Fitting Finale to the Trail

After leaving Gibraltar I arrived at Heathrow and had a next-day flight back to the U.S.  I decided a trip to Trafalgar Square would be a fitting finale to my historical pilgrimage and arrived at Piccadilly Circus on the Tube around 10:30 p.m. with only my I-Phone for a camera. As I watched the tourists climb on the lions surrounding Nelson, I wondered how many of them knew much about the man up on the column and how many of them would preserve his memory.

For me, this journey’s end rounded out a welcome diversion, but more importantly, my trail of the immortal memory brought home the lesson that Richard Snow articulated in his 1991 review of the Aubrey-Maturin series for the New York Times. He wrote that the best of historical fiction, “reminds us . . . of the most important of all historical lessons:  that times change but people don’t, that the griefs and follies and victories of the men and women who were here before us are in fact the maps of our own lives.”  How true.

From henceforth every October 21 I will make a special effort to remember and toast, “The immortal memory of Nelson and those who fell with him.”


Gibraltar — The “Rock” and the Immortal Memory

“There Gibraltar surprisingly was, grand and grey in the dimmest north-east distance. . . we had been smelling the land-breezes of Portugal, . . . we had Cape St. Vincent in view through the periscope, . . . and all night Cadiz Bay had been invisible but somehow palpable on our port hand.  Now . . . at daybreak we had Cape Trafalgar and the Spanish coast in sight to the north of us, and to starboard the mountains of Africa thrusting away to southward behind Cape Spartel.  All these names were an incantation to raise the immortal past, and the spirit of Nelson moved about the ruffled face of the water.”

So wrote Edward Young, a World War II English submarine captain, evoking the immortal memory upon seeing that unforgettable rock profile. I have always linked Gibraltar more to World War II than Nelson — Force H, convoys to Malta, and Britain barely holding on when the dark days of late December 1941 made the Mediterranean nearly an Axis lake. Gibraltar has been British since 1708 and remains British to this day, in law and in spirit.  It was a bit of a disappointment to me after Malta and Menorca.  Present-day Gibraltar has tried to preserve its historic past, but it is short on space and the high-rises and touristy bric-a-brac make its naval heritage more difficult to discern.

Nelson undoubtedly anchored in Gibraltar on more than one occasion, and he may well have come ashore during his life but I could find no indication of it.  Questions also remain as to whether his body came ashore after Trafalgar or not, although HMS Victory spent some time there after the battle undergoing repairs before sailing home with Nelson’s body preserved in a cask of wine or spirits.

The Gibraltar Heritage Trust also has taken pains to connect itself with Trafalgar, which is about 40 miles away as the crow flies.  The Trafalgar cemetery, just outside the city walls, was renamed after the battle and holds the graves of several officers who died of their Trafalgar wounds.  The cemetery also contains a 1992 memorial to Trafalgar, with Collingwood’s victory dispatch.  Just outside is a Nelson statue erected on Trafalgar’s 200th anniversary.

The remains of fortress Gibraltar and its topography remain its major attraction, although the Gibraltar Apes vie for attention in many spots.  I found walking the Upper Rock Nature Preserve trails the most rewarding part of my brief stay in Gibraltar, with unparalleled views.  My overwhelming impression was how much closer Africa and Algeciras were than I had ever imagined, and how compact a space Gibraltar Harbor and the city occupy.


Gibraltar City and the Moorish Castle


Gibraltar City Looking South Along the Rock


At the Top of the Rock Looking Northeast


Africa and the Straits of Gibraltar


Gibraltar City and Its Only Natural Harbor


Algeciras Bay from the Upper Rock Nature Preserve

Naval Base

Gibraltar Naval Base with HMS Ocean at the Quayside and Algeciras in the Background


Trafalgar Cemetery


Grave Marker


Trafalgar Grave Marker


1992 Trafalgar Monument


Collingwood’s Dispatch


2005 Nelson Statue


The Apes Are Still Present, So Presumably Gibraltar Will Stay British for Now


Fortifications on the Rock

The timing of my visit to Gibraltar was auspicious, for HMS Ocean, the largest surface ship in the Royal Navy, was docked at Gibraltar after undergoing exercises with a French Squadron (small irony there).  Her presence throughout my visit gave me a small taste of what the Gibraltar Mole must have looked like with dozens of grey warships present, as would have been the case for many years of Gibraltar’s history.


