Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. This Week’s Book Review – Catastrophe at Spithead

 

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Catastrophe at Spithead’ examines loss of warship Royal George

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 14, 2020

“Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George” by Hilary L. Rubinstein, Naval Institute Press 2020, 352 pages, $38.95

One memorable incident during the Wars of American Independence was the loss of the warship Royal George. A three-deck ship-of-the-line, it capsized in harbor undergoing minor repairs. Six hundred to 1,000 drowned, including may civilians aboard, and Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. The sinking inspired a major poem by William Cowper, a famous English poet.

“Catastrophe At Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George” by Hilary L. Rubinstein captures the sinking and the events surrounding it.

Rubenstein follows several threads. She traces the career of Kempenfelt, who had gained the reputation of a brilliant naval commander by the time of his death in 1782. She examines the circumstances surrounding the ship’s sinking. She follows the aftermath of the sinking, examining its consequences and the careers of the survivors. She places everything within its context as part of the Wars of American Independence and the Royal Navy of King George III.

The book is fascinating for several reasons. Rubenstein offers an interesting study on the causes of the sinking. Its loss, anchored in a sheltered harbor on a calm day, was unprecedented. The impact it had on 18th-century Britain was similar to that experienced in America following the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

It’s also a fascinating examination of 18th-century British society. Kempenfelt’s Royal Navy career progress was slowed by several factors. His father, although gently born, was of foreign origin. Richard Kempenfelt lacked sufficient interest within the Royal Navy’s hierarchy to achieve quick promotion. His capabilities eventually secured promotion, but he achieved flag rank too late for important command early in the American Revolution. His abilities might have led to greater British naval success in the war’s critical early years.

In addition to its crew, Royal George was filled with vendors, sailors’ wives and children and workmen supplying the ship. Rubenstein uses these to examine the lives of the period’s ordinary people.

Well-written and approachable, “Catastrophe At Spithead” offers readers otherwise uninterested in naval or 18th-century history a fascinating peek at this now-obscure accident. It’s a surprising reminder that the type of technical mishaps that plague today’s society have been common throughout history.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

Published in History
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  1. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I had to read up on the Royal George. I don’t know if I ever heard about it’s fate before. Sounds like a perfect storm of people failing to run what was a routine maintenance procedure.

    • #1
    • March 23, 2020, at 8:44 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  2. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    I had to read up on the Royal George. I don’t know if I ever heard about it’s fate before. Sounds like a perfect storm of people failing to run what was a routine maintenance procedure.

    Yup. And it was not even really necessary.

    • #2
    • March 23, 2020, at 10:42 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. Percival Thatcher
    PercivalJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    I had to read up on the Royal George. I don’t know if I ever heard about it’s fate before. Sounds like a perfect storm of people failing to run what was a routine maintenance procedure.

    Yup. And it was not even really necessary.

    In 1628, the Vasa, a Swedish ship, capsized on her maiden voyage. She had managed to go 1,400 yards.

    That was worse.

    • #3
    • March 23, 2020, at 2:41 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  4. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Percival (View Comment):

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    I had to read up on the Royal George. I don’t know if I ever heard about it’s fate before. Sounds like a perfect storm of people failing to run what was a routine maintenance procedure.

    Yup. And it was not even really necessary.

    In 1628, the Vasa, a Swedish ship, capsized on her maiden voyage. She had managed to go 1,400 yards.

    That was worse.

    Yes, but the excuse there was incompetent naval architects. And I think the loss of life was greater with the Royal George.

    • #4
    • March 23, 2020, at 3:11 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  5. Old Bathos Moderator

    The British Navy set standards for artful but brazen scapegoating, deflection, spin and false narratives to explain adverse outcomes that the rest of the world has yet to match.

     

    • #5
    • March 25, 2020, at 7:35 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  6. MichaelKennedy Coolidge

    There is a very good British writer of period novels about the 18th and 19th centuries in England. His name is Andrew Wareham and his books are all on Kindle. His background is interesting. He taught economic history for ten years and also spent ten years as a policemen in PapuaNew Guinea. He has three books about that area. His books about England are in series of ten or more and have a lot about England and the Industrial Revolution.

    Another interesting shipwreck was that of the Mary Rose, which has been recently recovered as a time capsule.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Rose

    The wreck of the Mary Rose was discovered in 1971 and was raised on 11 October 1982 by the Mary Rose Trust in one of the most complex and expensive maritime salvage projects in history. The surviving section of the ship and thousands of recovered artefacts are of great value as a Tudor-era time capsule. The excavation and raising of the Mary Rose was a milestone in the field of maritime archaeology, comparable in complexity and cost to the raising of the 17th-century Swedish warship Vasa in 1961.

    Thank you. I will read that book.

    • #6
    • March 25, 2020, at 1:01 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  7. Sabrdance Member

    So the Wikipedia entry says they heeled her over too far to do hull repairs, and as a result water flooded in her port gunports and she flooded and sank. It also says that Rubinstein disputes this -holding the officer of the watch innocent. What was her explanation for the sinking?

    • #7
    • March 25, 2020, at 2:18 PM PDT
    • Like
  8. Boss Mongo Member

    Thank you, Seawriter.

    • #8
    • March 26, 2020, at 5:39 PM PDT
    • 1 like