Saturday, January 18, 2014

Planning a Research Trip

by Tim Carrington

A few of you may know that I live on a boat in the Mediterranean with my dog ‘Jack Sparrow’. For the last few winters I have based myself in La Maddalena islands off the NE coast of Sardinia and only fifteen miles from Corsica. It is a great area to sail throughout the year.

About this time of year I can be found finalizing my sailing programme for the coming Spring, Summer and Autumn. It was while I was doing my nautical research for 2014 that I realized that even this far away from the British Isles we have, at times, had a hand in its history.

The Forgotten War and Freedom Fries

La Maddalena archipelago comprises about a dozen islands and has been an important naval base for centuries. In the late 18th or early 19th century the U.S.A. asked if they could establish a naval base here because their merchant ships were frequently being attacked by ‘pirates’. And who were those pirates? The British Navy! Sardinia was at that time part of Piedmont and their King said no!

But why were the British Navy attacking U.S. ships? Well because the British were supporting the French Royalty in their struggle to maintain their position while the U.S.A. where supporting the French revolution.

From what I have read, when a U.S. ship was captured its crew were treated as long lost cousins by the Brits. Apparently it reached a point that the U.S. government told the British government that if one more ship was seized then they would declare war on Britain.

It is a fact that you won’t find much on this subject and it has been described as ‘the forgotten war’. But a reminder of this was in the film ‘Master and Commander’ where the British were chasing a French ship. Well, if you read the book you will find that the British were chasing an American ship. But at the time the film was made France had refused to ally itself with the U.S.A. and Britain over invading Iraq so Holywood made the French the bad guys.

Nelson & Hood

Nelson was no stranger to La Maddalena as he was at anchor here with his fleet for over a year waiting for the French to ‘come out and play’. During his time at anchor he never once stepped ashore as to do so would have broken the neutrality of Sardinia. I guess he didn’t have a dog on board. Now I can’t swear on this but I am sure I have read or heard that he had a local mistress to keep him amused. It is a fact that Lady Hamilton never visited him here. But whether true or not, it would make a good story!

Nelson and the British Navy were also involved quite a lot in Corsica in the late 18th century. At that time Corsica was French after its brief independence under the leadership of Pasqual Paoli, and the British were determined to see him reinstated and create an Anglo-Corsican kingdom.

Corsica had two great defensive positions, Bonifacio and Calvi. Both have massive citadels on the cliffs which meant that their guns had a greater range than those who were attacking. But Nelson had a plan! He sailed south but only a few miles so that he was out of sight then he had guns removed from his ships, dragged up to the top of a hill the same height as the citadel and started a bombardment.

During the four week siege 11,000 rounds of shot and 3,000 shells were fired by the British and every round and every shot, as well as their guns had to be manhandled by sailors and marines from their ships to the shore and then up into the hills. The logistics of this are mind-blowing. I am not sure whether the name of the place he landed came afterwards but he landed at what is now called ‘Agro Bay’. 11,000 rounds of shot is definitely agro! Oh and it was here that Nelson lost his eye. I did have a look for it but I couldn’t find it.

Meanwhile, a few miles further north, Lord Hood was attaching Saint Florent. But before we come to that, I must tell you that all along the coast of Corsica are Genoese towers built some 150 years earlier. They are simple in design, built on solid rock and comprising a single room about twenty feet above ground level which can only be accessed by ladder. They were in effect a series of watch towers, each one in view of the next. They were a simple and effective early warning system against pirates.

Martello Tower 60, Leyland Road, Pevensey Bay
This tower is in a pretty good condition.
It is a private residence and obviously quite well cared for.
Photo by Kevin Gordon, Wikimedia Commons
Now back to Admiral Hood who had no difficulty in taking Saint Florent but the handful of defenders in the nearest Genoese Tower refused to surrender so Hood ordered his ships to start firing at the tower only to find that his shells simply bounced off it. Eventually it was taken by a strong force of marines but Hood was so impressed with how the tower had withstood his bombardment that he ordered his engineers to detail its construction, and on his return to Britain he recommended that a series of similar towers be built along the south coast of England. They can still be seen in places in England and are called Martello Towers (after the place in Corsica). Ironically they were built to thwart the ambitions of the Corsican born Napoleon Bonaparte.

The English (and Americans) Abroad

From Corsica I will be sailing to mainland France and my first stop will be Nice which actually used to be part of Italy and is where Garibaldi was born. What has he got to do with British history? Well, not a lot except that we named a biscuit after him. Whereas in New York the house where he once lived is a national monument. Oh, by the way, did you know while he was in New York he lodged with an Italian candle-maker who invented the telephone?

It was also here that tourism started! Well, not exactly, but in 1763 Tobias Smollett (what a lovely English name – sounds like a Dickens character) rented a ground-floor apartment in Nice from where he would walk every day to bathe in the sea. So strange was this practice that the locals are said to have gathered in crowds to watch! Times have changed. In the summer there is an aircraft landing at Nice airport almost every minute with tourists.