Helicopter Carrier HMS Ocean, with Algeciras in the Background

Menorca and Nelson — Faint Traces of the Immortal Memory

The photo above is of “Golden Farm”, a beautiful building high on the northern slope of Port Mahon Harbor. Some reports say that Nelson stayed here while visiting Minorca in HMS Foudroyant.  Menorca tourist guides and and the occasional publication will also refer to it as Nelson and Lady Hamilton’s “love nest.”  The fog of legend once again clouds the immortal memory.

I tried to sort through this issue while I was in Minorca (the historic name of the Island until recent time).  Nelson did visit Minorca in 1799 for the purpose of convincing Minorca’s military governor, General James Erskine,  to give him troops for the siege of Malta.  Nelson’s diary indicates that he arrived in Mahon on October 12 of that year.  It’s also clear that Lord and Lady Hamilton stayed behind in Naples.  There’s correspondence between Nelson and Ambassador Hamilton where Hamilton reports on his wife’s health and passes on her greetings to Nelson.  Nelson’s diary confirms that, except for a visit to General Erskine and the Naval Yard, he did not leave his flagship.  As one historian concludes, the documentary evidence shows the story about Nelson and Lady Hamilton enjoying a romantic sojourn in Minorca to be “a fairy tale.”   Still, it’s a good story and an 1813 map identifies the place as both the St. Antonio convent and Golden Farm.  Unfortunately, my stay in Minorca missed the weekly tour of Golden Farm, so I only saw it from afar.

Port Mahon Map Showing Collingwood House (1813)

Port Mahon Map from 1813 showing Golden Farm (top center) and Collingwood House

Plenty of real naval history occurred at Minorca.  Along with Gibraltar, the British took over Minorca in 1708 during the War of Spanish Succession.  One of the Royal Navy’s blacker episodes occurred there in 1756.  England was engaged in one of its seemingly interminable wars with France, and it feared a French invasion of Minorca.  The admiralty sent a relief squadron under the command of Admiral John Byng.  By the time he arrived at the Island, the French had conquered all but Fort Saint Phillip,  a fortress at the mouth of Port Mahon, where a British force still held out under siege.  Byng joined battle with a roughly equal French naval squadron and fought it to a draw, but then withdrew his battered fleet to Gibraltar for refitting.  Shortly thereafter Fort Saint Phillip capitulated.  Byng became a scapegoat for George II, the government, and virulent public opinion.  Far worse, he was court martialled and executed by firing squad.  History regards this episode as an injustice and a disgraceful stain on a naval officer’s life and honor.  Voltaire famously wrote that Byng was shot “to encourage the others.” Rightly or not, some attribute the Nelsonian fighting spirit as a reaction to the Byng affair.

On a more positive note, Minorca became the location of Collingwood House, a mansion overlooking the harbor that now survives as the Hotel del Almirante, where I stayed during my time in Minorca.  The house and hotel take their name from Cuthbert Collingwood, who succeeded Nelson as C-in-C Mediterranean after Trafalgar.  The current owner has turned the hotel into a museum filled with art and antiques celebrating Collingwood and his Royal Navy heritage, including a touching story about Collingwood’s dog, “Bounce.”  It doesn’t matter too much that Collingwood actually spent very little time there. Although he was stationed at Port Mahon for various times between 1798 and 1810, he spent most of the time on board ship.  It appears his longest time in the house came at the end of his life when, ill and worn out from his duties, he stayed two weeks before setting sail for home and his family.  Alas, he died the next day within sight of Minorca.  A grateful nation buried him next to Nelson at St. Paul’s.  Several Royal Navy warships have taken Collingwood’s name, and the current Maritime Warfare School is HMS Collingwood.


Hotel del Almirante Sign


Hotel del Almirante (Collingwood House)


Harbor View from Hotel del Almirante


Collingwood House (Hotel del Almirante) from Port Mahon Harbor

Collingwood's Telescope & His Ships

Collingwood’s Telescope & His Ships

Second Floor Hall & Stairway

Collingwood House Hall & Stairway

Music Room on Second Floor

Collingwood House Music Room

Collingwood House also claims a U.S. Naval Heritage.  Knowing of my interest, one of the hotel staff kindly pointed out the following painting showing a U.S. frigate at Port Mahon.  I thought it was probably in the Mediterranean as part of the U.S. Navy’s efforts directed against the Barbary pirates and my subsequent research showed that was the case.  Apparently, there are dozens of U.S. sailors buried in the Anglo-American cemetery at Port Mahon and the U.S. Navy has made efforts in recent years to schedule port visits there.

