“A sad business,” said Jack shaking his head.
“Yes,” said James Dillon, looking into vacancy and seeing a leaping spring of fire in the still air, a first-rate ablaze from truck to waterline, with eight hundred men aboard. “You could hear the flames a mile away and more. And sometimes a sheet of fire would lift off and go up into the air by itself, cracking and waving like a huge flag. It was just such a morning as this: a little later in the day, perhaps.” – Master and Commander
Lieutenant James Dillon’s comments to Captain Aubrey refer to a real event: the explosion of the HMS Charlotte which led to the deaths of over 700 men. Dillon, in the hired cutter Dart, bore witness to the event, and attempted to save as many people as he could.
The dangers inherent in operating wooden warships were demonstrated tragically on March 17 1800 off the Italian port of Livorno (sometimes called Leghorn in the English speaking world).
HMS Queen Charlotte, flagship of Admiral Lord Keith, was patrolling the Tyrrhenian Sea, preparing for an attack on the French held island of Cabrera. The Queen Charlotte was one of the Fleet’s top ships, a 100-gun craft with an already glorious record, having taken part in the Battle of the Glorious First of June six years previously, and the Battle of Groix a year after that. Some of the ship’s officers and men were ashore in Livorno, including the Admiral, but on board there were still nearing 900 men.
From the accounts of survivors, most notably ship’s carpenter John Braid, the fire began just after six in the morning, caused by a match kept ready for signal guns igniting some hay on the half-deck. Braid and his comrades fought the blaze for almost five hours, pumping water into the lower decks to try and stop its spread, and simply throwing buckets of seawater as far as they could into the blazing upper deck areas. But once fire took hold in a wooden sailing ship it was extremely hard to extinguish – canvas sails, ropes, the wooden decks, all providing fuel for the flames.
In spite of heroic efforts the inferno spread inexorably, eventually reaching some of the huge store of gunpowder on board. Sometime around 11 in the morning the ship was blown to pieces in a massive explosion. Of all officers and men on the craft, only 165 survived the blast and were picked up by other vessels in the area. In all 673 officers and men perished in the disaster.
Note: The image for this post depicts the explosion of the French ship L’Orient. If you know of a painting of the explosion of the HMS Charlotte, please contact me.
Courtesy of Information Britain.