Customer Review

4.0 out of 5 stars The last of Mr Madison's frigates brought to bay, 16 Feb 2014
This review is from: Hunting the Essex: A Journal of the Voyage of HMS Phoebe 1813-1814 (Hardcover)
(publisher’s review copy)

Andrew Lambert - author of the recent ‘The Challenge’, which must be the standard work on the conflict as a whole - has contributed a valuable (and fully referenced) preface setting out the background to this adventure, essentially a sideshow to Mr Madison’s War of 1812, in which a misguided US grab at Canada was tinselled up with a lot of cant about ‘rights’ and came to an ignominious end with the infant USA reduced to bankruptcy by the Royal Navy.

By the end of 1813 only one significant US warship, the frigate USS Essex, was still at large, preying on British whalers in the Pacific. HMS Phoebe, initially sent to put American West Coast fur traders out of business, six months out from home got sniff of the Essex at Juan Fernandez. Five months after that Phoebe finally surprised and took the Essex near Valparaiso on 28th February 1814. It is significant that Essex bore a number of Royal Navy deserters in her company. Some of these traitors swam for it as they saw action approaching, others when it was clear that Essex had lost and the noose awaited them.

This account is as recollected by one of Phoebe’s midshipmen, it would appear collating a fair version from notes made at the time. His object was to record his entire twenty-month cruise, and the actual battle - it only took Phoebe a little over two hours to pound the Essex into submission, repeatedly raking her with double-shotted guns - is just one incident in a fascinating general narrative, attended by touches of dry humour. The manuscript came into the hands of the late Dr John S Rieske, who transcribed the difficult handwriting and then edited the result for publication, and for our delight. Gardiner was a very observant 19 year old and much of his material relates to the society, politics and living conditions in places he visited in Chile and Peru. The American War apart, the result is also a snapshot of the countries of South America as they began to grope their way towards independence. He includes some interesting and very professional sailing directions, but nothing about life on board nor about his fellow officers, let alone the rest of the ship’s company. However his terse summary of the battle is usefully amplified in a letter home by Midshipman Samuel Thornton which Gardiner copied into the end of his journal.

As a Christian, Gardiner was repelled by the Spanish use of slavery, and records his revulsion at the deliberate cruelty of the bullring and the enjoyment the locals got out of it. His condescending opinion of them perhaps explains his tolerance, although an Evangelical, of the images in the churches; when he left the sea he became a missionary, dying on Tierra del Fuego about 1841.

As Seaforth point out, this account is a useful counterbalance to the self-serving one produced soon after the event by Essex’ captain, which has helped, in the American mind, to substitute victorious myth for the actual history of their total defeat in Mr Madison’s war. As it is, the Essex tale has three times been romanced into fiction and then in 2003 into a film, in which, bowing to the American box office, the quarry was redesignated as French. A true story of Limeys thrashing the uppity Yankees would hardly sell.

A useful track chart of Phoebe’s and Essex’ Pacific meanderings is provided as a frontispiece and the publication includes several relevant contemporary illustrations. The notes to the actual diary contain a number of asides that need to be read in tandem with the narrative. The result is well presented to Pen and Sword’s usual high standards.
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