Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Chesapeake, to the Bone

Editor's preface: Although it is the home of the annual Brick by Brick Lego model shipbuilding event, the Hampton Roads Naval Museum’s gallery features the fruits of traditional model shipwright labor in wood and metal, both builder’s models made as a guide for the construction of full-size vessels, and miniature recreations of vessels long gone. For a select few, model shipbuilding of this caliber is a profession. For many thousands, it is an enjoyable hobby. Within the obscure recesses of the history of this pursuit we find a dark chapter; one populated by hundreds of unwilling artisans who were prisoners of the British during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. By 1814, more than 72,000 prisoners languished aboard hulks or in dungeon-like "depots" such as Dartmoor, which held more than 5,000 Americans by early 1815.

Model shipbuilding was not merely a leisurely pastime for these poor souls as they filled the empty hours of their confinement. British regulations allowed prisoners to make and sell items to make their lives more tolerable, as long as the raw materials did not come from the depot's supplies. Thus the fruits of their labor, most crafted from scraps of wood and festooned with ornately carved beef and mutton bones, helped ensure their very survival.

An advertisement for the International Maritime Museum in Hamburg, Germany, shows off their largest and most ornate model, proclaiming it "Unique!" (Manfred Stein, Prisoner of War Bone Ship Models, 2015)
The Internationales Maritimes Museum in Hamburg, Germany, possesses 31 of the approximately 510 ghostly-looking bone models from that period known to exist. Its largest model, the 144-centimeter-long Chesapeake, depicts a ship with a storied connection to Hampton Roads.  It was presumed by bone ship model expert Manfred Stein, based upon the model's original provenance, to have been made by American prisoners, probably at Dartmoor, and presented to the widow of her ill-fated last American captain, James Lawrence.

That is, until our senior docent took a close look at the model.

By J. Huntington Lewis
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

Several years ago, I came across a photo of the stern of a very large whalebone model of the United States Frigate Chesapeake that was at The Internationales Maritimes Museum in Hamburg, Germany. The Hampton Roads Naval Museum requested additional photographs, and Mr. Stein kindly provided some snapshots he had taken, as well as a few selected from his book Prisoner of War Bone Ship Models from the Age of the Napoleonic Wars (2015). 

The bone model of the frigate Chesapeake.  Note the plaque at the corner of the display case (closeup below). (Courtesy of Manfred Stein)
The original plaque accompanying the bone model Chesapeake. (Courtesy of Manfred Stein)
Little is known about the provenance of the model except that the a member of The Nautical Research Guild, the ship modeling society, wrote that “The model was made by US POWs in 1813 and given to the widow of Captain James ‘Don't Give up the Ship’ Lawrence after the war.” Mr. Stein, in response to a question from the Guild, said:
I don't know how they brought the model from England to America in the early-1800s, nor do I know how the model came back to London, England, where it was bought by [museum owner Peter Tamm] in 1975. A note accompanying the model and its certificate of authenticity stated “Almost certainly made by American Prisoners of War circa 1813,” The model was in a very bad shape at that time shape at the time, was brought to Hamburg, and years later it was restored by a restorer.

To the left we see the bone model Chesapeake (courtesy of Manfred Stein), while on the right is a detail of a painting by American artist James E. Buttersworth, circa 1815, showing USS Chesapeake's stern during her battle with HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813.  (Courtesy of Joseph Vallejo, Vallejo Gallery, Newport Beach, California)
The decorations on the stern just didn't seem right to me, since the earliest paintings of the engagement between the Chesapeake and Shannon show much less embellishment. I wondered also if American prisoners could acquire the skill to build such a model within the year of their capture by HMS Shannon
The Chesapeake bone model's eagle figurehead. (Courtesy of Manfred Stein)
I later found that some of the early American warships were heavily decorated. One such ship was the frigate United States, as featured in the article "Celebrated Figureheads" by H.D. Smith, in the August 1904 edition of The United Service-A Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs. The Chesapeake model has the figurehead of an eagle, but, according to a thoroughly researched article by Eugene H. Pool, “The Frigate Chesapeake” in The Mariner, The Quarterly Journal of the Rhode Island Ship Model Society (1937), the USF Chesapeake did not have a figurehead. 
William James in his Inquiry into Principal Naval Actions between Great Britain and the United States (1816) published by Anthony H. Holland at the Arcadian Recorder's Office, Halifax, mentions that “her outward appearance was much improved in England by giving her a figurehead.” 

