Monday, May 3, 2010
That nick of time
18 These men lie in wait for their own blood;
they waylay only themselves!
19 Such is the end of all who go after ill-gotten gain;
it takes away the lives of those who get it.
In writing about the miraculous in fictional battles, I often uncover events that are more amazing than I conceived for my stories. For instance, this year marks the 355th anniversary of a miraculous sea battle, one which involved worship, pirates, and one of England's greatest admirals.
In February 1655, General-at-sea Robert Blake led his task force of warships against the a fortified Barbary pirate city of Porto Farina (or Porto Ferino), then known as "the arsenal of Tunis." Arrayed against his ships were some 120 heavy guns in fortified positions and two forts with two or more thousand infantry and cavalry waiting on the shore for the expected English invasion.
In the harbor floated nine Barbary galleys, each highly maneuverable and deadly. Acting on intelligence about a concentration of Barbary pirate ships, a few days previously, Blake arrived on February 22 to try and reach an agreement with the pirates that they would no longer attack ships flying the British flag. He also demanded the return of English ships recently captured by the Barbary pirates and all English prisoners.
For centuries, the Barbary pirates raided Christian villages throughout the Mediterranean. Long sections of coastline in Spain and Italy remained unpopulated until the mid-19th century when the last of the Barbary pirate strongholds had been eliminated. Gaining naval technology from a Dutch turncoat, Barbary pirate ships were able to raid as far west as Ireland and Iceland. In the worst of the raids, thousands of villagers were enslaved while the older villagers were killed. In Iceland, the pirates herded the old people into a church, locked them inside, and burned the church down.
European powers made matters worse by using the pirates as proxies to weaken their rivals. While some successes had been won against the Barbary pirates, there had been no concerted action against the pirate strongholds on the coast of North Africa.
Blake's fleet arrived as part of Oliver Cromwell's grand stratagem against the Spanish. Cromwell dispatched two fleets, one to attack Spanish holdings in the West Indies, and the other to blockade Spanish ports once the English attacks were underway. In the meantime, they were to make friendly ports of call as shows of English force and to drive French and Barbary raiders back to their home ports.
In spite of Blake's serious wounds gained earlier during the first Dutch War, Cromwell ordered Blake to lead the blockade fleet A brilliant sailor and a pious man, Blake obeyed. Placing his faith in God, and believing that he would die before returning home, Blake arrived off the coast of Spain on October 30, 1654 with some 27 ships, 4,000 men, and 900 cannon. Battered by winter seas, Blake led his fleet on patrols through the Mediterranean. No fair weather admiral, Blake turned his crews into accomplished all-weather sailors and expert gunners.
The Barbary pirates refused to comply with Blake's demands. The admiral decided that before attacking the city, he needed to reprovision the fleet. Leaving a covering force of five frigates under Captain Stayner, Blake left to gather much needed food and water from a variety of ports.
On March 8, 1655 Blake again returned to Porto Farina. He again repeated his demands. The Dey of Porto Farina looked at the storm-battered ships and rebuffed Blake, denying the fleet water and insulting the English.
Then the British again sailed off, seemingly for good. On April 3, the British fleet returned, riding on a favorable offshore breeze.Much to the surprise of the pirates, Blake's fleet came into the harbor and dropped anchor in front of the pirate guns, just within musket range.
Before dawn at a signal from the St. George, the crews assembled on deck to worship God. Once the worship services concluded, Blake gave the order to attack. The pirates opened fire from their fortified positions, confident of their fields of fire and stable gun positions would score more hits than the rocking ships would against them.
To their surprise, the smoke from their own guns and the smoke of the replying shots from the anchored fleet blew back into the pirate's positions and obscured their vision. The British gunners had no problems picking out targets and every shot found its mark.
While the fleet bombarded Porto Farina, Blake sent Captain John Stoaks of the St. George with boarding parties to set fire to the pirate galleys. Under heavy musket fire from the shore, Stoaks and his men accomplished their mission and returned. The fleet kept peppering the the pirate ships to ensure no one would board the ships and try to put out the fires. By the time the bombardment of Porto Farina ceased, the pirate ships were completely fire-gutted, no longer useful as warships.
Blake lost 25 sailors with 40 more wounded. Ashore nothing moved. The English could not assess the enemy's causalities, but they knew the shore fortifications seemed to be abandoned.
In his after action report, Blake wrote, "We entered with the fleet into the harbor, and anchored before their castles, the Lord being pleased to favor us with a light gale off the sea, which cast all the smoke upon them, and made our work more easy, for after some hours' dispute we set on fire all their ships, which were in number nine, and the same favourable gale still continuing, we retreated out again into the road."
Blake also knew that his fleet had no fought alone. He wrote, "It is also remarkable by us that shortly after our going forth, the wind and weather changed and continued very stormy for many days, so that we could not have effected the business, had not the Lord appointed that nick of time in which is was to be done."