Implacabile (The Corvette that Never Was)

The Impacabile!

Monostory’s heart sank a little, just a little. The old memory returned: his first ship, the Implacabile, was also a warship… and if she still existed… if she could have taken up her station in Fiume to guard the port… if… and again, if…

(András Dékány: The Black Prince)

I wanted to start this post with the adrenaline-rush of a heroic fight of the Hungarian frigate Implacabile against overwhelming odds during the 1848-49 War of Independence on the Adriatic – as told by András Dékány in his novel The Black Prince

Unfortunately, Dékány didn’t go into sufficient detail.

The legend of the Implacabile lives in the consciousness of the sea-loving minority of the Hungarian public because of András Dékány’s novel. He seduced generations of Hungarian children with it; it forms the background of the protagonist Balázs Monostory. Yet Dékány never fully developed the story of the Implacabile. He contented himself with a handful of suggestive and emotive fragments, like the moment when the Taitsing crosses with Chinese pirates:

The Taitsing surged ahead, running before the wind. She was a wonderful ship, with a wonderful crew.
“The Implacabile!” the joyful memory bubbled up in Monostory.
Yes; the lost, sunk Hungarian frigate sped like this as she charged into battle against the Austrian emperor’s corvette.
“The Implacabile!”

In a novel that runs to more than 400 pages, Dékány only mentioned the ship’s name 13 times. This, however, didn’t prevent him to play expertly with his readers’ imagination and emotions. From the emotive half-sentences he scattered throughout the novel we created an entirely fictitious, glorious fight between the first Hungarian frigate and untold scores of Austrian warships on the bluest of all seas, the Adriatic. And so the legend of the Implacabile was born, thanks to a children’s book.

On the north wall of the cabin, there was, however, one thing to arrest a visitor’s attention: you could see a ship’s flag here, spread out. The flag was rather faded with time but it was a ship’s flag – a rare object. The flag of the Implacabile, the first Hungarian Navy frigate, sunk ten years earlier and commanded by Balázs Monostory, was the only decoration in the cabin of the captain of the Taitsing.

The flag, saved when the frigate sank, had accompanied Balázs Monostory for ten years. But so far he failed to realise his plan of handing it over to his leader, Lajos Kossuth, a man in exile just like the owner of the cabin himself.

Gabriela Malatesta’s eyes clouded over as she looked at the flag. Red-white-green. Those same colours formed the flag of the Italian patriots.

The fragments of information actually shared by Dékány in The Black Prince add up to this:

  • The Implacabile was a Hungarian frigate, intended to defend the harbour of Fiume but has never taken up her station to do so
  • Her captain was Balázs Monostory
  • She fought the Austrian corvette Condor – incidentally also commanded by a Hungarian officer – off the coast of Istria on the Adriatic during the 1848-49 War of Independence
  • During the battle, the sailors of the Implacabile used hand bombs fabricated on board in the manner of the Italian carbonaris 
  • She sunk after the battle and her shipwrecked sailors were rescued by a passing Turkish warship

But what’s the truth – if any – behind the legend? Did the Implacabile even exist? And if she did, did she ever fight a warship of the Emperor of Austria on the Adriatic?


“To the Sea, Hungarians!”

In the 27 January 1846 issue of a not very important weekly, a journalist-cum-politician called Lajos Kossuth penned the words, “To the sea, Hungarians! Away to the sea!” Despite of this rousing phrase, much quoted afterwards, Kossuth was not urging the nation to suddenly take to the seven seas; he was merely advocating the building of a railway line to the free port of Fiume1 (today’s Rijeka in Croatia), and the development of merchant shipping and commerce.

In due course such a development would have required a navy to protect it.

Hungarian inscription on a harbour bollard in Fiume: “The Foundry of Mátyás Skull, Fiume, 1893”. Photo by Andor Elekes (2016) via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-SA 4.0]

1848 – The Year of Change

1848: the year of revolutions against antiquated regimes all across Europe, and the lands of the Austrian Habsburgs were no exception. On 13 March there was a revolt in Vienna, the very capital; on 15 March, a bloodless revolt in Pest-Buda, the principal city of Hungary, resulted in the worried king hastily agreeing to the setting up of a Hungarian government responsible to a Hungarian parliament.

It was this new Hungarian government which realised that – among many other things – the country lacked a navy to guard her Adriatic ports and protect her merchant shipping (such as there was). And the man who two years earlier had penned the phrase, ‘to the sea, Hungarians!’, now risen to the rank of finance minister, gave instructions for the buying of ships for the Hungarian Navy about to be set up.  So began the unlikely story of the Implacabile, the first and only Hungarian warship ever.

A warship that – in the end – never was.

The Brig Implacabile

There was never anything genuinely Hungarian about the Implacabile, and that includes her name. Implacabile, Italian for kérlelhetetlen, implacable, was the original name of the brig on sale by the Trieste merchant Spiridion Gopcevic. Gopcevic had no particular sympathy for the Hungarian cause; he was solely interested in lining his pockets. He had several ships for sale: he peddled eight of them simultaneously both to Austria and Hungary even as the pair of them descended to war.

