Chapter One [excerpt]
aptain Thomas Kydd held his impatience in check. Still in thrall to the all-so-recent cataclysm of Trafalgar, he and his ship had played escort to the body of
Admiral Nelson in its grief-stricken return to England. Then, immediately, he had been given orders for sea, falling back on the Nore to victual and store with the utmost
dispatch before setting forth to attempt urgent rendezvous with Commodore Home Popham in Madeira.
Much affected by the loss of the great commander, Kydd had at first resented not being able to attend what would no doubt be the greatest funeral of the age, but as all of Nelson's
victorious battle-fleet, save the legendary Victory, were still faithfully on station, who were he or his men to complain?
Under a press of sail L'Aurore had braved the hard south-westerlies and was now rounding the last point before the deep anchorage of Funchal Roads opened up.
Madeira was peculiarly well located at the crossroads of the pattern of trade-routes that led to Europe and merchant shipping and naval vessels alike gratefully raised landfall
before the last few weeks of far voyaging - or girded for long months outward bound. Now, in winter, the little island was at its best: an emerald jewel in the warmer reaches of the
Atlantic, with crystal water, succulent fruits and blessed rest for mariners who had won clear of the harsh bluster of the Channel on their way to exotic destinations.
Kydd peered through the throng of shipping to a denser group, and caught sight of the swallowtail of a commodore's pennant high aloft in an elderly 64-gun ship. They were in time!
He assumed a strong quarterdeck brace. Kydd knew his ship - a thoroughbred light frigate captured from the French a bare year ago - was at her best, even with all the haste in
getting back to sea. His head lifted in pride at the impression she must be making on the eyes now upon her - and remembered how, in a similar frigate, he had passed this way all
those years ago, a young sailor before the mast making skilled seaman from humble press-ganged beginnings. And now he was captain of his own frigate...
This was no time for reminiscing; he had served with Popham before and was eager to make his acquaintance again - and find out what was in store for L'Aurore.
Shortening sail they threaded their way through the packed shipping, no difficulty for the nimble frigate on a favourable wind and in short order their anchor plunged down and their
thirteen-gun salute cracked out.
He was met on Diadem's quarterdeck with all the ceremonial of a post-captain coming aboard a flagship. ‘A swift passage, Mr Kydd,’ Popham said, the intelligent
eyes appraising. ‘I count myself fortunate that you shall now be able to join our little enterprise.’
There had been just the barest details about it in his orders, Kydd reflected, but replied respectfully, ‘I'm honoured to be here.’ Then he ventured, ‘Er, you did
say "enterprise", sir - I'm as yet mystified as to its purpose.’
Popham gave him a quizzical look then dealt with a hovering first lieutenant before inviting Kydd to a sherry below. He wasted little time on pleasantries. ‘The French Fleet
has been destroyed and the way is made clear for us to take the offensive. This is nothing less than the first move in a race to empire!’
‘Sir, I don't-’
‘Are you in doubt of empire, Mr Kydd? The world is populated by quantities of benighted heathens who in the nature of things will be ruled by one or other of the Great Powers
until they be of stature to stand alone. It were better for them that it be us, with our enlightened ways, than the selfish and rapacious Mr Bonaparte, do you not think, sir?’
There could be little arguing at that level and or with the notion that this war of Napoleon would not continue indefinitely. Whoever had the greatest empire at its end would
dominate the world and its trade. Kydd finished his sherry then asked, ‘Sir, may I know where we shall, er, strike?’
Popham frowned. ‘You haven't been informed?’ He leaned forward in his chair. ‘Ah, then tonight will be a capital occasion for you to learn at first hand. We sail
in thirty-six hours and this evening will be the last chance for some time for the principals of the campaign to dine together in anything approaching civilised comfort. I hope I
may see you there!’
At Kydd's look he added, ‘And never fear, sir, tomorrow you'll have the requisite orders and details that shall see you satisfied in the particulars.’
