Spithead. For centuries, the very word has conjured up mental images of British hegemony at sea for sailors and lubbers of all nations. The name derives from a spit of sand stretching south for three miles into the Solent, a strait separating the Isle of Wight from the Hampshire shore. The area that incorporates what is generally referred to as Spithead is roughly fourteen miles long and four miles wide. Spithead, where Royal Navy warships continue to this day to lie at anchor in protected waters, is often used synonymously with Portsmouth, the administrative center and the site of the world-famous Portsmouth Dockyard, to define Britain’s premier naval base.
In this relatively small body of water moves much of England’s coastal trade. It is also where the Royal Navy has maintained a naval base since the age of Richard the Lionhearted. From 1690 to 1909, Spithead was home to the Channel Fleet, an onslaught of British warships whose primary responsibility at the time of the Cutler Family Chronicles (and in prior years) was to prevent the warships of England’s enemies, particularly France, from entering the English Channel. It was also the site of a famous mutiny in 1797, during which British sailors went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Among other literary interpretations of this event by O’Brian, Forester and a host of other gifted authors, the novel Billy Budd by Herman Melville is set on ships of the Channel Fleet immediately after this mutiny was addressed by My Lords of the Admiralty.
What must have it been like for the uninitiated to encounter the majestic splendor of a Royal Navy base for the first time? Following is an excerpt from chapter two of A Matter of Honor in which Richard Cutler and his brother Will have sailed on their first cruise from Boston to England. They are aboard their family’s merchant brig Eagle on their way to visit their Uncle William Cutler and his family who live just north of Portsmouth in a town called Fareham.
His watch off duty, Richard walked forward to the larboard foremast shrouds to survey the scenery ashore. Will joined him, as did most of the ship’s crew. It was the first land they had seen in nearly four weeks, and for the older sailors aboard, it was homeland.
“Look, Will,” said Richard, pointing abeam. “Those ruins over there on that cliff. Ancient fortresses, I suspect. Wasn’t it the Tudor kings, the Henrys, who ordered them built to protect the naval base?”
Will did not respond. Richard continued to watch with fascination as history passed by him on either side. “There’s another one, Will, to starboard. Take a look,” he implored. Again Will did not respond. Richard turned to look at him; when he saw Will staring transfixed ahead, he gazed forward to see what his brother found so engrossing. Confused by what he saw, he decided to go to the prow for a better view. To his surprise he realized there was no room to move forward. What seemed like the entire ship’s company was standing on or near the forecastle in silent contemplation of what Eagle was now approaching. Thoroughly bewildered, Richard grasped a backstay and stepped out onto a larboard chain-wale. Leaning out, he searched ahead to where the Solent met Southampton Water between Portsmouth Harbor and the Isle of Wight. There, stretched before him as far and wide as sight would permit, was a display of naval power and glory beyond imagining, each ship looming ever more imperiously into view as Eagle glided serenely through the protected waters.
“Spithead,” remarked a seaman, as if explanation at this point was necessary.
It was a virtual forest of masts and spars, a basin covering a vast area filled with ships of every description and size, some bigger than Richard had ever envisioned. Bustling about among these leviathans was subservient water traffic: longboats and bumboats and water-lighters powered by sail or oars shuttling back and forth between the great ships and Portsmouth Town, bearing the officers, crew, cargo, provisions, water barrels, ordnance, and dispatches to sustain an empire. Up until now, Richard had considered his family’s brig Eagle a large vessel. He had seen larger ones of course. A Royal Navy frigate had once sailed into Hingham Bay, and a year ago in Boston his father had pointed out three ships of the line anchored in the harbor. But those vessels he had viewed from a distance and from that distance they appeared more like the toy models he and Will used to build as children. Certainly they had seemed far less formidable than the ship they were now closing on, so close that Eagle seemed in comparison a tiny water bug cruising by. Ezrah Harley identified her as the flagship of a Vice-Admiral of the Blue, pointing up at the long blue pennant fluttering self-importantly from the foremast truck. Three tiers of gun ports were closed shut on her starboard side, and a Jacob’s ladder hanging down from the waist to the waterline seemed to lead up to the Almighty Himself, in command on the quarterdeck.
“How many ships do you think, Will?”
“I dunno. A hundred, maybe?”
“More like two hunderd, mate,” a seaman corrected him. “And them’s just the ones that ‘appen to be in port. Spit’s been called the ‘wooden wall of England’. Now you know why.”
It was with a keen sense of humility that Eagle’s crew took her on a final tack through the narrow and crooked entrance of Portsmouth Harbor and dropped anchor near the commercial wharves at Gosport, at the opposite end of the harbor from the long stone buildings of Portsmouth Dockyard, a Royal Navy facility that by 1774 had become the largest industrial enterprise the world had ever known.
Photo credits: Map of Spithead and environs. Public domain; Ships at Spithead 1797. Sceptre. King George, Hudson's Bay Company. Rodney, East Indiaman. Ganges. Perseverence. General Goddard, East Indiaman; watercolour. Public domain.