But it isn’t just Nice that the British had an effect on. To the east is Menton were the air is said to be most beneficial to those with chest complaints. In fact in the old cemetery there are as many English people there as there are French. It was here that Katherine Mansfield spent her last few years before dying at an early age from tuberculosis. She wrote the following in a letter knowing that her days were numbered.

"… I’ve just been for a walk on my small boulevard and looking down below at the houses all bright in the sun and the housewives washing their linen in great tubs of glittering water and flinging it over the orange trees to dry. Perhaps all human activity is beautiful in the sunlight. Certainly these women lifting their arms, turning to the sun to shake out the wet clothes were supremely beautiful. I couldn’t help feeling – and after they have lived they will die and it won’t matter. It will be alright……… Wander with me 10 years, will you darling? Ten years in the sun. It’s not long – only 10 springs."

Then there is Juan Les Pins famous for, amongst other things, the riotous parties in the 1920’s and 30’s by such summer residents as Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

A little further west is Cannes famous for its film festival. But back in the early 19th century Cannes was nothing but a small fishing village and it might still be if it wasn’t for Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor of England. He had been on his way to the Italian Riviera with his sick daughter but was turned back at the River Var, which was then the border between France and Italy, because of a cholera epidemic. He was so taken by the small village that he decided to build a villa which he called Villa Eleonore Louise after his daughter who sadly died before it was completed.

Lord Brougham became an annual visitor where he would spend time writing books on politics, philosophy and history, and analyzing the habits of bees. He so loved the place that he encouraged other influential English people to build villas. Such was his influence that the population increased from 3,000 to 10,000 before he died.

Twenty Saints and a Prisoner

Between Juan les Pins and Cannes are two islands with only a tenuous British connection but worthy of mention for anyone interested in medieval and earlier history. The two islands are Ile Sainte Marguerite and Ile Saint Fereol.

On the latter stands a monastery founded in the 4th century by Saint Honorat who actually went there to live a life of solitude but such was his influence that his followers flocked after him to such an extent that 20 saints and 600 bishops are products of his teachings here, and one of them was St. Patrick the Welshman who became the patron saint of Ireland. It is still a monastery and has been almost continually for 16 centuries.

But people of a different ilk lived on Ile Sainte Marguerite as this is where Fort Royal is. Now there is no English connection but I mention this simply because it is an historical novel begging to be written! Fort Royal was a prison and its most famous prisoner was ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’. Yes there was such a prisoner and I have even seen his cell, although it is said that he didn’t wear an iron mask, he simply had to keep his face covered so no one would recognize him.

But who was he? Well, he could have been illegitimate son of Louis XIV, or Louis’ twin brother born several hours later or even the doctor who performed an autopsy on Louis XIII and found him incapable of producing offspring. But my favourite story about this mystery man is the one of him fathering a son with a female prisoner. When the child was born he was whisked away to foster parents in Corsica. To be ‘entrusted’ in this way is ‘remis de bonne part’ in French and ‘di buonna parte’ in Italian. Could this be the great-grandfather of Napoleon Bonaparte?

La Napoule Castle, Mandelieu la Napoule
Further west is Mandelieu La Napoule – and another story waiting to be written but this time it is an American who must take the credit. The 14th century castle here is much restored to a point that it has been described as Romanesque and Disney-esque. The man who is to be credited is Henry Clews, son of a New York banker who fell in love with the place at the end of WWI and remained there until his death in 1937. But the story in the making is that of his wife, a New York society woman who remained there all through WWII. Her identity as an American was kept secret from the Germans and she was actively involved in helping the French underground. What a lady, and I don’t even know her name.

Eventually I will arrive at Port St. Louis where I will take the mast down and then spend four months in the French canals as far as Paris and back. Again, not English but of importance to many historical novelists is Avignon. Yes famous for its bridge but more famous in historical terms because it was here that the Vatican relocated to when Rome fell. Other than that, and the fact that there are some magnificent buildings, I know little about it, but I am looking forward to finding out.

So that’s going to be my ‘research trip’ from the end of March until August. All that history to explore, all those vineyards to visit and all those miles and miles of tranquil canals. Care to join me? I have spare cabins available.

Tim Carrington


  1. Thank you - very interesting article. Have fun in France - I once had a very enjoyable holiday on the Canal du Nivernais/River Yonne, with some stunning scenery and of course exquiste food and wine...would love to go again.

  2. Sounds as if you have many a lead for good novel material. It also goes to show how Hollywood can alter perceptions of history. ....I'd love to take you up on your offer. Sounds idyllic so I hope you find a travelling companion or companions and get down to write one or several books based on the history you've unearthed. Bon voyage!


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