Friday, August 14, 2009

People: The Kind of Sailor a Girl Likes

I'll freely admit to being a history geek kind of the way Alton Brown on the Food Network is a food geek. I love all the aspects of particular points in history. Its not just visceral either, although that is certainly part of it. It's also trying to imagine and envision how our ancestors thought and felt and why they did what they did. That is particularly true with the guy we're going to talk about today. Put him in a cubicle and he'd probably lose it after a week. Put him knee deep in gore in the middle of a deafening sea battle (and that is not hyperbole, Brethren) and he emerged a hero. So sexy!

The able seaman pictured above is Commodore David Porter. He was born in Boston in 1780 to an already distinguished seafaring father who was a hero in the Revolutionary War. In his teens, Porter went to sea on American merchant vessels. He was impressed by the Royal Navy twice and managed to escape both times. By the age of 18 he was a midshipman aboard the U.S. Constellation and within a year he had passed for Lieutenant. In 1803, he was aboard Philadelphia when she ran aground in Tripoli harbor while battling Barbary corsairs. Taken prisoner in Algiers, Porter was subjected to some harsh treatment due to his refusal to shut up and sit down, so to say. In 1805, a daring Marine raid which inspired the "shores of Tripoli" line in the Marine anthem repatriated Porter and his fellows. He made Master and Commander and was given command of USS Enterprise - the first one.

After rising to the rank of Captain, Porter was called upon to take the post of Commodore at the newly established Naval Station in New Orleans. Here, Porter ran afoul of just about all the locals, from Territorial Governor Claiborne (actually a Virginian, but still) to the Laffite brothers and their band. Porter wanted everything done by the rules and the frequent sales of contraband that were tacitly allowed by the local government were a constant thorn in his side. He left his post when war with England broke out. After short cruises in the Caribbean, he took command of the frigate Essex, collected his US letter of marque, and headed off to the South Pacific.

Essex was incredibly successful with Porter at her helm. She effectively shut down the English whaling fleet in the South Pacific and, adding that to her over $2,500,000 in prize money, she was the most successful U.S. ship during the War of 1812. Porter and his men finally faced British wrath in February of 1814. Essex was attacked in Valparaiso Harbor off Chile. Despite the neutrality of the sight, the British frigates Phoebe and Cherub engaged Porter. The battle, which lasted over two hours, is famous for the bravery of Porter and his men and notorious for its carnage. Captain Hillyar of Phoebe (allegedly a friend of Porter's) showed his ungentlemanly side by lying out of range and bombarding the crippled Essex with his long guns. Porter finally surrendered, and the men of his crew who were still alive were paroled by Hillyar and sent back to the U.S. aboard their tender, Essex Jr. Porter and his men were lauded as heroes and he became a member of the board of navy commissioners until 1823. At this point, Porter turned from privateer to pirate hunter.

The depredations done by pirates in the Caribbean and particularly around Cuba at this time were out of control. Insurance companies had raised their rates for merchant vessels to above the maximum levels seen during the War of 1812 and America in particular was losing more revenue than she was gaining on the water. Porter was given command of the so called "Mosquito Fleet", which was based in Key West. The fleet got its name from the small sloops and schooners it used to literally fight fire with fire. These ships could cut into the small bays that the pirates called their own and take the little ships on their own terms. Once again, Porter was unusually successful. Even over the protests of the Cuban government - who didn't like the pirates turning bandit on their shores - Porter managed to take out famous pirates of the time like Cuban Diabolito and Canadian Charles Gibbs. There is some speculation that a run-in with Porter is what killed Jean Laffite in the Gulf of Honduras, but it was more likely the Spanish Navy. At any rate, Porter effectively shut down the last of the Caribbean and Gulf pirates.

Porter went on to fall out of favor with the American Navy, much like his mirror image Thomas Cochran did with the British Navy (Thomas being the historical figure O'Brian used as a model for John "Lucky Jack" Aubrey in his famous novels). He became the Commander-in-Chief of the Mexican Navy in 1826 and remained there until 1829. He did not return to service with the U.S. Navy but was appointed U.S. Consul General to the Turkish states in 1831. He remained at this post, and was remarkably capable of diplomacy in his later years, until his death in 1843. His body was returned to the U.S. and he is buried in Philadelphia, where he maintained a home for most of his adult life.

Porter is a fascinating mix of hereditary seaman, foremast jack, successful commander and cagey diplomat that we just don't see anymore. Two of his sons, the "adopted" eldest David Farragut (who may very well have been Porter's) and David Dixon Porter, both became highly distinguished officers in the U.S. Navy. Farragut, in fact, started his career aboard Essex as a midshipman under his Dad. How cool is that? Porter had seven other children with his wife Evalina (although he later accused her of adultery and swore some of them weren't his). He was respected, even by his enemies, and he ran happy ships with only the very necessary amount of severe discipline.

Would I call Porter a hero? Despite the fact that my own ancestors might disagree, I sure would. Plus, I have to add stud to the list of adjectives as well. Don't you just love that handsome man in his shiny uniform? Sorry, Uncle Renato, but that's the kind of sailor a girl could learn to like.


Timmy! said...

Awesome post, Pauline! And you didn't even mention that Porter was referred to as "Sinbad" by his buddy, Washington Irving... Who's bad? That's right you know you love it...

Pauline said...

Ahoy Timmy! Yes indeed, Washington Irving did give David Porter the "Sinbad" moniker. The two of them drank like fish. By the way, Sinbad is bad, just to answer your question.