18th September 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

History: A Shetland seaman at the Battle of the Basque Roads

Louis Mackay tells the story of his ancestor, Thomas Johnson, and the dramatic naval career that saw him lose both legs in battle.

In early October 1805, 17 months had passed since the war between Britain and France had resumed after a brief interlude of uneasy peace. Napoleon, hoping to break the British blockade of his channel coast so he could launch an invasion of Britain, had attempted to distract the Royal Navy’s attention with actions in the Caribbean, but the plan had failed. The Franco-Spanish fleet had been driven back across the Atlantic into Cadiz, where it was now blockaded by Nelson’s ships.

At this moment, the Royal Navy needed all the men it could get, and when Rear-Admiral Edward Thornborough anchored his North Sea Squadron in Bressay Sound, one of his purposes was to enlist Shetlanders, whose seafaring skills were renowned. But many whose families depended on those skills – whether for the wages they earned crewing merchantmen and whalers, or for the fish they caught on the haaf – had little inclination to volunteer. Naval recruitment was conducted by the press gang – a detachment of thugs who, with threats and cudgel blows, took “young men of seafaring habits” from the decks of merchant and fishing vessels, as well as from taverns, quaysides and crofts. Among those pressed into Naval service in October 1805 were five Shetlanders: Hugh Clunes, Andrew Tait, George Ibbister, Jas Gaddie and Thomas Johnson. The last of these, a lad of nineteen from the udal holding of Crosbister in Fetlar, was my great-great-great-grandfather. He was not the first in his family to be taken by a press gang; his elder brother, Jerom, had been pressed into the army – during a period in the 1790s when impressment was not confined to the navy.

Now Thomas and his four companions were taken aboard HMS Kent, a Third-Rate ship-of-the-line, with 74 guns. He was given the rank of “landsman” – the lowest in the navy – which suggests that, whatever experience he might have had in small craft, he was not a professional seaman.

Admiral Thornborough sailed with his squadron for Cadiz, but on the way south news reached him of Nelson’s victory and death at Trafalgar. By February 1806 the squadron was in the Bay of Biscay. It had been joined by the frigate Pallas under the command of a young officer already celebrated for daring exploits in the Mediterranean, Captain Lord Thomas Cochrane, who now boosted his reputation with a series of successful raids on French coastal shipping. By late March the squadron was off the Charente estuary near Rochefort, on an anchorage known as the Basque Roads.

The following year, Thomas Johnson transferred to HMS Theseus, another “seventy-four”, once Nelson’s flagship. She was assigned to the channel fleet blockading the French coast, and remained at sea for eight months without entering port. In February 1809, together with HMS Triumph and HMS Valiant, she helped drive ships of the French fleet into the Charente, where the British squadron determined to keep them bottled up, to prevent Napoleon from strengthening his forces either in the Iberian Peninsula or in the West Indies. Meanwhile, Thomas Johnson was promoted to the rank of ordinary seaman. His mother, born Barbara Tulloch of West Yell, was now a widow, and he had arranged for part of his pay to be sent directly to her.

With the French fleet penned into the Charente, the Admiralty in London saw an opportunity to strike a decisive blow. The British commander on the Basque Roads, Admiral Lord Gambier, acknowledged in a dispatch that the enemy was vulnerable to an attack by fire ships – though he also made known his view that this was “a horrible mode of warfare”, and that, as a devout Methodist (known to some as “Dismal Jimmy”), he was opposed to such an “unchristian” practice. Considering the savagery of naval warfare in general, it seems, perhaps, a fine point. Fire ship attacks had been used successfully against the Spanish Armada in 1588, but they lay so far outside the normal conduct of war that even the Royal Navy refrained from ordering men to take part in them, and only undertook them with volunteer crews.

The admiralty, meanwhile, had identified a likely enthusiast for such an undertaking in Captain Cochrane. Lord Mulgrave, First Lord of the Admiralty, summoned Cochrane from Plymouth, where he had just docked in his frigate Impérieuse, to ask his opinion. Was a fire ship attack feasible? Cochrane thought it was. In that case, would he lead one? This put Cochrane in a difficult position, since he was aware both of Gambier’s antipathy to fire ships, and of the likely resentment of senior officers in the squadron if he, a junior captain, were appointed to lead such an attack. But, pressed by Lord Mulgrave, he felt unable to refuse.

Gambier received orders from the Admiralty to execute the attack, and Cochrane, nominated by the same orders to lead it, arrived at the Basque Roads on 3rd April. Twelve transports were fitted out as fire ships, while several smaller vessels were armed with Congreve rockets. Three captured French chasse-marées, already laden with tar and resin, were also at Cochrane’s disposal, and three more transports were prepared as “explosion ships”, each filled with barrels of gunpowder packed in moist sand, topped with hundreds of fused shells and thousands of hand grenades.

