Monday, January 4, 2016

The steam corvette Karteria, built in Rotherhithe,1826, for the Greek War of Independence

Karteria under steam, her sails furled,
with the sailing ship Hellas in the background
Karteria was a bit special.  Not that any of the other ships built in Rotherhithe weren't special, but Karteria was innovative in the same way as Rising Star, another truly remarkable ship built in Rotherhithe in the same tradition and by the same ship builder, Daniel Brent (see my earlier post about Rising Star).  A very worthy descendent of Rising Star, she was technologically more advanced, a fine product of the Industrial Revolution.  She has a remarkable story, which includes a surprising famous name. 

Karteria, meaning "perseverance" in Greek, was built in Rotherhithe's Greenland Dock South shipyard by Daniel Brent.  Daniel Brent's business was the outcome of a long and honourable series of ship building partnerships that began with John Randall and his son, also John.  Randall and Brent had shipyards at both Nelson Dock and on one side of the lock at Greenland Dock, called Greenland Dock South.  When John Randall junior committed suicide in 1802 during a labour dispute, the partnership between the Randalls and Brents was dissolved and by 1810 the Brents had given up Nelson Dock and operated out of Greenland Dock North and South shipyards between 1805 and 1819 as Messrs Brent.  By 1820 Daniel Brent was operating on his own at the two Greenland Dock shipyards and held the lease until 1824, after which the shipyards were empty during, and perhaps because of, industrial action resulting in a full-scale strike in April 1825.  Brent resumed the leases on both yards between August and December of 1825. As the build of Karteria took place in 1825, it may be that the lease was resumed on the empty yards mainly to complete this contract, as well as perhaps one other - the paddle steamer Duke of Sussex, also built by Brent in 1825.  The yards passed into other hands after this date.

Captain Frank A. Hastings
Karteria was commissioned in 1825 on a privateer basis by Captain Frank A. Hastings who had served at Trafalgar when only 11 years old and was now working for the provisional Greek government, preparing for what turned out out to be the Greek War of Independence against Turkey 1828.   With the end of the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) some naval officers became the equivalent of mercenaries, selling their skills to countries who still had conflicts for which their strategic skills were invaluable but Hastings was a special case.  He had been forced out of the Navy due to an incident with a fellow officer, and as a great Greek enthusiast was very keen to become involved in the fight for independence.  The Greek situation found a lot of sympathy in England at this time due to its Classical history, a romantic ideal that hoped to encourage a resurgence of Greek Classicism by freeing it from the Ottoman Empire. Accordingly, Karteria was funded largely by the London Philhellenic Committee, established in the UK to raise funds for the Greek War of Independence.  Lord Byron was one of its early members, became its chairman, invested £4000.00 of his own money in the refitting of the Greek Navy and eventually took up arms against the Ottomans in Greece, where he died.   Captain Hastings also invested his own money into the ship, financing the guns.  It had been his vision to replace an ailing Greek sail navy with a new fleet of ships that ran under both steam and sail.  In 1825 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Greek revolutionary navy.

Plan of Karteria
On a smaller scale, it is also an interesting period in Rotherhithe's ship building history.  Most of the ships being built at this time were traditional sailing ships, naval and commercial, some of them on a grand scale, and they were still being built into the 1860s when the tea clipper Lothair, the last big sailing ship to be built in Rotherhithe was launched, in 1870.  However, at the same time there was a small number of Rotherhithe builders who were embracing the new steam technology, and a number of steam-powered paddle steamers were built here from the early 1800s.   As well as Rising Star, Daniel Brent was responsible for an earlier remarkable steamship, The London Engineer

Interestingly, the British Royal Navy was very suspicious of steam power, using steam ships mainly as tug boats to shift their sailing ships around, and some of the earliest experiments with steam ships in naval action were privately commissioned for foreign wars.  Although Rising Star has been built for the war between Chile and Spain, she arrived in Chile too late to be put into service, so Karteria was the world's first steamship to see naval combat.

