- Historic Sites
The Great Sea Battle
Battle can never be civilized, but in a century of total war and almost total barbarism it is refreshing to look back upon chivalrous combat. If it is gallantry and honor, even quixotism, you thirst for in a barren time, they are at their highest in the duel between His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Shannon and the United States frigate Chesapeake , which met off Boston in the calm, early evening of June 1, 1813. Here is an authoritative and totally absorbing description of that famous encounter, together with an account of the principals, Captain P. B. V. Broke and Captain James Lawrence.
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
Broke Hall stands four square and baulemented, dose by the river Orwell below the little village of Nacton in Suffolk. It is an unpretending house. The main gates are plain. The drive leads straight, shadowed and scented by limes either side, a long way before the plain oak front door. To the right the sun (lashes off broad reaches of the river; ahead the ground rises and folds around the square house, the old flagstones, and the lawns. Oak trees and evergreens complete its shelter from sea winds. Birds sing among them.
From the gentle high ground beneath these trees the view of the river and the far bank breathes England; there is nothing harsh, nothing swift, no feverish rapids, no sparkling pools, only the broad, easy stream leading in laxy curves to the sea. The far bank about a mile away rises alternately wooded and swelling with green and rich brown Relds, pointed up with white houses, more trees, graceful village churches, nothing to jar nature.
The only strange notes in all this peare are provided by the gulls; they pipe as shrilly and excitedly as ever a swarm of boatswain’s mates, mingling their sea noises with the land birds. For this is a meeting place—rural Suffolk with-maritime England. A hundred sail and more—Britannia’s shield—have been anchored between those green banks within cannon shot of the house; their canvas-clouded masts have thrilled generations of slow farmers and laborers and villagers of Nacton, and their great guns in salute have startled the gentlemen’s deer in those fields and caused pheasants to rise and drum away like Frenchmen.
Leading from Broke Hall down to the river is another avenue of lime trees. It ends at a sand beach scattered with shingle which runs along the shore, narrowly dividing the grass banks and knotted roots of Suffolk from the mud Hats at low tide. Sea wrack in the maxy indentations. Salt smell of estuaries. Here is a silence and peace that is not of the twentieth century.
Here we can drift back through the years without intrusion, through generations of Brokcs, through this century and the last until we come upon a boy wandering this same sand, his eyes filled with this expanse of water, his mind with great thoughts of the ships that pass upon it. He is dreaming of the day he can get to sea himself—of the high, giddy adventure and romance of life tinder those raking spars, the far ports, the Indies, the skirmishes with AI. Crapaud, the epaulets of an ollicer of the king, those tall ships! It was not unusual for East Coast boys to be seized in that way.
The boy was Philip Howes Vere Broke (pronounced Brook ), elder son of Philip Bowes Broke, Esquire, n solid, landed gentleman with literary tastes—not wealthy, I)Ut able to maintain his seat and his station comfortably from the few farms in Essex and Sullulk which went with the Broke estate. He had ambitions for a liberal education for his sons—Winchester, his old school, perhaps, or Klon. But Philip was under the spell of the ships. Young Philip had red hair from his mother, who was a parson’s daughter, and lroin her also a firm religious grounding which admitted of no uncertainties; he was representative, perhaps, ol the last generation of educated Knglishmen who could go through lue without doubt. From his mother and lather and the extensive library at Broke Hall he had a taste for books and the Latin poets in their own tongue. He would cany with him through life this love of literature, these classical ideas, this absolute faith in one God, all mixed in with the quiet beauty of Suffolk, the wild flowers along the edges of the fields and narrow, windy, tree-hung lanes, the slow herds- the sea wind, keen from across the Orwell. He would also carry the stability and sense of station of a Broke descended from countless landed Brokes tracing back to Saxon times. Young Philip would feel the privilege of his position and the responsibilities that this privilege carried, one of which was to set an example in defense of his country—even with his life.
We have moved on from the boy on the sand. He had not comprehended all this yet, and was concerned only with persuading his father that there was really but one career tor him, His Majesty’s Navy. His father, disappointed, made a compromise: young Philip might attend the naval academy at Portsmouth; this, although a most unfashionable way of entering the sea service and frowned upon by stalwarts of the old school as “a sink of vice and abomination,” was probably a kinder introduction for a lad than the fearful squalor of the gunroom in a man-of-war—certainly more likely to encourage study.
So from the age of twelve until he was fifteen, Philip studied the theory and high art of seamanship under canvas and obtained some glimpses into the new principles of gunnery, which had been propounded recently by an Englishman named Benjamin Robins, and which brought the light of science to this hitherto mysterious art. The flight of a ball does not conform to a parabola, because the ball is continuously retarded by the air it pushes; and most surprising, the spin imparted to a ball by contact with the side of the bore as it leaves the muzzle will cause it to curve toward that side during its flight.