But what figurehead?

By chance in continuing research on the USF Chesapeake prisoners, I was lucky enough to find a genealogy blog by Dennis Segelquist entitled “Civil War Days and Those Surnames” which has a long post by British researcher Martin Bibbing dealing with the mystery of the Chesapeake's figurehead. Bibbing reported:
I have also previously come across another contradictory reference to Chesapeake’s figurehead which doesn’t square with my previous understanding.... A book entitled Hampshire Treasures (1982) … has the following: “The figurehead of the Chesapeake was also to be found in the area (near Wickcombe, Hampshire, at Arford House) ...The figurehead of the Chesapeake, which was captured by the Shannon, was formerly on a summer house at the top of the garden - it was a bird, perhaps an eagle, and a portion of it was said to be part of a lamp bracket in the house. When the 'Chesapeake' was broken up, the figurehead was bought by Mr Ewsters, who was then building (or living in) Arford House.”
In researching what happened to the American prisoners, I found an illustration which indicates that the USF Chesapeake had two stars on her transom.
According to the 1866 book Admiral Sir P.V.B. Broke: A Memoir, edited by John George Brighton, the "S" within the star above the figurehead, seen here on display at Broke Hall (home to the man who commanded HMS Shannon to victory over USF Chesapeake), was the only survivor of the two stars (the "U" having been shot away during the battle) that once graced the transom of USF Chesapeake

The transom of the model has two bearded reclining men. A reclining bearded man is the allegorical symbol of a river god. The Shannon is an Irish river. The Chesapeake, correctly a bay, could be considered a very large river. The wreath on the transom is a symbol of victory. Opposing nations brought together are frequently represented by crossed flags. Taken as a whole, I believe the transom decorations are an allegorical reference to the victory of the Shannon over the Chesapeake and could have been added only by the British when they were repairing the Chesapeake.

Chesapeake bone model stern. (Courtesy of Manfred Stein)
The whale bone model of the Chesapeake has an eagle figurehead, and the transom decorations appear to be an allegory of HMS Shannon's battle with the Chesapeake.  Therefore it is a reasonable conjecture that model is of HMS Chesapeake, the repaired former-USF Chesapeake.  Even if there were American prisoners from the USF Chesapeake at Dartmoor (which is very doubtful because they were imprisoned at Melville Island, Halifax, Nova Scotia or returned to the United States in cartel vessels) who had the skill to build the model, they would not know of the installation of the eagle figurehead or the different stern decorations. 

The museum plaque had to have been added some time after the model was built.  It was not made by the builder. The error in the provenance was quite understandable, given that model had "Chesapeake" carved on its stern. The assumption would be that it was of the more famous defeated USF Chesapeake, rather the HMS Chesapeake. It is also reasonable to assume that the whale bone model of the Chesapeake never had occasion to cross the Atlantic.

Who built and under what circumstances the model was constructed may never be known, but it is truly one of the world's most magnificent ship models. So truly the model isn’t the USF Chesapeake, but is still the Chesapeake

Editor's Postscript: The February 2018 Hafencity Zeitung story, "The Secret of the 'Chesapeake': Collaboration with American Colleagues Leads to New Insights," gives Hunt Lewis credit for his helping Manfred Stein reassess the bone model Chesapeake's provenance. Although the story was published in German, it is easily translatable.

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