Billy Ruffian: The Bellerophon and the Downfall of Napoleon

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From the author of Under the Black Flag, the biography of a British warship and a portrait of a world at war during the Napoleonic era.

The story of the seventy-four gun warship Bellerophon will be familiar to anyone who's read Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester. The Billy Ruffian runs from its subject's birth (in a small shipyard in 1782) to her death (in a breaker's yard more than fifty years later, after serving as a prison ship). In the intervening years the Billy Ruffian ...

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Overview

From the author of Under the Black Flag, the biography of a British warship and a portrait of a world at war during the Napoleonic era.

The story of the seventy-four gun warship Bellerophon will be familiar to anyone who's read Patrick O'Brian or C.S. Forester. The Billy Ruffian runs from its subject's birth (in a small shipyard in 1782) to her death (in a breaker's yard more than fifty years later, after serving as a prison ship). In the intervening years the Billy Ruffian played a conspicuous part in three of the most famous of all sea battles: the battle of the Glorious First of June (1794), the opening action against revolutionary France; the battle of the Nile (1798), which halted Napoleon's eastern expansion from Cairo; and the battle of Trafalgar (1805), which established British naval supremacy for 100 years. But her crowning glory came six weeks after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Napoleon, trapped in La Rochelle, surrendered to the captain of the ship that had dogged his steps for more than twenty years.

Using diaries, ship's logs, personal letters, and other contemporary documents, David Cordingly has created a fascinating and eminently readable account of life both on ship and off during this most romantic of eras.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
A satisfying tale of a mighty ship, and of a half-century under the mast in some of Europe’s fiercest wars. HMS Bellerophon, writes English maritime historian Cordingly (Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women, 2001, etc.), came into existence in 1782 with only the grudging consent of the Admiralty, which foresaw little use for a big, 74-gun vessel at the time. Soon enough, though, the Bellerophon—whose crew, not trained in the gentlemanly study of Greek mythology, called her the "Billy Ruffian" or "Belly Rough One" or variants thereof—was chasing around the high seas after French privateers, then Napoleon’s fleet, facing down said blighters in encounters such as the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794), the Battle of the Nile (1798), and, most famous of all, the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). She took her blows and lost plenty of hands, but fewer so than her French foes; Cordingly describes one engagement in which the French commander lost both his legs, but "got himself strapped into a chair and was heard to say that a French admiral ought to die on his own quarterdeck"—just before being cut in two by a cannonball. (The incident, Cordingly adds, inspired the once widely recited poem that opens "The boy stood on the burning deck.") By good fortune, the Bellerophon received intelligence that Napoleon was planning to flee France after the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and kept after him until the emperor surrendered; the ship escorted him to Plymouth, where curious onlookers rowed out to gawk at the captive, but was judged incapable of making the long voyage to St. Helena, where Nappy lived out his days in exile. Alas, the Bellerophon lived out her own last days as a prison ship,an inglorious end to a much-vaunted vessel of the line. Solid and well-researched stuff, and a pleasure for fans of Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, and other chroniclers of the fighting sail. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781582341934
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 10/15/2003
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.22 (w) x 9.52 (h) x 1.49 (d)

Meet the Author

David Cordingly is the author of several acclaimed books on the subject of pirates, including, most recently, Under the Black Flag: The Romance and Reality of Life among the Pirates (1996). He lives by the sea in Brighton, England.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements
List of Illustrations
Maps
Introduction 1
1 Born of Oak: 1782-6 7
2 A Stormy Launch: 1786 26
3 His Majesty's Dockyard at Chatham: 1787-90 39
4 Preparations for War: 1790-4 53
5 The Glorious First of June: 1794 68
6 The Aftermath: 1794 86
7 Lord Cranstoun and Billy Blue: 1794-7 94
8 The Bay of Cadiz: 1797 109
9 In Search of Napoleon: 1797-8 119
10 Death at the Mouth of the Nile: 1798 137
11 The West Indies: 1798-1804 155
12 Prelude to Trafalgar: 1804-5 167
13 Victory or Death: 1805 181
14 Voices from the Lower Deck: 1805-7 204
15 Cruises in Northern Waters: 1807-14 217
16 Napoleon and the Bellerophon: 1815 228
17 Into Exile: 1815 254
18 A Hulk on the Medway: 1815-36 280
Epilogue 302
App. 1 Progress Books for H.M. Ships 308
App. 2 'Boney was a Warrior' 313
App. 3 The sails of a square-rigged ship 314
Glossary 316
Bibliography 322
Notes 326
Index 344
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2003

    Rattling Good History from the Age of fighting Sail

    By Bill Marsano. Well here we are, me hearties, smack in the middle of the Age of Fighting Sail, when the Royal Navy--Nelson's Navy--made clear to the world that Britannia ruled the waves. Our foe be the awful French led by the beastly Napoleon, who makes no secret of his imperial ambitions. Britain, that nation of shopkeepers, aims to stop him. Are we having fun yet, or what? Shakespeare put it about that 'ships are but boards,' yet few sailors would agree. Most come to believe that ships--some, at least--are living things, possessed of souls. They love them as if they are living beings. Such a ship is the subject of this 'biography,' which reads like a novel but is factual from keel to truck. The ship is HMS Bellerophon--Billy Ruffian to her crew. A most fortunate ship, designed by Britain's leading naval architect, Sir Thomas Slade, and built by a great constructor, Edward Greaves. Launched in 1786, she was officered and crewed according to her deserts, and then sailed uniquely into history. No other ship, I think played such a part in the conflicts of that era. Bellerophon fought splendidly in the three greatest seafights of the Napoleonic era, the Glorious First of June in 1794, the Battle of the Nile in 1798 and Trafalgar in 1805. For her, the greatest of the trio was doubtless the Nile. In that action Nelson found the French at anchor in Aboukir Bay, west of the mouth of the Nile, formidably protected by their advantage in numbers of both ships and guns, by their powerful defensive formation in a shallow, treacherous bay, and by the approaching night. That didn't stop Nelson nor did it stop the Ruffian. She laid alongside the French flagship, L'Orient, and the two hammered each other with unrelenting broadsides. The Ruffian was dismasted and hideously mauled, but although L'Orient had bigger guns and more of them (120 to the Ruffian's 74), the Ruffian had Jack Tar and Dick Nastyface--and they had hearts of oak. L'Orient was set afire, and as the fire spread toward her powder magazines the Ruffian slipped her cables to drift clear of what would become that battle's single best-remembered moment: L'Orient blown to kingdom come in a detonation that was heard and seen 20 miles away--and re-created in countless paintings of the fight. Then came Trafalgar and after that a remarkable post-Waterloo climax. For it was on Billy Ruffian's deck that Napoleon, after much shilly-shallying about whether to flee or to fold, and deluded with the notion of an honorable retirement as a prisoner on a little farm in the English countryside, finally surrendered to the Crown, his implacable enemy. And then? Peacetime doldrums. In time, Bellerophon was struck from the list, disarmed, dismasted and 'hulked'--turn into a prison ship or hulk for the remainder of her days. The veteran David Cordingly does a handsome job of telling Bellerophon's story, and he doesn't slacken his attention even during her days as a hulk. The result is salty pleasure from beginning to end.--Bill Marsano is a longtime devotee of sailing books.

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