The Admiral’s Log

Anyone who has visited this site before may have been bored by the lack of activity recently. I must confess life has got in the way and I did not spend much of 2016 writing… 2017 is going to be different. Picking up a project is always hard, so I have spent some weeks re-engaging with some of the most important characters. It is not always easy to breathe life into the distant past – somehow books and newspaper archives, however intellectually interesting, don’t always have the magic; it takes something special to get the electric connection that brings the pastIMG_5444 so close you can hold out your hand and touch it.

For me, this time, it has been the Admiral’s Log, or as the book is actually titled Admiralty Orders 1809… . It stood forgotten and unopened on a family book shelf for decades – yet it’s a piece of living history. It is not beautiful. The pages are dog-eared and water-stained, the writing is hard to read and faded – but as I peer at the pages I can hear the wind in the rigging, the creaking of the masts as Captain Robert Mitford’s ship, the Espoir, cuts through the waves, and the shouts of the topmen as they trim the sails.  I can smell the salt and the damp and the staleness of sailors who have been at sea for months. The pages detail the mundane; the way casks containing provisions should be protected from damage, how to prevent the seamen from falling victim to fraudsters when they make their wills, how to store the lemon juice that will protect the men from scurvy, and what precisely should be done in the event of the death of the Purser (a key man on board any naval vessel of the day). The pages also, of course, provide a record of where the Espoir has been, and the tasks  undertaken. It may have collected live bullocks to provide fresh meat for a nearby squadron,  carried boxes containing thousands of Spanish hard dollars from Gibraltar to Malta, or casks of Madeira wine to London. Other tasks included  escorting convoys, seeking out enemy ships,  and guarding French prisoners, most notably on the island of Cabrera.

As I fight to decipher the Log’s secrets I am hoping to find answers to specific questions, which no other source has yet answered. What exactly was Robert Mitford doing in Egypt, and when? Did he assist in the building of the Egyptian navy? And was he really offered Cleoptra’s needle, now standing on the Embankment in London, as his reward? To try and find the answers to these questions will keep me reading late into the night…

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