By 11th April, the preparations were complete. While Gambier’s ships-of-the-line, including Thomas Johnson’s ship Theseus, remained several miles offshore, the fire ships moved into position, with boats ready to evacuate the crews to supporting frigates once the wind and tide were propelling the attack. The volunteer crews included men from Theseus. According to family tradition, one of them was Thomas Johnson.

At 8.30 pm, the cables were cut. Not everything went as intended, as Cochrane himself describes:

“To our consternation, the fuses, which had been constructed to burn 15 minutes, lasted little more than half that time, when the vessel blew up, filling the air with shells, grenades, and rockets; whilst the downward and lateral force of the explosion raised a solitary mountain of water, from the breaking of which in all directions our little boat narrowly escaped being swamped. The explosion-vessel did her work well, the effect constituting one of the grandest artificial spectacles imaginable. For a moment, the sky was red with the lurid glare arising from the simultaneous ignition of 1,500 barrels of powder. On this gigantic flash subsiding, the air seemed alive with shells, grenades, rockets, and masses of timber, the wreck of the shattered vessel. The sea was convulsed as by an earthquake, rising, as has been said, in a huge wave, on whose crest our boat was lifted like a cork, and as suddenly dropped into a vast trough, out of which as it closed upon us with the rush of a whirlpool, none expected to emerge. In a few minutes nothing but a heavy rolling sea had to be encountered, all having again become silence and darkness.”

Not one French ship was sunk in this initial attack, but it provoked panic. French commanders, desperate to evade the fire ships, ran their vessels into one another, or onto the mudflats, where, at low tide the following morning, they lay careened with their guns pointing skywards, defenceless. Cochrane telegraphed Gambier, urging him to press home the attack, but the admiral hesitated. Over the next couple of days, Cochrane continued the action on his own initiative, under fire from batteries on the Île d’Aix. Gambier finally sent a small flotilla including Theseus in support, but held back the main part of his squadron, and then ordered a withdrawal. So began a celebrated spat, which led Cochrane to suggest publicly that Gambier had obstructed the complete annihilation of the French navy. A court martial ultimately vindicated Gambier for not staking his entire squadron on so risky an enterprise.
Cochrane’s impudence lost him the admiralty’s favour, but won him public acclaim, a knighthood from the King, and his own vindication in Napoleon’s later verdict, that “The French admiral was an imbecile, but yours was just as bad”.

As it was, five French warships had been completely destroyed. Ten others were so badly damaged that they were put out of action for months. Many had had to jettison their guns into the soft mud of the estuary before they could be refloated. The French had lost 250 men killed, 800 wounded, and 650 prisoners; the British, 32 killed or wounded.

One of the severely wounded was Thomas Johnson. Whether he was maimed by shot, flying timber or the blast from Cochrane’s floating bombs, and at exactly what point, we don’t know, but he lost both his legs. He survived, so Theseus’s surgeon must have amputated his shattered limbs promptly; infection from wounds was soon fatal in that pre-hygienic age. References in Theseus’s captain’s log to men having been wounded “in the fire ship” and “in the ship” are ambiguous, but neither they nor William James’s 1826 account of the battle negate the belief of one of Thomas Johnson’s great-grandsons, Barry Duncan, that he was wounded “in an explosives-laden fireship”.

Casualties from Theseus were sent to the hospital in Plymouth on 25th April 1809, and Thomas remained there, “unserviceable”, until May 1813. He was granted £24 in annual pension – about £800 at today’s value.

Thomas married Isabella Mill Peterson from Dunrossness in 1818, and opened a shop in Commercial Street, Lerwick. Having been raised in the Church of Scotland, he became a Congregationalist, and was said to have speculated on the discourse his Congregational upper parts might have with his Presbyterian* legs when they were reunited in the hereafter.

On his wooden legs, he was reputed “to walk as fast as any man”, aided by a slender walking stick made from a narwhal’s tusk – a treasure that was most likely fashioned by a Shetlander in the Greenland whaling fleet, and which today is in my care. Even those closest to him sometimes forgot that he was disabled. As a small girl, his daughter Margaret once saw another man with a wooden leg passing by the window, and called her father to come quickly to see this odd sight. He replied gently, “Has my little Maggie forgotten that her father has two wooden legs?”

Margaret Johnson passed her stories to her grandson, my grandfather, Dr Alexander Sandison, who spent his childhood summers at her home in Uyeasound in the 1890s. Her father seldom spoke of his time in the navy, she said, but soon after he had opened his business in Lerwick, the man who had led the press gang against him in 1805 made the mistake of walking into the shop to congratulate him. Enraged at the sight of him, Thomas Johnson grabbed his narwhal-ivory stick and chased him out into the street.

Louis Mackay

* FOOTNOTE: My grandfather described the lost legs as “Episcopalian”, but as there were no Episcopalian clergy in Shetland during Thomas Johnson’s lifetime, it seems likely that this is an error, and that his legs had been schooled in the Presbyterian Kirk.