Funchal, the capital of Madeira, was set in a natural amphitheatre among stern mountains, its neat white houses nestling in ascending rows. Surrounded by vineyards and plantations
and well-supplied by streams from the craggy uplands, it had an unusually attractive scenting from the many groves of figs, mangoes and red-fleshed oranges.
Admiring the pleasant vista from the quarterdeck Kydd turned to his friend and confidential secretary Nicholas Renzi, ‘I suspect this dinner will be long. If you-’
‘Do not concern yourself on my account, dear chap,’ Renzi, murmured. ‘I believe we shall have a tolerable enough time of it ashore.’ The port was
well-regarded by a number of the ship's officers, who'd confided they were familiar with where the most agreeable entertainments could be found.
After Trafalgar Kydd knew L'Aurore's ship's company was hard, experienced and reliable - men like Poulden, his coxswain, in the past a stout-hearted seaman who had stood by
him as a newly promoted lieutenant in those days of enduring in the old Tenacious. Stirk, there at a forward six-pounder, tough as nails and from whom as a raw landman he'd
learned lessons of fearlessness and the rough moral code of the lower deck - and Doud, spinning a yarn with the boatswain's mate, another long-ago messmate who had come to join
others from his past, wanting to share fortune with him, their old shipmate.
L'Aurore's officers had seen three changes. Kydd's former first lieutenant Howlett had been promoted out of the ship and his second, the tarpaulin Gilbey, had taken his
place with the well-born Curzon moved up to second lieutenant.
The last-minute replacement for third now stood stoically on the quarterdeck, as most junior, to remain on watch aboard while his seniors disported ashore. Before Kydd went below to
change he crossed to the young man. ‘So, do I see you contented with your lot, Mr Bowden?’
He beamed. ‘That I am, Mr Kydd,’ he said proudly, ‘You may depend upon it.’
Hiding a smile Kydd tested the tautness of a line from aloft. ‘Do you take care of my ship while I'm away, sir. I'll not have it all ahoo when I return!’
‘I will, sir,’ Bowden replied and turned to glare at the inoffensive mate-of-the-watch.
The young man had started his naval career as a midshipman under Kydd in the Mediterranean some years before and then had gone on to be signal midshipman in Victory. In the
wave of promotions following the famous battle he had achieved his lieutenancy, able to claim a reduction in the strict requirement for six years at sea before his lieutenant's
exam, as being a passed student of the Naval Academy.
Kydd had initially been puzzled as to how Bowden had managed appointment into a prime 32-gun frigate. Then he'd remembered that in the young man's ancient naval family his uncle was
a very senior captain at the Admiralty. It was however a most sincere compliment.
At four precisely Kydd stepped out of his carriage into the dignified but antiquated St Jolin's Castle, nobly perched above the town. An army subaltern in kilt and full highland
regalia came forward to receive him. ‘Captain Kydd? We are expecting you, sir. Come this way if you will.’
The castle had been borrowed for the occasion and Portuguese soldiery in colourful finery faced stolidly outward from the wall, their eyes ceremoniously following the
visitors’ movements in the continental style.
Met by a rising hubbub of noise Kydd emerged into a mediaeval banqueting hall filled with army officers in scarlet and gold, and here and there the dark blue of a naval officer.
With the barbaric splendour of massed candles and the glitter of ancient armour and hangings on the lofty walls it seemed to him a fitting place for the meeting of lords of war on
the eve of battle.
He paid careful respect to the aged and pompous castellan wearing dress of another age, and then Popham found him. ‘Kydd, old chap, do come and meet the others.’
There were fellow naval captains: Downman of Diadem, Byng of Belliqueux, Honyman of Leda. And then the army: brigadier-generals and colonels, fierce-gazed
and each in the war-like colour of Highland regiments.
Finally it was a formal introduction to the principal himself. ‘Sir, may I present Captain Thomas Kydd of L'Aurore frigate of 32 guns, new joined. Mr Kydd,
Major-General Sir David Baird, commander of this expedition.’