Members of the first ‘responsible’ Hungarian government, including transport minister Count István Széchenyi  (front row, 2nd from left), war minister Lázár Mészáros (front row, 1st from right) and finance minister Lajos Kossuth (back row, 2nd from right).

The new Hungarian government was busy passing laws to modernise the country, it was cash strapped and by August it also came under military attack. Understandably, it had much higher priorities than the Navy of the Adriatic. Plans nevertheless were made, with the involvement of finance minister Lajos Kossuth, war minister Lázár Mészáros and transport minister István Széchenyi2 for the buying of two sailing ships from Gopcevic. In August the Hungarian governor of Fiume, János Erdődy, started the negotiations with Gopcevic to buy the brig Implacabile for the future Hungarian Navy.

The brig in question was two-masted, 360 tonnes, 29.6 metres long and 8.8 metres wide, with a draught of 3,9 metres. She had 8 gun ports on each side and was to be fitted out with twelve 12-pound carronades and two Paixhans guns. Her maximum speed was 13-14 knots.

Drawing of the Implacabile. Source: Hadtörténeti Közlemények.

While negotiations were still under way, war minister Mészáros appointed the Italian born Vicenzo Domini as the ship’s first captain. Domini, a retired Austrian navy lieutenant, was at the time teaching navigation and mathematics in the merchant marine academy3 in Fiume. He was accorded the rank of captain in the Hungarian army4.

That was how things stood at the end of August – when events took a dramatic turn.

The 1848-49 War of Independence

By the summer of 1848, the king, Ferdinand V (Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria), and his counsellors had sufficiently recovered from their earlier fright to profoundly regret ever having granted the Hungarians that autonomy for which they had fought in vain during the previous centuries5. Unable to recall the escaped genie to the bottle, the king resorted to force. Having already guaranteed the Hungarian constitution and approved the Hungarian government, however, it was diplomatically awkward for him to openly start waging war on his law abiding Hungarian subjects. The solution was to do so, at least initially, by proxy. With Austrian support, money and equipment, the governor of Croatia, Ban Jellacic first seized the port of Fiume on 31 August, then moved against Hungary proper.

The Battle of Pákozd [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Although the invading Croatian army was then defeated by a hastily set up Hungarian volunteer army at the Battle of Pákozd on 29 September 1848 and expelled from the country, the Hungarian army had no forces or time to spare to extend into Croatia and retake Fiume: within a  month Hungary was invaded by the Austrian army, supported by those nationalities which – like the Croatians – decided that their bread was buttered on the Austrian side6.

The Corvette that Never Was

A Ship without a Home Port

After the loss of Fiume there was no reason, in theory, to proceed with the purchase of the brig Implacabile, as her future home port was under enemy occupation. Nevertheless, the Hungarian government had not, at that point, given itself for beaten, and maintained hope of eventually regaining Fiume and needing a navy thereafter. Perhaps they even hoped using the Implacabile to play a part in retaking Fiume. The contract therefore was completed on 15 October 1848 and Hungary, completely cut off the sea, acquired her first warship for the price of 65,000 Forints7.

Or, at least, she acquired a ship to be fitted out as a warship.

Since the Implacabile was in point of fact a merchant brig, the contract stipulated that Gopcevic had to make the necessary alterations and equip the ships with guns. A payment of 40,000 Forints in gold was made to Gopcevic in Trieste within days after signing contract; the remaining 25,000 he was to receive when he delivered the fully outfitted corvette. The decision was made that the ship would be fitted out in a neutral port and the Implacabile, crewed by Gopcevic’s men under the command of a certain Captain Djurkovic, sailed from Trieste to London before the ship’s nominal captain, Vicenzo Domini, even reached Trieste.

Domini followed his ship travelling across Europe by land. When he  arrived in London, the Implacabile was berthed in what is referred to in the Hungarian documents, which in turn translate from the relevant Austrian document, as ‘the docks of the Draper merchant house’. I went to some trouble trying to identify this merchant house in the hope of finding out details about what actually happened in London from a local source but so far without any success8.

A shame, as perhaps Draper’s archives might have had something interesting to say on the subject: for in London the already unlikely story of the Implacabile took on ever more bizarre dimensions.

Intrigue in London

Mist in port, London by Charles John De Lacy [public domain via WIkimedia Commons]
When Domini arrived to London, he discovered that no attempt was being made to proceed with the modifications and the arming of the ship by Captain Djurkovic – who claimed to have received no orders to this effect from Gopcevic. At the same time, Gopcevic demanded compensation for supposed damage suffered by the ship en route to London. On top of which Domini found out that English law prohibited the arming of foreign ships without government permission. As the English government at this point didn’t recognise the Hungarian government, Domini found himself unable to acquire the necessary permission.

It was December 1848 and the military situation in Hungary was not good. After Jellacic’s defeat, the king had no option but turn against his Hungarian subjects direcly or learn to live with the constitutional reforms which he had agreed in March. He chose the former and in October he had dissolved the Hungarian Parliament and the troops of Prince Windischgrätz invaded the country9, soon to be followed by more troops. By December the war was extending to most parts of Hungary and the government was forced to retire from centrally located Pest-Buda to Debrecen in the southeast. In Austria, the hapless Ferdinand V was forced to abdicate in favour of his energetic nephew Franz Joseph and the Austrian high command reported that a Hungarian surrender was imminent10.