As a warship Karteria was a product of a number of aspects of modern innovation.  Her extreme manoeuvrability came from having two engines, on the port and starboard sides, each connected to a paddle.  One of the innovations in Brent's build was a deck to ceiling bulkhead, which Captain Hastings describes in his 1828 Memoirs, where he demonstrates he true love of the ship that he and Brent came up with:
The ‘Karteria’ was built with her timbers close and caulked together, and would therefore, have floated without planking. I had several opportunities of remarking the advantage of building thus, to resist shot; nothing less than a eighteen pounder ever came through us; this, ’tis true, might be partly attributed to Turkish bad powder, but those shot that did come through, always made a nice clean round hole without a splinter. However, against shells it would have a disadvantage, as they would be more likely to stick in it. Perhaps if shells became generally used, it will be proper to make the upper works of a ship as slight as is consistent with strength, and iron ribs might perhaps be good. The ‘Karteria’ had another peculiarity in her build – two solid bulkheads enclosing the engine room, and caulked and lined, so as to be water tight, the intention of this was, in the event of one part of the ship being leaky from any cause whatever, the water could not flow into another part of the ship. This arrangement, which is due to the ingenuity of Mr Brent, the builder, once saved this ship from fire, which broke out with great force in the after-part of the engine room, and would have communicated to the shell room very quickly. But for this bulkhead, which kept the fire forward, and gave us time to subdue it. I see no reason why all men of war should not be furnished with similar partitions. The same builder saved another ship ('the Rising Star') from sinking, by this contrivance.

Karteria and her figure-head on a
Greek stamp from 1983
Her vital statistics are: Displacement 233 tons; Length 38.4m (126ft0 in); Beam 7.6m (24ft11 in); and speed 7 knots (under steam from two 42-horsepower engines).  She was armed with four 68-pounder carronades and four 68-pounder cannons.  

She is often referred to as a steam corvette, indicating that she could sail under steam or sail, but this term usually refers to steam ships with screw propellers.  Karteria was powered by steam but she was a paddle steamer, with two paddles and was also equipped with four masts so that she could travel under sail and was rigged as a schooner.  As steam required fuel in the form of coal, and it took a long time for sufficient coal storage depots to be established around the coast, it was practical to provide steamships with sail so that they could save fuel when there was sufficient wind to power the ship.  The sails were also very useful when, en route to Greece from London in 1826, a fire put the engines out of commission and she was able to proceed under sail.  Her crew was 185 strong, including 17 Officers, 22 Petty officers, 32 Gunners, 110 Seamen and 4 Cooks and Servants.  She also had an American doctor on board, Samuel Gridley Howe, who kept a journal and provided some useful insights into life on board.

A model of Karteria, by G. Vammenos, at the
Hellenic Maritime Museum, Piraeus.  It clearly shows
her layout with twin paddles, four masts, steam
funnel and a disconcertingly traditional-looking
hull. (Photo from the Captain Frank website)
She was completed in May 1826, departed shortly afterwards, and arrived in Nafplion in September 1826.  She was soon engaged in both land and sea engagements and, commanded by Hastings, Karteria became a Greek legend.  She was equipped with four 68 pound guns, which was a small number compared to the conventional naval ships, which had upward of 20 guns as standard.  She therefore needed a number of other advantages in her favour.  These were manoeuvrability, two sources of power and the hot shot that she fired on the wooden sailing ships.  The Ottoman navy was well equipped with large vessels but the Greek navy was composed primarily of small ships and Hastings believed that the answer lay in having more powerful ammunition than the enemy.  Remarkably, Karteria had an on-board furnace, which was used to heat shot to the point where it had a lethal incendiary impact on the unprotected wooden hulls of enemy ships.  This made all the difference and most celebrated success was a raid on the port of Itea in the Gulf of Corinth on the 29th and 30th September 1827, where she was responsible for sinking nine Ottoman Navy ships.  Although Karteria, and three sister ships that followed her, were successful, they all suffered from engine difficulties.

In spite of ongoing engine trouble, the success of both the Karteria and her sister ships, together with the new type of ammunition, eventually led to sailing ships being abandoned by the Royal Navy, and to the adoption of armour on ships to prevent precisely the type of destruction that Karteria's flaming shot had rained down on her enemies.

Hastings himself was wounded in an attack at Aetoliko on the 25th May 1828 and died from his injuries on the 1st June 1828, after which he was given a state funeral with full military honours and was hailed as a national hero.

Karteria was taken out of service in 1831.

Main Sources:

As usual, this post is more interested in the Rotherhithe side of things than, for example, the bigger picture of the Greek War of Independence, but there are plenty of books and websites on that subject, as well as the sources used for this post, which are as follows:

  • Maurice Abney-Hastings. Commander of the Karteria. Author-House 2011
  • Lawrence Sondhaus. Naval Warfare 1815-1914. Routledge 2001 
  • Stuart Rankin.  Walk B:  Shipyards, Granaries and Wharves. Southwark Council 2004
  • Website: A history of military equipment of Modern Greece (1821 - today).  (1826-1840) Paddle Steamer Karteria.
  • Website:  Commander of the Karteria.  Karteria:  The first steam warship in war (1826)

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