So wrote famed poet John Dryden of a seventeenth-century sea battle. The century from 1650 to 1750 showcases the grand romantic reality of naval combat prior to its near-perfection in the Napoleonic Age: of tall ships and stout hearts of oak and iron, of bloody victory and shattered defeat, of fear, fury, glory, and fame—and of terror as round shot smashes ships into splinters that cut men to pieces.
But there is far more to naval combat in this era than large fleet actions and single ship-to-ship duels! Small squadrons of privateers or commerce-raiding men-of-war plunder merchant fleets and their convoys. Buccaneers in flotillas of two or three ships attack Spanish duos of treasure ship and patache, and common pirates similarly strike at hapless merchantmen. Cruising men-of-war assault enemy flotillas at sea or anchor, cut out or burn enemy ships as well as those captured vessels of one’s own nation, and make descents ashore. Naval squadrons strike at each other in the hope of turning the tide of war in some small way.
Many of these smaller naval fleet actions see not only enemy defeat as the goal but also another: prize money for captains and crews. Not just glory, but for many, profit!
Although the tactics of single ship-to-ship combat remain much the same over the century, the period sees fleet naval actions shift from their last vestige as a melee of single combats in the earliest years to the highly regimented order of the line of battle. Tactically, although gunnery, signaling, naval discipline, and ship design improve over the century, the fundamentals of naval combat, whether fleet action or single ship duel, remain much the same. Gun captains point their guns to sink (strike the hull at the waterline), “straight” (to kill men), or to “dismast” (cut up the sails and rigging, and shiver masts and yards). Boarding actions remain a principal tactic in single-ship actions and small fleet actions, as does the heavy use of musketry. Squadron, flotilla, and smaller actions often devolve into melees.
Above all, the awesome image never changes: of thundering flaming guns, of men fighting both the enemy and the fear inspired by the battle, of a panorama of wooden ships shrouded in smoke or enveloped forever by the sea.
Now the Danger is o’er,
Let us make for the Shoar,
But first fill the Bowl,
That e’ery brave Soul
May drink a large Portion,
Whilst those that are slain,
And swim deep in the main,
Shall pledge us, shall pledge us
In the Brine of the Ocean.
—Anon. “The Sea-Fight, a Song,” 17th century
The English. The English navy, or British as it slowly began to be known from 1707, might best be described by its signature tactic: to close, with great discipline and professionalism, with the enemy and batter their ships to splinters, killing and wounding men until the enemy surrenders or is destroyed. Its discipline and professionalism originally inspired during the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the English navy makes great gains in experience and tactics during the Anglo-Dutch wars, preparing it for the French wars that will dominate from the late 17th century into the early 19th. Many English commanders are doggedly aggressive, believing that closing with the enemy, no matter the odds, is their duty. Likewise, many are severe disciplinarians, and many also have the often bad habit of seeking to combine glory with profit. Throughout the period the English navy grows in discipline, professionalism, and effectiveness until, in the early 19th century it arguably reigns supreme, challenged only occasionally by the French and, in small actions, the upstart Americans. The English also send many privateers to the sea in time of war. Although for the privateer profit is foremost, many English privateer captains will, like their French counterparts, fight for duty and honor when cornered, rather than simply strike to overwhelming odds.
The French. Long a seagoing people, the French as a naval power are coming of age. In the late 17th century the French navy begins to challenge those of the English and Dutch, and grows in strength and skill in the 18th century until it becomes the almost ancient nemesis of the English navy. As with the English, French commanders range from gentlemen to tarpaulins, and many famous French captains and admirals began as merchant seamen and privateers. Even so, some criticize the practice of occasionally appointing French noblemen, some with little experience, as admirals. French naval theory and strategy are the equal of any, and the favorite French tactic, particular in single ship actions and small fleet actions, is to cut up the enemy’s rigging then close and board. No nation’s seafarers pride themselves more on their skill with the sword and other small arms at close quarters. French privateers and commerce raiding men-of war, of which there are many, are as famous and successful as their Caribbean counterparts, the flibustiers, often capturing entire merchant fleets and their naval convoys.
The Dutch. The direct heir of its Sea Beggar forbears, the Dutch navy begins as the implacable enemy of Spain but soon reigns as the fierce competitor of the English for control of the northern seas. During the second half of the 17th century Dutch fleets are the equal of the English, and the several Anglo-Dutch wars forge their commanders and crews in the crucible of brutal fleet actions, creating two of the great navies of history, and some of the greatest admirals as well. But times change and by the last decade of the 17th century the Dutch navy is diminished in number of ships, allied with the English under the Dutch Prince of Orange, now King William III of England &c, and reigns no more as one of the two greatest navies in the world. Although each commander has his preferred tactics, the Dutch in general may be said to balance gunnery with boarding actions. The Dutch do not fear a fight, but are wise and experienced enough to avoid foolhardiness. As with sea-going states, the Dutch send privateers, known as kapers, to sea in time of war. So intertwined with the sea are all Dutch that some observers consider them all as truly amphibious, far more so than any other Western state. The Dutch, some say, have no land lubbers.
The Spanish. At one time the holding in hand the potential to rule the world seas, the Spanish navy has been diminished by defeats at the hands of the English and Dutch, and by the Spanish crown’s squandering of its great wealth stolen from the Americas. Spanish fleets are now weak and fleet actions rare and conducted largely in combined allied fleets. The Spanish navy’s most vital services are escorting treasure fleets and chasing pirates, typically via flotillas such as the Armada de Barlovento and the Armada de Galeones. Local defensive and pirate hunting fleets, such as the Armada de Vizcainos, come and go in the Americas, and guardas costas provide much of localized defenses as sea. Spain sends privateers to sea in time of war, but not nearly as many as do the English, French, and Dutch. All too often, Spanish commanders of treasure ships or treasure fleets are hindered by their standing orders: to protect the treasure at all costs. In practice this means fleeing rather than fighting, even when fighting might be the best tactical course. Typically, and to their detriment, they often fight only when cornered, worried more about the dishonor of defeat than the glory of victory. Some commanders excuse their defeats by blaming the large number of foreigners among their crews.
The Pirates. Ranging from late 17th century buccaneers and flibustiers who often have the official or tacit approval to attack Spanish properties at sea and ashore, to the common pirates of the early 18th century who prey almost exclusively on weak merchantmen, these sea rovers do not fight sea actions at the fleet or even squadron level, except the latter very rarely. Even when sailing in flotillas of a dozen or more vessels, pirates of every sort will run rather than fight an enemy fleet, in part because pirate ships are usually small and unable to stand against the larger ships of most fleets. Most commonly, combined pirate actions at sea consist of two or three buccaneers or flibustiers attacking a Spanish merchant ship and its patache, or a pirate ship and one or two sloops chasing and engaging a merchantman. Occasionally buccaneers and flibustiers are attached as privateers to naval fleets or flotillas where they serve primarily as auxiliaries at sea or to be later used in attacks ashore. Buccaneers and flibustiers are not afraid of engaging English, French, and Dutch naval men-of-war if the ships, men, and guns are roughly equal, although they would prefer not to. Common pirates, however, will invariably run away if they can, and fight only when cornered—and will almost always lose. To profit by plunder is the goal; to fight for honor and duty, if ever, is never foremost in the mind of a pirate.