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Britannia's Dragon: A Naval History of Wales

2016-06-30
By: AmeriCymru
Posted in: Author Interviews

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J. D. Davies is a Welsh author and historian. Born in Llanelli, south-west Wales, he has written a number of factual books on the subject of 17th century naval history. He is also the author of a series of naval fiction adventures featuring Captain Matthew Quinton set in the reign of Charles II during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. AmeriCymru spoke to David about his latest book Britannia's Dragon: A Naval History of Wales.


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Britannia's Dragon: A Naval History of WalesAmeriCymru:  Hi David and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. What can you tell us about your recent book Britannia's Dragon: A Naval History Of Wales? 

David: Thanks for giving me the chance to talk about the book! It's the first full length study of the part played by Wales and the Welsh in naval history, beginning in the Roman period, going through the age of the independent kingdoms and the conquest right the way up to the present day. It's based on several years of detailed research, including a great deal of work on original sources and my own fieldwork in different parts of the country. The book's been very well received, and was recently shortlisted for the prestigious Mountbatten Literary Award.   

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AmeriCymru:  How significant was the Welsh contribution to British naval history? 

David: Enormous! For example, Nelson's navy couldn't have been as successful as it was without Welsh copper, mined at Parys Mountain on Anglesey and smelted in Greenfield, Swansea and elsewhere: because it reduced the frequency of major refits, coppering effectively increased the size of the operational fleet by a third, giving it a huge advantage over Napoleon's navy. The Victorian Royal Navy depended entirely on Welsh coal, and so, too, did the navies of many European states before 1914, including Russia and France. And Wales always provided large numbers of men for the Royal Navy. For example, in the book I make the pretty controversial, but thoroughly documented, claim that at the Battle of Trafalgar, the proportion of Welshmen in the fleet - relative to size of population - was much greater than that for the Scots or Irish, and if you count seamen alone, even slightly larger than the English contribution, again relatively speaking. The book also discusses famous Welsh naval men, such as Sir Thomas Foley (Nelson's right hand man), Henry James Raby (the first man ever to actually wear the Victoria Cross) and Commander Tubby Linton, one of the most brilliant submarine commanders of World War 2. It also looks at the history of Pembroke's royal dockyard, which built over 250 ships for the Royal Navy - including many famous battleships, five royal yachts, and Sir John Franklin's Erebus, the wreck of which has recently been rediscovered in the Arctic.  

AmeriCymru:  Does the book examine the Welsh contribution to the history of piracy? 

David: To an extent, yes, although I was aware of the fact that there are already several books in print about Welsh pirates, so I deliberately decided to focus on the much less well known story of the Welsh role in 'official' state navies. But it would have been impossible not to mention the likes of Sir Henry Morgan and Black Bart Roberts, so they do feature in it!

AmeriCymru:  The book includes a chapter on Welshmen in non British navies. Does the US Navy feature here? Any significant names? 

David: Yes, I've included a lot about the Welshmen who served in the United States Navy, and in the Confederate Navy, too. Probably the most significant name is that of Joshua Humphreys, the Philadelphia shipwright responsible for the US Navy's famous 'six frigates', including the USS Constitution. There were Welshmen aboard both the Monitor and the Merrimac/Virginia, and the likely remains of one of them were interred with full military honors at Arlington just last year. The book also includes a substantial and in some ways quite controversial section on the almost unknown naval context behind the survival of the Welsh colony in Patagonia.

Gentleman CaptainAmeriCymru:  You have also written a series of novels set in the 17th century featuring Captain Matthew Quinton. Care to tell us more about the captain and his adventures? 

David:  I loved Patrick O'Brian's books, but I was very aware of the fact that the vast majority of the naval historical fiction genre was set within what might be called 'the age of Nelson', from about 1750 to 1815. Seventeenth century naval history had been neglected in comparison, and I wanted to rectify that, especially as I'd been working on the period as a historian for many years and had published two non-fiction books about it. It's a fascinating age, with spectacular events like the Great Fire of London, larger than life characters like King Charles II and Samuel Pepys, and a series of very hard fought Anglo-Dutch wars, which form the focus of my books. My hero, too, is different to the likes of Hornblower or O'Brian's Jack Aubrey, who go to sea as boys and are therefore highly skilled and experienced seamen when they take command. Captain Matthew Quinton is typical of the 'gentlemen captains' of the Restoration period - young Cavaliers who were given commands despite having next to no experience at sea. Matthew's first command is wrecked due to his inexperience, but he's given a second chance, and this leads him into all sorts of adventures during the course of the series, from the north of Scotland to the Baltic and the River Gambia! In a future book, I hope to take him to the Caribbean, too. At the moment there are five books published in the series: Gentleman Captain, The Mountain of Gold, The Blast That Tears The Skies, The Lion of Midnight, and The Battle of All The Ages.  

AmeriCymru:  Any new books in the pipeline? 

David: I'm currently finishing the sixth Quinton book, which is going to be a little bit different to its predecessors - although I can't really say any more than that at this stage! I also have a couple of non-fiction projects in the pipeline, too. 

AmeriCymru:  Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru? 

David:  I think it's really tremendous that there's such a strong and active American network devoted to Welsh heritage! I'm originally from Llanelli, and part of my mother's family emigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1890s; my mother still remembers the return visit one of them paid, a few years before I was born, and I have a copy of the diary that he made of his trip back to Britain, so I've always been fascinated by the Welsh diaspora. I hope that if any members of that diaspora have a look at Britannia's Dragon, you'll thoroughly enjoy it!

 


 

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