamen at Sea, by Nicholas Pocock, 1803. These large ships were armed and often sailed in convoy in eastern seas without warship escort © National Maritime Museum.

Between 1803 and 1815 Britain was at war with ten countries. The Napoleonic Wars comprised battles of attrition, fought on land and at sea as the French Empire expanded its hegemony. Britain’s survival rested on its ability to maintain continuous trade by sea in spite of Napoleon’s efforts to isolate it. To do so its merchants were reliant on convoys, temporary gatherings of ships or government transports sailing together between friendly ports, protected by warships. 

Despite being essential, naval convoys have largely been ignored in the history of sailing. Though their role in the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War, when Allied convoys were deployed to defend supply ships from attack by German U-boats, is recognised, many more sailed during the Napoleonic Wars than between 1939 and 1945. 

With a fair wind and good visibility, the progress of convoys could be straightforward, but they were often besieged by accidents. Though major disasters were few, loss of life through misadventure and storm was endemic and by the end of the Napoleonic Wars skilled seamen were in short supply. Winter in northern latitudes, combined with hurricanes and cyclones in the tropics, accounted for the destruction of more naval and merchant ships than were destroyed or captured by enemy warships or privateers. 

To understand their importance to Britain’s victory in the Napoleonic Wars, we must understand what convoys were, how they worked and what obstacles they faced.


Global trade

In the early 19th century virtually all strategic war materials came from outside Britain. Shipbuilding oak had been exhausted for some time; hardwoods, mast timber, hemp and tar came from the Baltic. Home-produced iron could not satisfy demand and most malleable iron had to come from Sweden. Apart from charcoal, the ingredients of gunpowder also arrived from afar: sulphur from Sicily and saltpetre from India were vital cargoes which required careful protection. A critical issue was the supply of silver bullion, usually in the form of Spanish dollars, from mines in Mexico. The shipment had to be taken to London to support the value of sterling before being transported to British and Allied troops in the field, where it was essential to keep them fighting (and prevent them from plundering). Without timely shipments of these dollars the Peninsular War (1808-14), fought against invading Napoleonic forces with support from Spanish and Portuguese allies, could not have been won.

Convoys were crucial to ensuring the safety and smooth-running of global trade. From the Caribbean came increasing imports of raw materials, including cotton, sugar and coffee and other tropical products, a significant proportion of which was re-exported to Continental Europe through smuggling hubs such as Heligoland or Malta. The growth of luxury imports from India and China increased the size and number of East India Company convoys, which gathered at St Helena whence the East Indiamen were escorted home by a ship of the line. A burgeoning export of textiles, from cotton goods, linen and silks to ironware and other metalware, steadily grew. Coal, lead and other raw materials continued to be distributed in outward convoys worldwide.

An Allied convoy at sea during the Second World War, 1940s © National Maritime Museum.
An Allied convoy at sea during the Second World War, 1940s © National Maritime Museum.

Aside from the war, industrial development was also dependent on trade made possible by convoys. Sawn and square-hewn timber from the Baltic was required for all kinds of construction work: pine for housebuilding, spruce for piling canals and docks, and pit props for quarries and mines. 

Though canals took a small proportion of this tonnage, much of the bulk materials for the internal economy of Britain, such as coal, iron or grain, went by sea. Coastal convoys were difficult to arrange, as the trade was often localised and fragmented; the danger here was from small, fast enemy privateers. A naval brig would patrol headlands rather than formally convoy merchant ships. However, government transports on coastal routes carrying troops or naval stores from dockyard to dockyard were strictly convoyed.


Troop movement

Convoys were crucial to the protection of troop transports as they sailed to all parts of Europe and across the world. Once there, they had to be kept supplied and their regiment relieved. Troops in garrisons and campaigns abroad were substantial: by 1813 some 180,000 soldiers were overseas. The rhythm of these regular convoys was broken by large expeditions, of which there were 15 major examples throughout the war, to Continental Europe but also to India and lands as far away as Mauritius and Java. After 1812 there were also several troop convoys to North America. 

Of the expeditions in Europe, perhaps the most successful was the capture of the Danish fleet and Copenhagen in 1807. But victory was blighted by troop losses in stormy weather on the voyage home. The Kentish Gazette reported on 20 November 1807:

The Salisbury transport was lost on the Long Sand on Tuesday night last, when 241 soldiers and part of the crew were drowned … Thus, in a moment, more lives have been lost to their country than it lost to obtain the possession of the Danish capital and arsenal.


A worldwide system

At the centre of the convoy system was the Secretary to the Admiralty Board, whose main task was to negotiate with the merchants on the timing of convoys and other issues and to defend the government in Parliament. It was through this position that he managed relations with the marine insurers of the day – mainly Lloyd’s. 

