Friday, October 13, 2017

"Haud crede colori..."

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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"Stephen and the chaplain stood at the taffrail, staring over the larboard quarter.  'I am afraid they are coming closer,' said Mr White.  'I can distinctly see the men on the front of the nearer one: and even on the ship behind.  See, they fire a gun!  And a flag appears!  Your glass, if you please.  Why, it is the English flag!  I congratulate you, Dr Maturin; I congratulate you on our deliverance: I confess I had apprehended a very real danger, a most unpleasant situation.  Ha, ha, ha!  They are our friends!'

'Haud crede colori,' said Stephen.  'Cast your eyes aloft, my dear sir.'

Mr White looked up at the mizzen-peak, where a tricolour streamed out bravely.  'It is the French flag,' he cried.  'No.  The Dutch.  We are sailing under false colours!  Can such things be?'

'So are they,' said Stephen.  'They seek to amuse us; we seek to amuse them.  The iniquity is evenly divided.  It is an accepted convention, I find, like bidding the servant --' A shot from the Semillante's bow-chaser threw up a plume of water a little way from the frigate's stern, and the parson started back.  '-- say you are not at home, when in fact you are eating muffin by your fire and do not choose to be disturbed.'

'I often did so,' said Mr White, whose face had grown strangely mottled.  'God forgive me.  And now here I am in the midst of battle.  I never thought such a thing could happen--I am a man of peace.'"

In the above passage, author Patrick O'Brian advises us, "don't trust the colour."  Indeed, the use of false colors was one of many accepted ruses de guerre utilized during the Age of Sail to allow a clever captain to gain the most advantageous position before engaging in combat.  There are numerous instances of captains in the Royal Navy and Continental Navy alike using this technique in an attempt to trick their opponent; provided you raised your own colors before joining battle in earnest, this was a perfectly legitimate practice.  In the summer of 1798, one of the first vessels of the United States Navy would experience this ruse and make use of it first-hand.

Commodore John Barry, USN,
from an 1801 portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
In March of 1794, the United States Congress passed the "Act to Provide a Naval Armament" authorizing the construction of six frigates to protect American merchant shipping from the depredations of Algerian pirates.  This act was hotly debated from the beginning, and only passed after a caveat was inserted declaring that construction on the frigates would cease should a treaty be signed with Algiers.  When a treaty was indeed struck in early 1796, construction was duly halted, though President George Washington was instrumental in convincing Congress to allow work to continue on the three frigates closest to completion.  In Philadelphia on May 10, 1797, the frigate United States became the first vessel of the new United States Navy to be launched.  She was commanded by Commodore John Barry, a veteran of the American Revolution, and the senior officer in the new service.

United States spent the next year fitting out and preparing to deploy (including a 55-gun armament: 32 24-pound cannon, 22 42-pound carronades, and one 18-pound long cannon), during which time America's relations with the revolutionary government of France deteriorated.  Following disputes over the repayment of debts from the American Revolution, the XYZ Affair, and a series of attacks on American vessels perpetrated by French privateers, the United States Congress rescinded past treaties with France and the so-called "Quasi-War" began.  What followed was a two year undeclared war, fought primarily at sea, which prompted Congress to authorize completion of the remaining three Naval Act frigates.

On July 7, 1798, United States made for the Delaware Capes.  Commodore Barry was ordered by the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert to assemble a squadron of smaller vessels awaiting his command in Philadelphia and Boston, and cruise against French armed vessels in the West Indies for two months.  One of the ships assigned to Barry's squadron was the 20-gun Delaware, under command of Captain Stephen Decatur, and had taken the first prize of the Quasi-War just before United States left port.  Sadly, Barry arrived in Boston only to discover that the two ships Stoddert had assigned to accompany him were not yet ready for sea, so United States and Delaware were on their own.

Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, GCB, RN
from a portrait by Robert Field.
Although a heavy fog made for a slow passage down Nantasket Road out of Boston on July 26,  Barry's ships only took thirty hours to find themselves 400 miles from the North Carolina Coast.  In those waters, United States sighted a frigate flying French colors.  Raising French colors of his own, Barry maneuvered to pursue.  When United States had moved closer, she raised American colors and prepared to open fire.  At that point, the frigate promptly raised British colors and identified herself as HMS Thetis under the command of Sir Alexander Cochrane (uncle of Thomas Cochrane, one of Patrick O'Brian's inspirations for Lucky Jack Aubrey).  A veteran of the American Revolution himself, Cochrane had immediately deduced that Barry's ship was not British and acted under the assumption that she was hostile.  Once their identities had been confirmed, Cochrane was invited to dine with Barry aboard United States, where he provided the American Commodore with a set of British signals to prevent similar deceptions from turning into a needless chase.

United States and Delaware would go on to cruise in the vicinity of Barbados, Martinique, and Puerto Rico until September, taking several prizes.  Arriving at Cape Henlopen on September 18, Barry's cruise proved to be among the more successful of the other US Navy forces at sea at the time, though Secretary Stoddert had hoped for something more spectacular.  A second cruise in early fall would be cut short by storm damage, resulting in an extensive refit under the supervision of designer Joshua Humphreys.  In the meantime, while the Royal Navy had effectively cleared the Atlantic of French vessels, the Caribbean was still crawling with French privateers.  United States departed Philadelphia on December 12 as part of a twenty-four vessel offensive in the region.  On or near December 30, 1798, United States was saluted by British forces at Barbados, and Commodore Barry was invited to dine aboard the flagship of Vice Admiral Thomas Harvey.

Unfortunately, relations between the United States Navy and the Royal Navy would not remain so cordial for long, but that is, of course, a story for another day.

1.  O'Brian, Patrick.  H.M.S. Surprise.  (William Collins and Sons, 1973).
2.  McGrath, Tim.  John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail.  (Westholme Publishing, 2010).
3.  Wikipedia.  USS United States (1797), (August 25, 2017).