I decided to begin writing ‘HMS Archer’ because, as an amateur maritime historian, I wanted to investigate a period of maritime history which seems to have been largely ignored, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. If the subject of the 1812 war is mentioned, most people spring immediately to Napoleon’s attack on Russia – or simply look blank, or they ask if it is anything to do with the American War of Independence. I thought the best way to alleviate this situation was to write a book, not quite a work of fiction, but more a work of ‘faction’.
The early nineteenth century had started well for Britain. The Royal Navy had inflicted a series of damaging defeats on the fleets of France and Spain, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar, where a 27 ship fleet under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson had defeated and largely destroyed the numerically superior combined French and Spanish Fleet. The Dutch had been dealt with some years previously, and the British fleet became masters of the world’s oceans. Nevertheless, there were problems. Manpower was in short supply, the apparently endless war with France demanded a big fleet of frigates to maintain blockades along the French Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, the Spanish coasts and the Portuguese coasts, as well as keeping a major supply line open to support Wellington’s armies in the peninsular. More ships were needed to guard the supply lines to India, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean and elsewhere.
In the newly emergent United States, farmers had found a new and valuable market for their produce, and enterprising ship owners had found, in France, a lucrative market where they could deliver grain, cotton and minerals, using small, fast and armed vessels. On top of all this, the United States also needed seamen and this offered an attractive prospect to some British sailors. Men started to desert in significant numbers, accentuating the shortages in the Royal Navy.
The British government quickly recognized that something needed to be done, and done quite quickly. They produced a series of ‘Orders in Council’ which, among other things, authorised British warships to stop and search foreign ships on the high seas, to search them for contraband, and to remove any men suspected of being British deserters. The government considered they had every right to do this, because these ships, from neutral countries, were openly aiding the enemy of Great Britain.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the loss of cargoes and men, and the turning back of ships who believed they were simply going about their lawful occasion, was causing great anger, focused largely on the financial losses being incurred. President James Madison began to think about a warlike reaction. He and his supporters believed they could build a navy of ships that were bigger, faster and more powerful than many in the aging British fleet. But he also saw that by taking on Britain, already heavily committed in another war, he would be able to sneak in and steal Canada…