The Story of a Man and his Mangoes
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Peter Rainier loved mangoes.
At least, that’s how this highly successful British admiral appears to be remembered. Well, that and some mountain in Washington State, named by George Vancouver in honor of his friend Rainier.
Rainier (right) appears in our Soldier Emperor: Indian Empires game as the best of the British admirals, and it’s a well-deserved ranking. His career began during the Seven Years’ War, when he served two years as an able seaman before being rated midshipman in 1758, gaining his lieutenant’s commission a decade later at the old age of 27. But his career took off during the American War, when a small armed merchant ship under his command defeated a much larger American privateer. He progressed up the ladder, commanding frigates and ships of the line and seeing a great deal of action in Indian waters as a captain under Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, fighting in five fleet actions against Pierre André de Suffren’s French.
Thanks to that experience, in 1794 he was sent to India to command naval forces there. He brought with him a small squadron of five warships built around his ship-of-the-line Suffolk and a convoy of 65 ships. Rainier was allowed to hoist the broad pendant of commodore, but all of his documents and orders emphasized the temporary nature of his command. He’d remain in charge of the Royal Navy’s forces in India for the next ten years.
Rainier commanded the ship of the line Burford at the Battle of Negapatam, 1782.
Rainier had learned the importance of crew health and logistics from his mentor, Hughes, and the difficult political balance facing the Royal Navy so far from London as it dealt with the British Army, the East India Company and local rulers. No British replacements would be available for his crews – the East India Company’s ships had powerful political protection against impressment. Rainier would have to keep the men he had healthy, and loaded his ships with as much lemon juice and sugar as he could wheedle out of the Admiralty.
Dosing his sailors worked: Rainier’s ships reported fewer sick on their arrival in India four months later (a remarkably swift passage) than they had on departure from England. Eventually, the lemon juice ran out, and Rainier instituted a fruit ration based on locally-available produce, including mangoes. He established a shore-based hospital for seamen, and required captains and ships’ surgeons to visit their crewmen at least once per week. He insisted that locally-recruited sailors, known as lascars, receive their pay in India rather than having to travel to London. He pardoned mutineers sentenced to death after the 1797 Spithead mutiny, and frowned on debilitating physical punishment of sailors.
In England, news of Rainier’s healthy voyage had a profound impact. Admirals and captains now rejected the Admiralty’s official, and useless, remedy for scurvy (wort, malt and elixir of vitriol) and demanded lemon juice instead. Rainier had precious little interest (the 18th Century’s term for cronyism, considered not only acceptable but indispensable) at the Admiralty and Rainier had “crawled up through the hawsehole,” as the expression had it, serving as a common seaman and obtaining his commission at an advanced age. Apparently his overturning the learned opinion of the Admiralty’s medical experts did not sit well, but he retained command – with some intervals in which a politically-connected senior officer was sent out to India – until early 1805.
Rainier spent an extraordinary amount of time at sea for a station commander, personally overseeing the capture of Ceylon and the occupation of much of the Dutch East Indies. He fended off the French Admiral Charles-Alexandre Durand Linois’ attempt to disrupt British trade in the Indian Ocean by insisting on a convoy system, which had previously been optional for the East India Company.
Between the captures of rich Dutch colonies and sweeping French and Dutch trade off the Indian Ocean, Peter Rainier racked up an astounding fortune in prize money – a quarter-million sterling by the time he was relieved ($32.5 million in 2016 dollars). Yet Rainier’s success at sea did not translate to honors on land, possibly because his attention to logistics and crew health appeared soft in a hard age. Other admirals reaped titles and honors; Rainier, whose proof of the efficacy of lemon juice against scurvy saved the lives of tens of thousands of men, was never even knighted. He did rise to Admiral of the Blue, and served briefly in Parliament before his death in 1808.
Alphonso mangoes, considered India's finest variety (and most expensive).
And then there were the mangoes.
The story appears in a number of recent histories, either without attribution or attributed to another secondary work. In it, in 1803 Rainier aborts a mission to support a large tea convoy due from China in order to put in at either Trincomalee, Ceylon or at the British-occupied Portuguese colony at Goa, in order to seek mangoes due to his personal affinity for the fruit. The convoy would be attacked by Linois and his French fleet, but managed to defend itself in a stunning British victory.
Rainier certainly insisted on a fruit ration for all of his crews and made sure his ships were well-supplied, but there seems to be no foundation for the claim that he allowed this priority to interfere with operations. Unlike Linois, Rainier was not yet aware of the outbreak of war and had no reason to sail. The story probably grows out of sailors’ lore, equating Rainier’s insistence that his men eat mangoes to a personal desire to consume them.
Just when and how the mango story took its present form is difficult to ascertain; it doesn’t seem to be present at the time. And Rainier clashed repeatedly with the politically-powerful Governor-General of India, Richard Wellesley (brother of the Iron Duke): Wellesley had no problem sinking other rivals’ careers, yet did not mention any dereliction of duty on the part of Rainier in a mad quest for fruit. Rainier had flatly refused Wellesley’s demand to send his small fleet to capture the French colony at Mauritius, believing it an impractical mission and one outside his or Wellesley’s authority (it came under the authority of the Cape of Good Hope command, not India). Ultimately the Admiralty agreed with Rainier. Richard Wellesley would not have hesitated to lodge a charge against Rainier, had he the opportunity.
Rainier and his alleged lust for mangoes are a factor in our Indian Empires game; they even get their own “Mango Season” card. When played, Rainier must immediately head to port to seek mangoes. At least that’s how it worked in the old Soldier Raj; in Indian Empires, it also makes Rainier’s fleets immune to attrition, thanks to their regular consumption of scurvy-fighting fruit.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold will not eat mangoes.