||Faber and Faber
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Over the first weeks of 1808, a grand and powerful fleet mustered in the south of England. For weeks Portsmouth harbour resounded by day with the hammering of carpenters, the cries of men from ships at anchor, and echoed by night with song and the stamp of hornpipes from the seamen's taverns. To all outward appearances, the ships preparing to set sail for the Indian Ocean that season might have been men-of-war, for each was pierced for at least a dozen cannon and some of the larger vessels resembled the new frigates moored at the nearby Royal Navy station of Spithead. In fact, they were East Indiamen. vessels of the self-styled 'Grandest Company of Merchants in the World': but, although their purpose was trade, the underlying military nature of the voyage could not have been clearer. General Arthur Wellesley was soon to open up a front in Portugal against Bonaparte's seemingly unstoppable march across Europe, and saltpetre, the principal ingredient of gunpowder, had become a strategic resource of the utmost importance. The East India Company fleet, bound for the Coromandel Coast, was contracted to supply the Government with 6.000 tons of Bengali saltpetre, the purest known form of the substance, and the Indiamen were to sail with а Navу escort. This was no idle precaution: while Nelson's victory at Trafalgar had left England supreme in home waters, the Indian Ocean had never been more perilous. On top of the perennial hazard of storms in the so-called 'hurricane season'. French frigates and privateers had removed from the Mediterranean in order to prey on English shipping in the Bay of Bengal, and had done so with spectacular success. lie de France, or Mauritius, a speck of an island in the southern latitudes of that immense ocean, was the minuscule bastion from which these raiders ventured forth: and to such effect that a dozen English merchant ships had been taken in just three months.