The Real 'Master and Commander': The log of HMS ‘Phoebe’ and the capture of the USS ‘Essex’

As many naval fiction buffs will know, the 2003 film Master and Commander is based on the Patrick O’Brian novel The Far Side of the World. Both novel and film are based on events which occurred 200 years ago this March, during the War of 1812 between Britain and the young United States of America.

In 1813 the USS Essex was the first American warship to operate in the Pacific. Master and Commander is based on the story of the hunt for the Essex, but Hollywood has airbrushed out the American ship, replacing it with a fictitious French vessel Acheron.

In 1813 the small American navy was forced to sail further and further to find soft targets due to the tightening British blockade of the American coast. The Essex was sent into the southern Pacific to attack the British whaling fleet and between April and September 1813 the Essex, captained by David Porter, captured 12 whalers. Porter claimed he had caused damages worth $5 million.

His Majesty’s frigate Phoebe and the sloop Cherub were sent to hunt down the Essex. The Phoebe and the Cherub tracked the Essex via Juan Fernandez Island, the South American coast and the Galapagos Islands and eventually caught up with their quarry in the South American port of Valparaiso (Chile). As Chile was not at war, the ships could not attack each other in a neutral harbour. Instead they stayed for several weeks, exchanging insults, slogans and scuffles in the waterside taverns. The Americans ran up banners proclaiming ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’. The British responded with ‘God and Country: Traitors offend both’.

The British captain James Hillyar was a veteran of the attacks on Mauritius in 1810 and Java in 1811, where he had been involved in the capture of several French frigates. He knew his business and the capabilities of his ship, and with two ships to the single American vessel he was content to play a waiting game.

After six weeks of taunting and failed breakouts, Porter finally made his escape on 27 March 1814. The Essex slipped out under cover of darkness, sending boats to the other side of the harbour to fire rockets and blue lights in an effort to distract Hillyar.

Hillyar was not so easily deceived, merely observing in his log ‘supposed the above signal to be made by the enemy’s boats as a decoy’, and he set a course where he suspected the Essex would be running along the shore to get out to sea. As the sun came up Hillyar’s seaman’s instinct proved right: ‘observed the enemy’s frigate standing out of the bay of Valparaiso. Set the main sail in chace [sic]’.

At this moment, the Essex was disabled by a sudden squall, losing her main top mast. This was a navigational disaster for the Essex, drastically reducing her powers of manoeuvre and preventing her escape to the open sea. The American ship anchored and prepared to meet the Royal Navy in distinctly non-neutral circumstances. The Essex was armed with carronades, which were very destructive but effective only over short ranges.

However, Hillyar had not wasted those six weeks in Valparaiso – he had noted the American armament and pressed home his advantage: the Phoebe was armed with more usual ‘long’ guns. At close range the Essex could punch above its weight, but Hillyar simply kept his distance and systematically destroyed the Essex in two and a half hours. Hillyar’s log simply observed ‘At 6 the firing was very hot and incessant on both sides. At 20 minutes past 6 the enemy struck his colours’.

After landing the wounded and prisoners in Chile, the Essex was taken back to England. The log of HMS Essex (formerly USS Essex) can be seen to this day at the National Archives as ADM 52/4481.

The log of the Phoebe is also at the National Archives under ADM 51/2675 but the Caird Library holds another log which stayed in the Hillyar family until relatively recently. It is probably a working copy, from which the version submitted to the Admiralty (now at The National Archives) was written up at the end of the Commission. All the quotes above have been taken from this log. Newly catalogued for the bicentenary of this duel between British and American frigates in the War of 1812, its new reference is HYL/1/1.

Some American accounts have claimed it was not a fair fight as the British had two ships, but tasked with the destruction of an elusive commerce raider that it had taken months to track down, Hillyar could hardly be expected to throw away his advantages. The loss of the Essex was due to the decision to equip a warship designed to operate independently solely with carronades – not to mention a wild squall and a wily commander and in fact the real Master and Commander. Pass the salt, Aubrey...

The story is fully told in the recently-discovered journal of a midshipman on the PhoebeHunting the Essex: The Journal of the Voyage of HMS Phoebe, 1813-14 by midshipman Allan Gardiner, Seaforth, 2013 [Library ID PBH 6017].

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