We have discussed the perilous decision to board an enemy at sea on more than one occasion. Just the act of jumping from one ship to another could be deadly – even before you got to the angry mob on the other deck – as French privateer Rene Duguay-Trouin discusses here. But the final culmination of boarding, the hand-to-hand combat beloved by so many movies, was a rare and decidedly horrific experience. In all fairness, such a thing would probably need to be seen to be believed.
In the early days of seafaring war, boarding was far more common than in the great age of sail. Greek and Roman ships had very little else in the way of tactics aside, of course, from ramming the enemy with the purposefully exaggerated bows of their biremes and triremes. Once the ramming had taken place the ships were hopelessly entangled on most occasions and boarding was as much a necessity as a tactic. Julius Caesar commented on the “closeness” of these battles, marveling at the sailors’ abilities to do horrendous damage to each other in such a claustrophobic space. Very little about that particular aspect of boarding has changed.
Once the Byzantines started hosing down enemy ships with Greek Fire, the boarding craze slowed down. Even after the memory of such terror tactics faded, Medieval and Renaissance naval battles were more likely punctuated with rains of arrows than jumping from your ship to the other guys’. Siege mentality was high in these eras and that included fighting on the ocean.
The development of cannon increased the risk of getting alongside an enemy. Boarding continued to occur but its focus shifted. As the heyday of the buccaneers dawned, it became the outlaws that used boarding as a tactic. Since very few merchants shipped workable guns, and many small pirate ships carried few if any as well, boarding was a sensible way to secure a prize and her people. That is not to say that firearms did not come into play. Merchants might retreat to closed quarters and this meant that deadly force was necessary.
Jean Baptiste Labat, the Catholic priest who made several voyages in the 17th century Caribbean and recorded the stories of the buccaneers he came in contact with, tells of a particularly gruesome boarding involving a botched attempt at closed quarters. According to Captain Pinel of the privateering corvette Volante, his ship met a merchant off Barbados whose crew proceeded to retreat below decks. The merchant’s men did such a poor (perhaps triggered by haste) job setting up their ship that they left hatches unlocked and even a fully loaded cannon on deck. Pinel’s men had a field day with these mistakes and the merchant’s crew was broken, bloodied and burned by cannon fire and grenades, made of both metal and glass, thrown into the hold.
With the dawn of the Age of Revolution, boarding returned to the naval canon. Men like John Paul Jones and Horatio Nelson boldly went where commanders before them had feared to tread. The results, however, were still a gory mess. Frederick Marryat, who served in Nelson’s navy and later wrote of his experiences in books that foreshadowed Forrester and O’Brian, described boarding this way:
In most instances of boarding, but more especially in boarding small vessels, there is not much opportunity for what is termed hand to hand fighting. It is a rush for the deck: breast to breast, thigh to thigh, foot to foot, man wedged against man, so pressed on by those behind that there is little possibility of using your cutlass, except by driving your antagonist’s teeth down his throat with the hilt.
The picture drawn is immediate and unsettling at best. The sounds and smells that don’t get mentioned are still easily imagined. And all this while great guns and innumerable pistols blazed away and Marines picked off the enemy from the tops.
The horror was not reserved for men-of-war either. Count de Forbin, commanding a frigate of 120 souls and transporting soldiers in the 17th century, met a Dutch privateer of similar crew and arms. To French consternation, the Dutchman chose to fight to the extent that the Dutch Captain locked his ship down so that his men could not retreat below and would therefore fight, as Forbin puts it, to “the last extremity”. A horrific battle ensues, with blood saturating the Dutchman’s deck and the French growing more and more enraged at the enemy’s refusal to surrender. Forbin states that it was only through his physical intervention that some of the Dutch crew’s lives were spared. In the end, dead bodies littered the Dutch ship, her Captain and officers being among them, and Forbin writes grimly that he has “but seldom seen so bloody a boarding.”
While “Never mind maneuvers, go at them” has a nice ring to it, boarding could be a decidedly deadly business. Better to think twice and know your strengths before that fateful decision is made. Extreme cases not withstanding, a simple ruse seems far more advisable whenever a prize is sighted.