Kydd bowed politely, frustrated that he still knew so little of what was afoot.
‘Well now, sir, and it's been a long time!’
Taken aback Kydd noted calculating eyes in a tall and handsome frame. ‘Er, you have the advantage of me, Sir David,’ he said carefully.
Baird's eyebrows narrowed. ‘Come, come, sir! You'll be telling me next you've altogether forgotten our little contretemps in the sands o’ the Nile!’ He
threw a look of mock exasperation at Popham.
‘The plicatiles, was it not? Quite took Kleber's veterans in the rear - heh, heh! Why, sir, do you think I've asked for you specifically in an expedition of a sea-borne
Kydd realised his summons to Madeira must have been in consultation with Popham, who had been naval commander in the Red Sea at that time, the occasion when a successful landing
from the sea had put paid to Napoleon's stranded Army of Egypt. Baird had been at Alexandria with them for the final scenes. It had been one of the few victories the army could
boast of in the last war.
He inclined his head. ‘Ah, on the contrary sir, that is a success-at-arms that will remain with me for ever.’
‘As it should.’
‘General Baird has a high regard for the Navy, Mr Kydd,’ Popham interposed smoothly.
‘As will be tested to the full at the cape!’ Baird snapped.
‘The cape, sir?’
As if to an imbecile Baird spluttered, ‘The Cape of Good Hope of course, man!’
The next day Popham duly sent for Kydd. ‘Some refreshment?’ he asked solicitously, beckoning to his steward in the great cabin of Diadem.
Well aware of the capricious humour of his superior from their shared experience of the American inventor Robert Fulton and his submarines Kydd was nevertheless tiring of being left
so long in the dark.
But as Popham began providing details of the enterprise he could see it was a bold, imaginative and daring stroke. In this first thrust of empire the British would move not against
the French but the Dutch - to take the strategically vital colony at the very furthest tip of Africa that the Hollanders had settled as far back as 1652.
To date they had done little to antagonise the British, their interests lying more in safeguarding their Spice Island trade to the east, but as the vessels of every nation heading
for India, China and even the new land of Australia must necessarily pass close by, any stiffening of attitude would cause catastrophic harm.
It had been resolved that the situation could not be suffered to continue. The British would seize the Cape; unspoken was that in any further thrust for empire they would be sitting
squarely astride the trade-routes of the world.
It was easier said than done. The Dutch were a proud people and could be counted on to resist. An opposed landing on a hostile shore all of seven thousand miles from home would be
the most ambitious warlike endeavour Britain had yet contemplated.
The enterprise had been planned and launched in great secrecy; the military transports had sailed from Cork and the naval support from other ports - it was here at Madeira that the
final assembly of the fleet had been concluded. It was to be a joint army and navy operation, not uncommon, but with the different perspectives of these two arms of the military
there was always potential for unforeseen problems.
‘What is our force, sir?’ Kydd asked.
Popham frowned. ‘Not as it will terrify the enemy,’ he muttered. ‘In a descent of this importance we are granted no ships-o’ -the-line save three old 64s and
a contemptible 50. For the rest we have but two frigates, a brig-sloop and a gun-brig.’
Kydd blinked, astonished. This was less than many minor operations he had witnessed and he felt a stir of misgiving. Was this a measure of the importance Whitehall was giving the
enterprise? With a sudden cynical insight he saw the reason: if the venture failed, as well it might, the costs would be minimal and easily explained away.
‘And for the landing?’ After his experiences in Egypt and Acre he was well aware of the difficulties facing troops attempting to establish a foothold on a fiercely
‘Beyond our preceding gunfire support, nothing. Once landed, the army is on its own.’
