Tuesday, 22 December 2020

In Pursuit of the Essex - Ben Hughes


I have to say that  I came to this book by Ben Hughes with little knowledge of American Captain David Porter and his cruise to the Pacific Ocean other than a top line understanding that his frigate, USS Essex, had severely damaged the British whaling industry in that region off of South America until his cruise was brought to an end by the arrival of HMS Phoebe and Cherub in the bay area off of Valparaiso in Chile on the 28th March 1814.

That together with the fictional account of the cruise by Patrick O'Brian in his account of Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World brought vividly to life in the 2003 film based on the book with Russell Crowe in the role of Jack Aubrey and with the American frigate restyled as an American built French privateer frigate Acheron.

Thus one of the primary reasons for me to get this book was to educate myself about this naval odyssey from the War of 1812 and understand how it was that the war ended up being fought in this part of the world in the first place, not to mention the characters involved in its fighting.

A gorgeous model of the nominally 36-gun USS Essex, with a 128-foot keel of the very tough native White Oak, Essex was heavily up-gunned to 46 guns and armed primarily with 40 x 32-pounder carronades, the other six being 12 pdr long guns mounted on the forecastle and quarterdeck, making the ship a formidable opponent at close range but less so at longer gun range.

The account given by Hughes only proves the point that fact is often more entertaining than fiction and the climax of the book with the battle between the American and British ships and the manoeuvring that led up to it reminded me of the story of another Royal Navy pursuit of another mercantile raider from WWII, namely the Pocket Battleship, Graf Spee that also featured a rather protracted nail biting build up to the final action as that raider was held at bay in another neutral port on the coast of South America looking to break out before other Royal Navy ships appeared over the horizon.

As the great American writer Mark Twain is reputed to have said 'history doesn't repeat itself but it often rhyme's'.

A contemporary model of HMS Phoebe, 36-gun frigate held by the Royal Museums Greenwich depicted in the black and white, rather than yellow ochre chequer board paint scheme that became popular from 1815. Phoebe was not the fastest Royal Navy frigate but carried a formidable armament of 26 x 18-pounder long guns on her main deck together with 12 x 32-pdr carronades on her quarterdeck, 4 x 9-pdrs and 2 x 32-pdr carronades on her forecastle and an 18-pdr and 12-pdr gun mounted on high angle carriages for aimed fire into an enemy's tops. In addition 4 x 2 and 3-pdr swivel-guns were mounted in her tops and two of her launches carried bow mounted carronades. 

Ben Hughes has constructed his account of the cruises of both the Phoebe and Essex from a range of historical records, including primary and secondary sources along with the various ships logs and personal memoirs and journals from those involved and, by alternating his chapters to record the various stages of each sides journey from their home ports to their final meeting off Valparaiso, the book reads very much like an account from an O'Brian novel recording the adventures and dramas that occurred along their way and allowing the reader to gain insights to the similarities and distinct differences between the two navies and the way their men of war operated day to day.

Map from the book illustrating the pursuit of the USS Essex.

Towering over the accounts of both sides forces were the two dominant characters of Captain David Porter of the US Navy and James Hillyar RN and their individual characters along with the way they managed their ships and the missions they were charged with.

Captain David Porter USN - US Naval Academy

Porter comes across as a somewhat typical commander of the early US Navy, impulsive and keen to press his position for promotion by achievement and notoriety and quick to take offense at any challenge with a duel required to settle affairs, be that personal of in a military capacity by bringing his ship along to settle accounts with the enemy.

His management of his ship's company posed challenges in a navy of limited term twelve month volunteers with the motivational benefits associated with volunteer crews in having men serving who wanted to be on the ship eager to earn prize money as recompense for the risks involved, but also with the difficulties of dealing with men close to the end of their sign up period, eager to leave and spend some of that money, sometimes riled up to insolence by other crew members keen to assert their republican rights and not deterred from voicing criticism and complaint.

Captain James Hillyar in a miniature dated between 1808-12
Royal Museums Greenwich 

James Hillyar by comparison makes an interesting contrast, having very strong religious convictions that saw him conducting regular Sunday morning worship with his ships crew, forbidding swearing and bringing a determined discipline aboard ship with resort to the cat where required for occasional acts of drunkenness and insolence to ships officers.