The Gopcevic palace in Trieste. Photo by Twice25 & Rinina25 via Wikipedia [CC-BY 2.5]
In these circumstances Gopcevic decided that he didn’t need to honour the contract he signed with the Hungarian government. In addition to keeping the money he already received, he decided to hold on to the brig as well. And perhaps he would have succeeded, if he had contented himself with that much. But greed made him keep the brig in London while he attempted to extort further monies from the Hungarian government for repairs and the necessary works for the arming of the ship… For more than a month Gopcevic continued to make demands for ever increasing sums (up to another 35,000 Forints) on Captain Domini, while for his part, Captain Djurkovic demanded 11,000 Forints for his own sweet self otherwise he threatened sailing the brig back to Austrian held Trieste.

Unfortunately for Gopcevic, at this point Captain Domini, on hearing the Austrian war reports reaching London, lost his nerve. Believing that Hungary was about to capitulate and wishing to save his neck, on 12 February he reported the purchase of the Implacabile to the Austrian Embassy in London and in exchange for handing over the ship’s papers he received guarantees for his own personal safety. In his confession Domini claimed that he had been always loyal to Austria.

The Implacabile, already subject to legal wrangling between Gopcevic and Domini, was now impounded. Austria claimed possession and the Hungarian government, not being recognised in England, was unable to recourse to the law.

Aftermath

On his return to Austria, Domini was arrested but after his repeated protestations about his loyalty, he was eventually released. He never returned the monies that he held for the Hungarian government; the Austrian treasury wrote off the brig’s purchase price of 65,000 Hungarian Forints as an Austrian loss.

As to what became of the Implacabile? The records seem uncertain. It may have returned to Fiume or it may have become an English cargo ship carrying wool. Sadly, the real story of the Implacabile turns out to be an unedifying story of double-crossing and greed, cowardice and betrayal.

Perhaps that explains why Dékány contented himself with hints – of what could have been.

Notes:

1 The free port of Fiume in Croatia was placed under Hungarian sovereignty in 1779 by the empress Maria Theresa. Croatia formed part of the lands of the Hungarian Crown - not of Hungary herself - for eight centuries (1102-1918).
2 Count István Széchenyi was called 'the greatest Hungarian' by his political opponent Lajos Kossuth - a sobriquet the survived to this day and with reason. Influenced by his youthful travels in England and elsewhere, Széchenyi dedicated his life to the improvement of his homeland. He was responsible for introducing horse racing to Hungary, for the setting up of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the National Casino and the National Library, for the regulation of the flow of the Danube to the Black Sea, opening the river up for commercial shipping, and the promotion of steamships and railways, as well as for the building of the first permanent bridge between Buda and Pest.
3 Usually known by the name 'Nautica', shortened from the Italian version of its later name, Magyar Királyi Tengerészeti Akadémia, Regia Ungarica Accademia Nautica, and immortalised in Dékány's novel Matrózok, hajók, kapitányok [Sailors, Ships, Captains].
4 The equivalent of a navy lieutenant.
5 Hungary first came under Habsburg rule in 1526 and remained so until 1918. During this period the House of Habsburg was dethroned four times: in 1620, 1707, 1849 and 1921. For a brief history of the Habsburg rule in Hungary see the entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica.
6 Paradoxically, the king offered the 'loyal' nationalities as reward exactly what the Hungarians were fighting to defend: autonomy within the empire. Needless to say when it was all over, these nationalities received as their reward the same oppression that the Hungarians received as punishment. 
7 A fair price. In England at the time a similar ship cost £15 per tonne; the Implacabile cost less than £13 per tonne (at the time £1 equalled approximately 12 Forints).
8 If I had the time, I would have been around in person in various archives in London and Kew already but - sadly? - I've got a life outside this blog. You'll have to wait and see if I ever manage to find out more. However, in the meantime enjoy some interesting information about the London docks of the 19th century and the Drapers' Company. :)
9 When on 6th October the imperial army prepared to leave Vienna to attack Hungary, the locals rebelled again - this time in support of the Hungarian cause - and war minister Latour was unceremoniously hanged from a lamp-post. The Vienna garrison was forced to abandon the city and the king fled with his court to Olmütz.
10 In fact, Hungary didn't surrender until 13 August 1849, after Russia invaded the country in response to a request for help from Austria.

Sources:Implacabile: Attempt at the establishment of an independent Hungarian Navy from the military history journal Hadtörténelmi Közlemények, 1997, in Hungarian. [Krámli Mihály: Az IMPLACABILE. Kísérlet az önálló magyar haditengerészet felállítására In: Hadtörténelmi Közlemények 1997./1. 84-113. o.]
⇒ For pictures of Hungarian landmarks in Fiume, see Impressions of Fiume, in Hungarian [Fiumei benyomások]
⇒ Fiume in 1848 by Krámli Mihály, in Hungarian [Fiume 1848-ban]

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