‘Soldiers of the 71st and 72nd Highland Regiment of Foot, the Seaforths; the Sutherlanders - that's the 93rd - and the South Wales Borderers out from Egypt. For cavalry they
rejoice in the Jamaica Light Dragoons. Light artillery: some, the Royal Artillery with six pounders, providing we can get them landed. And...well, shall we say but two brigades in
all of some 2-3000 effectives...?’
Against who knew how many troops on their home ground, easy supply lines inland and the ever-present threat of French reinforcements, it was a breath-taking assumption that at the
end of a lengthy and wearying voyage they would be fit enough to stand and fight, and equipped only with what they could carry with them.
‘If you'll be frank with me, sir, can you tell me a little of the army commanders?’ It was perhaps presumptuous but Kydd knew that Popham would be open in his opinions,
for it was his way to allow his subordinates to know his thinking.
‘The Highlanders, a hot-blooded enough lot. Colonel Pack, a firebrand; Lt Colonel the Lord Geoffrey McDonald, Lord of Isles - like 'em all, hungry for glory. Well led, they'll
give a good account of themselves, I believe.
‘The generals; there's Beresford, a prickly chap, second to Baird but competent enough. Yorke with the artillery - an old-fashioned sort, stickler for the forms but brave to a
He paused. ‘Major-general Baird is likeable enough - we get along. He's shrewd, a calm thinker and sees things through. I have no doubts but if he sees a chance he'll not
hesitate to take it.’
‘And if not...?’
‘He'll not sacrifice his men, not after what he's been through.’
‘You saw the sword he wears?’
Kydd remembered a rather outlandish and extravagantly ornamented curved oriental weapon.
‘He seized that from the still warm body of Tippoo Sahib after Seringapatam and has worn it since. Can't find it in me to blame him, for he was once incarcerated by him in
chains for three years with his men of the 71st in atrocious circumstances after being overwhelmed in battle by the man's father. It must have been a sweet revenge indeed.’
‘Just so,’ Kydd said uneasily. ‘Not as if he has a thirst for blood still?’
‘Hmm. Can't really say. Now to details, sir. I'm to be flag officer afloat for this expedition and you'll have my orders and form of signals. These will be straightforward
enough, your role in this as escorting frigate to the transport convoy and at the landing close gunfire support. After that, well, we'll see how it all goes.’
Drawing his chair closer Kydd followed where Popham was indicating in a list.
‘This is the composition of our convoy. Thirteen Indiamen for the regiments and artillery and thirty-seven of all sorts for their impedimenta and stores.’
Kydd gave a tight smile. With their derisory force it was a frightful risk: if even a single modern French sail-of-the-line came upon their expedition it would result in a massacre.
The longer they were at sea the more exposed to this risk they were and it would prove a nightmare to provide water and victuals to the thousands of soldiers as they sailed through
the fearsome equatorial heat down the length of Africa. And their horses would suffer horrifically clapped under hatches as they passed through the burning desert of the doldrums.
As if reading Kydd's thoughts, Popham nodded. ‘Long weeks at sea, yes. However we shall be touching at the Brazils to water and recuperate before the final leg.’
The anti-clockwise wind circulation pattern in the South Atlantic made the longer semi-circular passage away from Africa across the ocean to South America the more efficient. But
that last leg remained more than four thousand miles and Kydd's heart went out to the soldiers who must endure for so long, then to be called upon to give their all in a convulsive
life and death struggle. ‘In course,’ Popham added lightly, ‘Before we get under way we will purchase replacements for any horses that may die on passage.’
Popham's responsibility was to ensure the safe arrival of the whole complex structure to its climax at the landing: the jocular tone no doubt hid deep worry. Despite his
reservations Kydd asked with brisk enthusiasm, ‘Then, sir, what is our plan for the final assault?’
‘Why, Captain, that rather depends on the report of the frigate sent to reconnoitre before our arrival, don't you think?’ he said with an innocent smile.
Conquest was published in 2011 in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton, and in the US by McBooks Press
Copyright (c) 2011 by Julian Stockwin