18. The Ship of the Desert

As camels are so often poetically named the “ship of the desert” it seems apt that a real ship might rejoice in the name of a camel. Or does it?

This week I have been channelling my inner Errol Flynn by buckling the swash through the Battle of the Gabbard, 1653, among others. I don’t want to spike my guns by revealing too much at this stage, but I do want to whet your appetite for the Battlefields project!

The ship in question is sometimes referred to as the Kameel in both primary and secondary sources, commanded by Joost Bulter, and is one of the six ships sunk in the battle. Only two have the potential to have been lost in English waters, since both were lost before nightfall on the first day – after which the Dutch bore up for the Flemish coast. One of these was the Kameel.

Earlier in the Anglo-Dutch wars Bulter was recorded as in command of a ship known as the Stadt en Land (Town and Country), but this wasn’t the right name either as the Stadt en Land seems not to have otherwise been recorded. It is suggested by one authority that Willem van de Velde the Elder, who drew many ship portraits (as did his son, the Younger – many of you will be familiar with the Younger’s drawing of the London) may have been to blame for the first misapprehension, by recording this ship with a camel carved on her counter-stern, and annotating it as ‘Kameel’. Perhaps this was her first name, if she was a hired ship. (Camel is certainly attested as the name of an English ship in the same period, one of the English fireships expended in the Second Anglo-Dutch War: the name seems to have gone out of fashion until we see a rash of CAMELS wrecked 1875-1896!)

At the same time another ship named the Stadt Groningen en Ommelanden is recorded, and it has been proposed by some that this was Joost Bulter’s ship. It would not be unusual for crews to shorten or otherwise alter the name of their ship: we know, for example, at a later date that the crew of the Bellerophon called her the Billy Ruffian, so that explanation sounds very plausible.

The Gabbard is not particularly well illustrated in Dutch marine paintings, possibly because they were, well, trounced, on this occasion. There is a atmospheric, albeit fairly general, scene by the minor artist Heerman Witmont in the National Maritime Museum, whose central feature is sails with prominent holes over clouds of smoke – no better way to convey the heat of battle! The technique is grisaille – pen and ink drawing on panel – not common, but characteristic of some Dutch marine artists and used by Willem van de Velde the Elder.

Resolution on the right duels Brederode on the left by the mutual firing of broadsides: Resolution flies the ensign of the Commonwealth. In the foreground is the detritus of war – wreckage floating in the foreground on a symbolically choppy sea. This foreground wreckage is very much a convention of marine paintings, particularly of battle scenes, and no wonder, with masts being constantly shot away and the like, but possibly it also subtly alludes to the Dutch losses in this encounter.

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