The stream of orders issued by the Admiralty was implemented by port admirals at Portsmouth, Plymouth and other naval bases. Those in England received their orders by lines of shutter telegraph stations, which sent their coded messages from the roof of the Admiralty in Whitehall. Stations manned by teams of seamen constantly relayed orders. Although not operational at night or in bad visibility, messages could in daylight be passed to and from the Admiralty in minutes. 

This network of telegraph stations was at the centre of a worldwide system of convoys, the number of which grew with an unprecedented intensity. If the last six years of the French Revolutionary War (1795-1801) is compared with the last six of the wars against Napoleon and the United States, three times the number of convoys and nearly three times the number of merchant ships were escorted.

A convoy departing, accompanied by a frigate, by Nicholas Pocock, 1808 © National Maritime Museum.
A convoy departing, accompanied by a frigate, by Nicholas Pocock, 1808 © National Maritime Museum.

Britain exploited the advantages afforded by its geographical position. At the end of the 18th century Britain controlled sheltered anchorages large enough to enable substantial convoys to gather, significantly greater than those of its enemies. In home waters, the Solent and Cork Harbour were the most important, complemented to the north by Long Hope Sound in the Orkneys. Berehaven in the west of Ireland was generally only used in emergencies. Secondary anchorages, unsafe in strong easterly winds, were the ‘Roads’ outside Leith in Scotland, the Humber, Great Yarmouth, the Nore in the Thames Estuary and the Downs off Deal. The same danger also affected Torbay, Plymouth Sound and Falmouth. 

With the tacit agreement of the Swedish government, the Baltic trade convoys came to depend upon Hanö in southeast Sweden and the sheltered waters outside Gothenburg. On the other side of the Atlantic, safety in numbers could be had in the harbours of Halifax, Nova Scotia and St John’s Newfoundland and, further south, Jamaica. Britain had lacked a deep water harbour for gathering trade in the central Mediterranean, but in 1800 it rectified this with the capture of Malta. Retaining the island was an immediate cause of the resumption of war in May 1803. It became the safest haven of all and remained under the control of the British for 167 years.


Short supply

The shortage of skilled seaman, a difficulty which had proliferated in wartime since the 17th century, soon became acute. The number of seamen ‘borne’ peaked in 1810 at 146,312, but declined thereafter. Operational demands continued to increase until the end of the war. By 1814 numbers had dipped to 126,414. So short of manpower was the navy that, when new warships were launched, designed as large convoy escorts, they were immediately laid up in reserve. There was no one to crew them.

Part of the navy’s solution to counter this shortage was to use smaller warships, cheaper and faster to build. The traditional size of warship to escort a convoy had been a frigate, of perhaps 32 or 36 guns, but they proved too fast for heavily loaded merchant ships and were also needed elsewhere. Instead, brig sloops, ship sloops, gun brigs and gun boats were often called upon to perform well above their design specification. This weakness was exposed by winter storms, as the continuous supply of land operations demanded a year-round service. In the last years of the war there were usually about 400 small warships in commission. Between 1803 and 1815, 275 small warships of 18 guns and under were lost, two thirds of them to storms, foundering in mid-ocean.


Impressment pressures

Nothing soured relations between the navy and merchant ships more than the forcible removal of crew by impressment to serve on warships. Most of this took place on shore, but it was also known to happen at sea, often carried out by the warship on the merchant vessels they were escorting. Nor should the pressures on naval officers be forgotten; to ensure the safe passage of a warship in mid-ocean, without sufficient topmen to hand the sails, could be a frightening prospect. The scale of naval warfare expanded, as did recruitment into the ever-growing army, so that the total manpower of Britain was under pressure as never before.

The East Indiaman ‘Warley’, shown in three positions off Blackwall  on the River Thames, by Robert Salmon, c.1801.
The East Indiaman ‘Warley’, shown in three positions off Blackwall on the River Thames, by Robert Salmon, c.1801 © National Maritime Museum.

As the numbers of available seamen decreased markedly, the quality of seamen also declined. It took two years, it was estimated, to train a promising novice ‘landsman’ to become a full ‘able seaman’. If there were too few of the latter, then the efficiency of the ship deteriorated. This was particularly noticeable on warships on the North American station after 1812.

Aboard the merchant ship, removal by impressment had an adverse effect on morale. Seamen would hide at every possible appearance of a press gang; as ships approached their home port, crew would slip away. This occurred everywhere, from the Thames Estuary on London-bound ships to the lower reaches of the Clyde, below Glasgow. It also happened far from Britain. When the East India Company ship Asia reached Madras in April 1809, seamen were impressed. Tempers flared and shots were fired. More were taken in a second press gang. A total of 30 seamen were removed, a third of the crew. Setting sail for Calcutta, the ship was unable to manoeuvre in a squall at the mouth of the Hoogli river; instead, it went onto a sandbar. Deprived of its original complement of crew, Asia became a total loss. 


