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November 14, 2019

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Short Rounds

The Brotherhood of Arms

George Rodney (1719-1792) began a distinguished career in the Royal Navy in 1732. Over the next few decades he served with distinction in war and peace, while also taking a seat Parliament. During the Seven Years’ War, during which he was promoted to rear admiral, he crowned a series of successful operations with the capture of Havana in 1762. Following the war he served as Governor of Greenwich Hospital, and from 1771 to 1774 he commanded the Jamaica Station. But the admiral’s finances were shaky. He had enormous expenses, what with outlays to support his political career, not to mention lavish life-style and an impressive gambling habit. With then end of his posting to the Jamaica Station, Rodney went on half-pay. It was not enough to cover his debts, and he fled England to avoid debtor’s prison, settling in France.

Then came the American Revolution. In 1777, the Royal Navy offered Rodney a promotion and command of the fleet in the West Indies. But he had his debts to worry about, and tried to find the money to cover them, so that he could return to Britain. Meanwhile, France entered the war on the side of the Americans. It being the Age of Enlightenment, no one in France thought to detain the old gentleman. In fact, Rodney’s good friend the Duc de Biron, a Marshal of France, lent him £2,000 so he could go home, take care of his debts, and assume his command, in the war against France.

Biron’s generosity to his friend cost France dearly. Rodney would go on to sweep the French from the Caribbean, crowning his achievement with a smashing victory over the Comte de Grasse in the Battle of the Saintes (April 9-12, 1782).

 

The Cultural Fallout of the Torsion Catapult

Although we generally think of the fashion of women wearing their hair short as a twentieth century development, it actually can be said to date back to the Hellenistic Age, and was inspired by developments in military technology, the introduction of the torsion catapult.

The torsion catapult uses the energy stored in tightly twisted ropes to provide the impetus for hurling projectiles great distances. Torsion catapults came in a great variety of sizes. Some were essentially large cross bows, firing oversized arrows; there was even an “automatic” version, with arrows dropping from a hopper while a handle was cranked, to return torsion to the ropes. Others were much larger, able to hurl huge stones or jars that might be filled with incendiaries or even snakes. Known from about 350 B.C., their use became widespread during the early Hellenistic period, in the wars of Alexander the Great’s “Successors” (332 B.C.-301 B.C.). Thereafter torsion catapults were a common feature of warfare in the Mediterranean region.

For example, during the siege of Rhodes in 305 B.C. by Demetrious Poliorcetes, the Rhodians reputedly had hundreds of catapults, which they put to good use, beating off the attacker, despite the impressive arsenal of war engines that he brought along. More than a century and a half later, in 149 B.C., during the siege of Carthage by Scipio Aemilianus, the defenders reportedly used some 2,000 torsion catapults, though they were unable to save the city.

Now the best torsion was provided by ropes made from human hair. So human hair quickly became what would, in the twentieth century, be known as a “strategic material.” The demand must have been was enormous, for we have some notion of the amounts needed. In 250 B.C. the Rhodians donated 300 talents of human hair, perhaps 75 tons, to the people of Sinope, to help them in a war against Mithridates I of Pontus, and a quarter century later King Seleucus II of Syria donated several tons of human hair to the Rhodians, apparently as a way of maintaining their friendship in the event he went to war with Ptolemaic Egypt.

Naturally, this hair had to come from somewhere. Apparently it was not uncommon for poor women in most Mediterranean lands to sell their hair, which would yield a tidy profit. So, at least among poor women, hair styles would have varied greatly, with some having lengthy tresses, ready for “harvest” and others short bobs, having just sold theirs, and many lengths in between.

Accounts of women sacrificing their hair to the war effort are commonplace in ancient literature. But these probably refer primarily to upper class women, who normally would not have sold their hair, not needing the money.

 

World Record Holder?

Robert Corbet was one of the hundreds of men who captained ships in the Royal Navy during the long wars of the French Revolution and Napoleon (1793-1815). Like most, his service was characterized by long years on patrol punctuated by occasional bloody sea fights. In Corbet’s case, his career ended on September 12, 1810, when he was mortally wounded. Corbet was in command of HMS Africaine, a 44 gun frigate, one of a small British squadron that engaged several French frigates off Mauritius. Of course, death in action was hardly a unique distinction, for it was shared by thousands of others during the wars. What made Corbet an officer of note was his brutal command style.

Corbet liked to flog his men. No one knows how many he flogged, but in just 211 days from August of 1806 to March of 1807, whilst he commanded the frigate Seahorse (38 guns), in the Caribbean, he ordered 134 floggings, an average of three floggings every two days. The total number of lashes inflicted was 2,278, making for an average of 17 licks per flogging. Corbet was so brutal, his men petitioned the Royal Navy for redress, some mutinied, and once, when he was assigned a new ship, the crew refused to muster to hear his orders, until coerced by the proximity of another vessel cleared for action. Although subject to a court martial, Corbet managed to beat the rap. Nevertheless, he also managed to annoy senior officers, who would probably have found a pretext to remove him had he not been killed in action.

Of course, there were also those who said that Cobert’s wounds were not caused by the French . . . but he was smushed by a cannon ball, which suggests otherwise.

 

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