Painting of US Frigate at Port Mahon

The Stars and Stripes flying from the Jackstaff of a U.S. Frigate in Port Mahon

Menorca: Aubrey and Maturin Become Part of the Immortal Memory

Menorca (historically spelled Minorca) is the northernmost of the Spain’s Balearic Islands.  Its history has many parallels with Malta, including neolithic monuments, corsair raids, and British rule (1708-1802).  It also possesses one of the Mediterranean’s finest natural harbors, with a location convenient for ships blockading Toulon. Nelson had at least one visit to Minorca, but I went to Minorca because Port Mahon (Mao in Catalan) is where Patrick O’Brian has Jack Aubrey meet Stephen Maturin.  O’Brian places that meeting at Port Mahon’s “Governors House,” still an official Spanish military facility where an officious security guard prohibited me from taking photographs.  I was able to take a shot from the harbor, however, and that is what you see in the leader.  O’Brian’s first paragraph from Master and Commander sets the scene:

“The music room in the Governor’s House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli’s C major quartet.  The players, Italians pinned against the far wall by rows and rows of little round gilt chairs, were playing with passionate conviction as they mounted towards the penultimate crescendo, towards the tremendous pause and the deep. liberating final chord.  And on the little gilt chairs at least some of the audience were following the rise with equal intensity:  there were two in the third row, on the left-hand side; and they happened to be sitting next to one another.  The listener farther to the left was a man of between twenty and thirty whose big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there.  He was wearing his best uniform — the white-lapelled blue coast, white waistcoat, breeches and stockings of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with the silver medal of the Nile in his buttonhole — and the deep white cuff of his gold-buttoned sleeve beat the time, while his bright blue eyes, staring from what would have been a pink-and-white face if it had not been so deeply tanned, gazed fixedly at the bow of the first violin.  The high note came, the pause, the resolution; and with the resolution the sailor’s fist swept firmly down upon his knee.  He bent back in his chair, extinguishing it entirely, sighed happily and turned towards his neighbor with a smile.  The words ‘Very finely played, sir, I believe’ were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, ‘If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time, and not half a beat ahead.’ “

Despite the stranger’s disapproval, Aubrey loves music,can’t help himself, begins keeping time with the next movement, and starts to hum.  Maturin, “the ill-looking son of a bitch” in Aubrey’s view, digs his elbow in Aubrey’s ribs and hushes him. Aubrey is insulted by the affront and contemplates challenging Maturin to a duel (which would have been a fatal mistake). The sea officer’s mood is not helped by his shipless state, similar to Nelson’s at times during his career. Aubrey has been passed over for a command, is in hock to his creditors, and his future seems bleak.  That changes suddenly within the next few pages and, despite the inauspicious start, Aubrey and Maturin form a professional collaboration and strong personal bond that grows richly through the next 20 books (O’Brian died while writing the 21st).  It’s a series that one critic likened to something that Jane Austen’s brothers (Royal Navy officers) would have written had they shared her talent.  I commend O’Brian highly, and the audiobooks versions read by Simon Vance are also first-rate.  (As good as it is, the Peter Weir film does not convey O’Brian’s depth or richness and it also picks scenes selectively from six or seven of the novels and skips entirely Maturin’s role as a volunteer secret agent for the Admiralty).


Plaque from the Military Governor’s House in Port Mahon

O’Brian’s Master and Commander is set in 1800 and borrows heavily from the real-life exploits of Lord Thomas Cochrane. Aubrey’s HMS Sophie follows Cochrane’s fortunes from coastal raids to the astonishing sea battle where Aubrey and his men from an 18-gun sloop board and capture a 36-gun Spanish frigate. O’Brian’s descriptions can still be seen in modern-day Mahon, as seen by comparing my photos with illustrations and descriptions from Master & Commander.

master and commander web large

Geoff Hunt’s cover art from Master and Commander

Pigtail Steps View II

Pigtail Steps in Port Mahon. “Now [Aubrey] was in the square, with its noble trees and its great twin staircases winding down to the quay — stairs known to British sailors for a hundred years as Pigtail Steps, the cause of many a broken limb and battered head.”