There she blows

Most convoy routes were sailed throughout the year. The likelihood of hostile winter weather did not affect schedules and routes very much, though it sharply increased insurance premiums paid by shipowners. In the final years of the Napoleonic Wars convoys set off from Britain to the West Indies, the Mediterranean, South America and the East Indies every month, though sailings from December to February were fewer. Winter ice had to be avoided in both the Baltic and Canadian waters, while the monsoon season dictated the timing of passages from India and China across the Indian Ocean. 

Trade patterns were also scheduled by harvests. The sugar crop in the West Indies was of the utmost financial importance. Convoys from the islands set off with the processed harvest in early summer, giving the hurricane season between August and September a wide berth. The currant crop, when gathered and dried, and other Mediterranean produce from the Levant had to be transported westwards through the Straits of Gibraltar and then to England or on to northern Europe. North Sea convoys, on the other hand, were much more frequent and, in the summer, large, with often as many as 300 ships in them. Those transporting military stores to the Peninsula were ordered to sail ‘as necessary’.

Telegraph system, used to communicate between London and the coast from the late 18th century © National Maritime Museum.
Telegraph system, used to communicate between London and the coast from the late 18th century © National Maritime Museum.

Problems were sometimes encountered by delays in assembling convoys before sailing, leading them into deadly weather, particularly in the Baltic. The Commander-in-Chief had to make the difficult decision of how late in the season to send the last convoy home to Britain. In November 1811 a homeward bound Baltic convoy of 72 ships sheltered from a gale at the mouth of the Great Belt in Denmark. Thirty were driven on shore; their escort, HMS St George, returning to Britain after a summer in the Baltic, was driven aground by a merchant ship and damaged its masts. It managed to reach Gothenburg, where it was given a jury rig. 

At this point Admiral Saumarez, commanding the Baltic fleet, made a disastrous decision, allowing the St George to set sail for England escorted by two other ships of the line. Encountering another storm, together with the Defence, which had been ordered to support it, St George was wrecked on the shore of Jutland. The 74-gun ship Hero was lost in the same storm on the coast of Holland. In total some 2,000 naval officers and seamen perished. Lack of local knowledge caused the disaster; most of the escorted merchant ships, their masters long used to these waters, retreated to harbours in Norway and rode out the storm there.


American threat 

Early 1812 was the low point of the war in Britain. Napoleon had tightened his Continental System, a blockade preventing commerce from the British Isles reaching Europe, and the British economy was suffering badly. At the same time, government Orders in Council were antagonising the Americans, initiating a blockade of any harbour that was attempting to restrict British trade and forcing neutral nations to pay transit fees in order to trade with France or its colonies. Relations had soured, too, with instances of impressment occurring on US vessels under the jurisdiction of the British. In the north of England troops were required to restore order when the Luddites destroyed new cotton and wool mills that threatened their jobs. Napoleon was gathering his vast, unbeaten army on the Russian border and preparing to invade. At the beginning of 1812 most people, including the US President James Madison, presumed that the French would win this long battle. On 18 June he declared war on Britain. 

In fact the tide was about to turn. Napoleon’s army was destroyed by the harsh winter in Russia, their consequent loss of power and prestige enabling the Admiralty to pull warships out of European stations, which were then sent to North American waters, taking convoys with them. Slowly, the British established a blockade of the North American coast. 


The tide turns

There were still dangers to British commerce after Napoleon’s first abdication in April 1814. Smaller American warships and privateers remained effective, especially in European waters, operating from French ports. Merchants, thinking that it was all over, began to send their ships as ‘runners’, sailing independently of convoys. The system began to unravel. As late as September 1814, in the English Channel, Irish Sea and off Scotland, 68 British merchant ships had been taken, at a rate of 17 a week, or two and a half a day. The minutes of a meeting between the Secretary of the Admiralty and the Committee of Lloyd’s indicate that it was stormy. The Royal Navy remained at full stretch. Victory in the war with France and America combined was a close-run thing.

The convoy war against Germany in the 20th century had many parallels with the earlier conflict. However at end of the war with Napoleon, Britain’s economy was strong and growing, due in large part to the success of the convoy system, while those of its enemies were heavily damaged and would remain so for many years. In 1945 it was the turn of the British economy to be devastated. 


Roger Knight is curator emeritus at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and author of Convoys: The British Struggle Against Napoleonic Europe and America (Yale University Press, 2022).

Katie Holyoak August 24, 2022 at 01:44PM

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