Kyrle Probus Club
   of Ross-on-Wye


Storm, Conquest, Gunpowder, Tangents and Loose Ends - 2nd May 2013
KYRLE Probus member Robin Nicol, took members back to a talk he gave in November 2009, for his recent talk to the club, entitled ‘Storm, Conquest, Gunpowder, Tangents and Loose Ends.’
Starting with the ‘Loose Ends’ part of that intriguing title, Robin reminded members of the story of ‘Billy Ruffian’ (HMS Bellerophon), wonderfully documented in a book of the same name on which he based his 2009 talk. The book covered the 54 years from when the ship was laid down to when she was broken up. And it was to tie up two loose ends in particular from that period, that he began his talk.
The first was impressment. The need for seamen became critical during the war with revolutionary France and Press Gangs operated around the seaports of Britain seeking experienced seafarers, while sometimes going further inland and taking any able-bodied men.
Another method of impressment was for captains to intercept incoming merchant vessels and remove some of the crew.
The second loose end concerned death, in particular disease. It was estimated, Robin said, that during the Napoleonic Wars from 1793 to 1815, about 100,000 British seamen died – only 1.5 per cent in battle, while 65 per cent died from disease.
Robin then went on to provide his version of a power point presentation by hanging a map of the world over the club’s projection screen and pointing at it with a long wooden pointer. The tangents in the talk’s title included the Mercator and Bartholomew projections used in producing maps. He explained that the map he was displaying was a modified Bartholomew projection - John Bartholomew was a 19th century Edinburgh-based publisher specialising in maps
The story then moves onto gunpowder, which was obviously crucial during the Napoleonic era, both on land and sea. Gunpowder is made up of sulpher (15%), charcoal (10%) and the essential ingredient of saltpetre or potassium nitrate, which is found on the Coromandel Coast of East India. Increased supplies of saltpetre were vital for the forthcoming Peninsular campaign and the British East India Company was contracted to ship 6,000 tons,
However, impressment took away a sixth of the merchant crew, affecting the working of those ships. The combined convoy of returning merchantmen and their naval escorts were late departing Madras ahead of the onset of the monsoon season and were hit by the most terrible storm. Of the 28 merchantmen, 15 came to grief.
So there were the final links. The same monsoons that produce the lush vegetation, warmth and moisture that help produce saltpetre, produced the fierce storms which sank the boats of the East India Company, which were undermanned, because the Navy had taken men from them to fight the French, for which they needed gunpowder1

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