‘Fire-Pots and Balls to throw out of mens hands may be made of Potters-Clay with Ears to hang lighted Matches to them; if they light on a hard thing they break and the Matches fire the powder, and the half Musket Bullets contrived on them … do much mischief.’

John Seller, The Sea-Gunner, London, 1691

Ceramic hand grenade before conservation

Ceramic hand grenade before conservation

The military equipment on the Alderney ship included a number of ceramic hand grenades, or ‘fire-pots’. Several were in complete or semi-complete state, but most were broken. No examples have yet been found with their seals intact and fuses in place, although some had the remains of pitch and a coarse fabric beneath the lip. From the many fragments recovered, it is estimated that the vessel was carrying at least 33 examples, but the full figure is likely to be higher. Three of the semi-intact examples had a smell that recalled gunpowder or some other sulphureous compound. Since no pellets were found in association with the grenades it is assumed that they were not used as fragmentation devices to produce casualties, but rather were incendiaries that broke and spread fire, napalm-like, on contact. Ceramic incendiary grenades were also found on some of the Spansh Armada wrecks of 1588.

The role of hand grenades was described by Captain John Smith in his Seaman’s Grammer of 1627:

There is also divers sorts of Granadoes, some to break and fly in abundence of pieces every way, as will your Brass Balls and Earthen-pots, which when they are covered with Quartered Bullets stuck in Pitch, and the Pots filled with good Powder, in a crowd of people will make an incredible slaughter; some will burn under water, and never extinguish till the stuff be consumed; … some, being but only an oil, being anointed on any thing made of dry wood, will take fire by the heat of the Sun when the Sun shines hot …

Robert Norton (The Gunner, 1628) wrote:

The balls that breake made either of hollow mettall glasse or clay … are commonly called Granadoes. But fire-pots and Balls to throw out of a mans hand … may be made of Potters Clay baked with eares, unto which lighted Matches be fastened, and throwing them, to light upon any hard materiall, when they breake, the Matches lighten the powder, and dispierce the peeces (or Pistoll-shot contrived about them) …

The manufacture of ceramic grenades is discussed by John Seller in his book The Sea-Gunner (1691):

How to make Fire-Pots of Clay
Fire-Pots and Balls to throw out of mens hands may be made of Potters-Clay with Ears to hang lighted Matches to them; if they light on a hard thing they break and the Matches fire the powder, and the half Musket Bullets contrived on them … do much mischief.

Their mixture is of Powder, Petre, Sulpher, Sal Armoniack of each one pound, and four Ounces of Camphire pounded and searced and mixt well together, with hot Pitch, Linseed Oyl or Oyl of Petre; prove it first by burning a small quantity, and if it be too slow add more Powder, or if it be too quick then put more Oyl or Rosin, and then it is for your use.

Robert Ward in his Animadversions of Warre (1639) offers a contrasting recipe:

‘Earthen Bottels to be made of a round fashion … halfe full of Serpentine powder, or somewhat more, there is to be mixt with it a quantity of Hogges grease, Oyle of Stone, Brimstone, Saltpeeter twice refined, Aqua Vitae, Pitch …’

Grenades such as these were also used as ‘Stink-Pots’ which, Smith explains, ‘will burn and fume out a most stinking poyson smoke’, and, as Sellers explains, ‘being thrown between Decks will be a great annoyance to the Enemy’. They were also used to create confusion immediately prior to boarding, as explained in Falconer’s Marine Dictionary of 1771:

The fuses of the stink-pot being lighted, they are immediately thrown upon the deck of the enemy, where they burst and catch fire, producing an intolerable stench and smoke, and filling the deck with tumult and distraction. Admidst the confusion occasioned by this infernal apparatus the (boarding) detachment rush aboard sword in hand, under cover of the smoke, on their antagonist …

In the same source we are given the following little vignette:

The French sailors were, after boarding, so much exposed to the continued fire of musquetry, and coehorns charged with gredadoes, that a dreadful scene of carnage ensued …

It is not yet clear whether the Alderney grenades were from the ship’s armament or were part of the consignment for Brittany. As a dispatch carrier, the Alderney ship would have been armed for a defensive action in which grenades primed with combustibles would have been an essential final-resort weapon, remembering that the greatest fear at sea was not storm, but fire.

We do not have to look far for an example of the tactical usage of fire-pots in a defensive action. In 1591, the year before the loss of the Alderney ship, there was an action off Cuba between a Spanish fleet of six ships (four warships of over 600 tons and two 100-ton petachios) and the Content, an English privateer of 30 tons which was smaller and less well-armed than the Alderney ship. The maritime historian Peter Earle, described the Content’s astonishing running fight from seven in the morning to sunset as ‘an object lesson in Elizabethan naval warfare (which) shows just how difficult it was for the warships of the day to sink or capture an opponent, however small, who was prepared to put up a determined resistance’. Of particular interest, is not only how effectively the English used their muskets, but how successfully they used hand-thrown incendiaries as a last resort to avoid being overwhelmed and captured:

‘We being resolute, so plyed them with our small shot that they could have no time to discharge their great ordnance: and when they began to approach, wee heaved into them a ball of fire, and by that means put them off: whereupon they once again fell asterne’.

Though ‘sowed thick with musket balls’, and her sails, masts and rigging ‘almost cut in sunder with their great and small shot’ nobody was killed on the English ship which escaped during the night (Andrews, 1964) .

Technical drawing of a grenade

Technical drawing of a grenade