Surrender of the Fort of Tamatave - Thomas Whitcombe

The crew of HMS Phoebe are portrayed for the veterans that they were, with a handful aboard who had been with the ship since 1797 when she had captured the French 36-gun frigate Neride off Brest, the ship having an enviable record of successful engagements which included Trafalgar at which twenty-nine of the crew had served, followed by further cruises to the Baltic and Caribbean with Hillyar taking command in 1809 and with all but a hundred of the crew seeing action against three French frigates on 20th May 1811 at the Battle of Tamatave off Madagascar and the subsequent capture of the island of Java.

After failing to make his planned rendezvous with Captain Bainbridge and the USS Constitution for a joint cruise in the South Atlantic against British commerce, Porter was able to use his discretion and indulge his long held aspirations to be the first American warship to enter the Pacific and a plan he had devised to disrupt British whaling activity and the likely lucrative prize money on offer for not only the captured shipping but also its valuable and highly prized cargo of whale oil.

The British Whaler Britannia leaving Sydney Cove 1798 - Thomas Whitcombe

His activities in an area unprotected by the Royal Navy soon drew the attention of British agents and representatives in the Spanish colonies of the South American mainland as Porter sought to arrange prisoner exchanges and monies for prizes via the Spanish authorities, themselves engaged in the chaotic breakdown of Spain's authority in the region following Napoleon's invasion and occupation of the country and the subsequent Peninsular War.

Alongside the accounts of the captures of the British whalers we are treated to accounts of the wild life encountered by the Essex, and this is definitely not a book for naturalists as the wanton destruction of Galapagos tortoises, seals and other creatures slaughtered by both sides for pleasure or for food makes difficult reading; as does Porter's activities on the Pacific island group known as the Marquesas, renamed in the name of the United States as the Madison Islands where he imposed his will on native islanders using the modern weapons carried by his ships crew to cow opposing tribal groups, whilst supporting others against them who had submitted to his demands.

Meanwhile on orders from the Admiralty to escort a force to evict American fur traders at Fort Astoria on the Pacific mouth of the Columbia River, Hillyar soon found himself under additional orders from the local British naval commander on the South Atlantic station to also use his ships to hunt down and destroy the Essex and the book makes interesting reading as he makes plans to accommodate both sets of orders detaching the 18-gun sloop HMS Racoon to Fort Astoria whilst taking the Phoebe and the Cherub in search of the Essex, culminating with their arrival at Valparaiso on the 8th February 1814.

Both sides seemed equally surprised by the arrival of the other with Porter hastily recalling his shore parties and Hillyar thinking to take the Essex by an immediate attack, ignoring Chilean neutrality, but on closing with the American frigate realising his error, seeing the American at quarters and noting her distinctive carronade armament as he passed close by, coolly hailing Porter with a speaking trumpet and enquiring after his health as the American returned the compliments and held his fire as his enemy turned away whilst presenting a close range bow raking opportunity.

What followed is a fascinating story, as from then until the final action both sides played a game of cat and mouse, setting up lookout positions ashore to watch each others movements, with the two British ships prowling up and down at the mouth of Valparaiso bay eager to be at sail should the Essex attempt to break out, only coming to anchor at nightfall.

During the whole of his cruise Porter had been anxious to fight a British frigate and the opportunity to join the list of US captains that had been victorious in such a fight, issuing a challenge to Hillyar to send Cherub away and that they should meet, ship to ship, outside of neutral waters. 

Hillyar refused the offer to surrender his advantage, despite the protests of his first officer, knowing that with delay the situation would only deteriorate for the American as other Royal Navy ships would arrive in time to seal his fate.

Porter attempted to break out and then, when his attempt failed, set about burning one of the captured whalers to provoke an action, that was technically a breach of the port's neutrality, this followed by nights at anchor with opposing crews singing patriotic songs and calling out insults and political slogans to each other, providing great entertainment to the local townsfolk on shore. 

Eventually the pressure to act was overwhelming and whilst attempting to break out, Essex lost her main topmast and, rather than press on, turned back into the bay only to find Hillyar in no mood to stand off yet again but instead press the action to a resolution and seeing that action brought to a bloody conclusion after a two and a half hour long range bombardment from Phoebe and Cherub that forced the Essex to strike.