Pigtail Steps View I

View from the top of the Pigtail Steps, Port Mahon. “He crossed the low wall that ran between the stair-heads and looked out over the immense expanse of enclosed water before him, stretching away left-handed to the distant top of the harbour and right-handed past the hospital island miles away to its narrow, castle-guarded mouth.”

Stephen's View

“[Stephen] was sitting in the ruined apse of St. Damian’s chapel high above Port Mahon on the north side, looking down upon the great winding inlet of the harbor and far out beyond it over a vast expanse of sea, a variegated blue with wandering lanes; the flawless sun, a hand’s breadth high, rising from the side of Africa.”

Aubrey View Port Mahon I

Port Mahon Harbor, with the sun “rising from the side of Africa”

Aubrey View Naval Hospital II

“Hospital Island” — the British-built Naval Hospital on Ilse de Rey or “Bloody Island”

Aubrey View Round Towers I

Round Towers Near Point Mola  — the “castle-guarded mouth” of the harbor

Aubrey View of Naval Base

The naval base at Port Mahon, with facilities first established by the Royal Navy in the 18th century

Aubrey View of Naval Base II

Naval base with British-built tower. Minorca’s flag flies in the foreground.

Aubrey View Point Mola

Point Mola at the Port Mahon harbor entrance. Aubrey sails past here in Book 3 (HMS Surprise) in a dangerous mission to the Governor’s House, which at the time (1805) was occupied by Bonapartist intelligence officers from Spain’s French allies.

Malta and the Immortal Memory

I had the good fortune to spend eight days in Malta, most of them in Valletta, its capital.  We will need to go back a few years from 1805 to pick up on Nelson’s connection with Malta, but Malta has its own claim to immortal memory.  Because of its strategic location, Malta played a starring role in 400 years of Western history, from the Great Siege of 1565 to a second, even longer siege in World War II.  The Knights’ victory over the Ottoman Turks and the Maltese/British victory over Hitler and Mussolini were improbable, inspiring and indelible parts of their respective eras.

Malta is also the setting for book nine of the Aubrey-Maturin series, and the book begins with O’Brian’s atmospheric description of Malta’s Grand Harbour:

A gentle breeze from the north-east after a night of rain, and the washed sky over Malta had a particular quality in its light that sharpened the lines of noble buildings, bringing out all the virtue of the stone; . . . beyond and below the Baracca there was the vast sweep of the Grand Harbour, pure sapphire today, flecked with the sails of countless small craft plying between Valletta and the great fortified headlands on either side, St. Angelo and Isola, and the men-of-war, the troopships and the victuallers, a sight to please any sailor’s heart.

Malta is a symphony of virtuous stone, and Valletta retains its character as a military fortress.  Geoff Hunt’s cover for Treason’s Harbour captures this quality, with HMS Surprise in the foreground and St. Angelo looming in the background across the Grand Harbour.  St. Angelo became the headquarters for the Knights of Malta when they took over Malta in the early 16th century, and it figured prominently in the defeat of the Ottomans.  Eventually it became the headquarters for the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet and held this position, as HMS St. Angelo, until the British departed in 1979.  The Maltese government gave St. Angelo back to the Knights after the British left and, judging by the current construction activity, the Knights have plans for their former fortress.  Unfortunately, it is now closed to the public, but it still dominates the viewpoint in the Grand Harbour (see above).

Upper Barrakka Sunrise

Upper Barrakka at Sunrise. This is the gathering place for Valletta, high above the Grand Harbour, and the views are magnificent.


Geoff Hunt’s cover art for Treason’s Harbour

Malta CinC I

Symbol for the Royal Navy C-in-C Mediterranean, from the Malta Maritime Museum.

Nelson’s connection with Malta begins in 1798, before the Battle of the Nile, when he was chasing Napoleon across the Mediterranean.  Faulty intelligence initially led Nelson and the British squadron to Egypt ahead of Napoleon.  Napoleon instead was capturing Malta from the Knights, in part for the purpose of financing his expedition and in part to deny it to his enemies.  Unfaithful to their martial heritage, the Knights gave up Malta without a fight.  After a brief but frenetic stay in Valleta, Napoleon looted Malta and its churches, installed a French military government, and left behind an occupying force.  The looting and irreligious revolutionary fervor ultimately proved the French undoing, as it instigated a Maltese revolt and the eventual invitation for the British to come in and help the Maltese eject the French.  The Brits accepted the invitation and then stayed another 164 years.