The near contemporary illustration of the Essex at bay off Valparaiso with Phoebe and Cherub used for the book cover of Ben Hughes' account.
Beverley Robinson Collection - United States Naval Academy.
The Essex is seen with her main topmast lost whilst trying to escape to open water, flying her banners inscribed ' Free Trade and Sailors' Rights' with HMS Phoebe, supported by the 18-gun ship-sloop Cherub, flying hers inscribed 'God & Country, British Best Rights, Traitors Offend Both'.

Hughes concludes the story with what happened to the personalities, the wounded and the ships after the action and the post war activities of officers and men, putting a full stop to a vivid account of action and adventure.   

I really enjoyed this book and have subsequently picked up an account of the exploits of HMS Racoon that went north to Fort Astoria, with all the implications that eventually had for the establishment of the American-Canadian border on the Pacific west coast.

If you are interested in the naval war of 1812 or warfare in the age of sail generally I think this book is for you and I certainly enjoyed the read.

In Pursuit of the Essex is 242 pages including a very comprehensive index and bibliography list together with four maps, two illustrations of ships of the period, sixteen pages of black and white photos and illustrations together with the following chapters:

Prologue: 'A Prodigious Slaughter'; USS Essex, Valparaiso Bay, 6.30pm, 28th March 1814
Introduction; A Tale of Two Navies

1. 'Yankee Warriors True': Captain David Porter and the Essex 1 September 1812 - 25 January 1813.
2. The South Atlantic: USS Essex, 27 November 1812 - 25 January 1813.
3. 'A finer set of fellows': Captain James Hillyar and the Right Reverend HMS Phoebe, 27 December 1812 - 11 April 1813.
4. Into the Pacific: USS Essex, 26 January 1813 - 11 April 1813.
5. From Tenerife to Rio: HMS Phoebe, 12 April 1813 - 9 July 1813.
6. The Galapagos Islands: USS Essex, 11 April 1813 - 9 July 1813.
7. In the Footsteps of Robinson Crusoe: HMS Phoebe, 10 July 1813 - 6 October 1813.
8. A Matter of Honour: USS Essex, 9 July 1813 - 2 October 1813.
9. Tragedy at Tumbez: HMS Phoebe, 3 October 1813 - 10 December 1813.
10. Death in Paradise: USS Essex, 4 October 1813 - 13 December 1813.
11. The Valley of the Unknown God: HMS Phoebe, 24 November 1813 - 8 February 1814.
12. The Standoff, 13 December 1813 - 28 March 1814.
13. The Battle, 27-28 March 1814.
14. The Aftermath, 29 March 1814 - 25 December 1814.
Epilogue: Loose Ends, 7 July 1814 - 14 August 1870.


In Pursuit of the Essex is hard cover and published by Pen & Sword at a list price of £25 but is available through Amazon for under £10, so might make a nice Xmas present for someone.

Well it's full speed ahead to Christmas and we are trying to make it as normal a festive season as possible given all the travel and mixing of household restrictions the UK is currently going through at the moment. 

Whatever the situation I will be looking to keep on blogging through this situation and will be reporting on games and plans for 2021 in the next few weeks of the holiday, not to mention work continues a pace in JJ's shipyard as six 74-gun third rates have rolled down the slipway to be fitted out for service in His Majesty's Royal Navy - more anon.


  1. Sounds a good read JJ.

    I never did understand how HMS Phoebe was rated as carrying 36 guns, nor HMS Cherub 18. If you just count long guns, then Phoebe is understandable, but Cherub was virtually carronade armed and carried more than 18 of them.



    1. Hi Vince, and Happy Xmas Mate, hope you have a good one.

      Yes the rating system was a very uncertain way of assessing ships and their firepower particularly as carronades were not normally included in the number of guns and the different definitions of what a 'pound' was that was used by the different nationalities only helped confuse things further.

      That was one thing I particularly like with the War by Sail rules, in that they give a factor for the various weapons used by the different navies, allowing a very precise comparison, ship to ship.

      Hopefully we can get together next year to have a go with them to show what I mean.