Napoleon and the remainder of his force left Malta for conquests he thought would rival Alexander the Great.  He departed with the treasure of Malta stuffed into his flagship, the 118 gun L’Orient. Nelson’s force caught up with the French Fleet in Aboukir Bay, leading to his famous victory at the Battle of the Nile.  Napoleon wasn’t present for the battle (he had already landed his army and conquered Egypt), but L’Orient and the Maltese treasure was.  During the night action L’Orient blew up in spectacular fashion.  Maltese guides to this day talk about recovering the treasure, but as far as I know it has never been found.  L’Orient also figures in the immortal memory in a more ironic way.  One of Nelson’s captains recovered a mast from L’Orient, fashioned it into a casket, and presented it to Nelson.  To this day, Nelson’s body rests in the casket fashioned from L’Orient’s wreckage.

Meanwhile, the Royal Navy began a blockade and siege of the French forces in Malta, led primarily by one of Nelson’s Captains, Alexander Ball, who eventually became the first governor of Malta.  Ball himself was one of Nelson’s favorite subordinates and a few weeks before the Nile had saved Nelson and his flagship, HMS Vanguard, through a remarkable feat of seamanship.  A storm had dismasted Vanguard and was driving the uncontrollable ship onto the sailors’ dreaded lee shore. Ball rigged a towline and, despite the danger to his own ship, pulled Nelson and the Vanguard to safety (C.S. Forester has Horatio Hornblower accomplish a similar feat in Book II of the Captain Hornblower trilogy, Ship of the Line.)

Back to Malta.  Faced with the Maltese revolt, the French withdrew into the Valletta fortress.  In his new flagship, HMS Foudroyant, Nelson participated in the blockade and in efforts to bring troops to capture Valletta.  That led him to his one trip ashore in Minorca, which we’ll address in a later blog. By this time, however, Nelson’s focus was on Naples and Lady Hamilton. He even left the Mediterranean before Malta fell to the British in September of 1800.


Plaque commemorating Nelson’s visit to St. Paul’s grotto church and catacombs in L-Rabat.

Historians agree that Nelson visited Malta during this time period, but then legend intervenes and injects controversy and doubt.    Malta figures prominently in early Christian history, as St. Paul was shipwrecked there and he converted the islanders to Christianity before he was removed to Rome and martyrdom. During his three months on Malta, St. Paul lived and worshiped in the catacombs in L-Rabat, just outside Malta’s former capital-fortress of Mdina.  The Knights built a lovely church there to commemorate St. Paul, which I visited during my stay on Malta. Not expecting any Nelson connection, I was surprised to see the plaque indicating that Nelson visited the grotto/catacombs shortly before he left the Mediterranean in 1800.  The question is, did Emma Hamilton accompany him and how did they conduct themselves during their visit?

Hamilton’s recent biographer reports that Lord and Lady Hamilton accompanied Nelson to Malta on the Foudroyant in May of 1800 and visited St. Paul’s Bay and Marsa Sirocco Bay (now Marsaxlokk Bay), which are nearby (Valletta was held by the French at the time).  Notwithstanding the plaque’s silence on the subject, I conclude that Lady Hamilton must have also been present with Nelson, as they were inseparable at this point (and their daughter, Horatia, was born January 29, 1801). As a interesting coda to Nelson and Emma’s Malta visit, Peter Elliott reports that a bed reputed to have been used by Nelson and Lady Hamilton was one of the “trophies” that had to be disposed of when the British withdrew from Malta in 1979.  The bed had apparently been housed in the Captain’s House at Fort St. Angelo, but Elliot also notes that its provenance was Neapolitan — brought to Malta after the capture of Naples in 1943.


St. Paul’s Church in L-Rabat.  The same catacombs that sheltered St. Paul sheltered countless Maltese during World War II as air raid shelters.  There’s an equally charming yet less historic St. Paul Shipwreck church in Valletta.

After the Napoleonic Wars, Malta remained a British possession.  When the Suez Canal was finished Malta gained importance as a coaling station.  Its strategic location astride the trading routes also led it to become the home port for the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet.  Fearing French, Italian or other enemies, the British strengthened Malta’s fortifications. A former Valletta palace became Admiralty House, the residence of the C-in-C Mediterranean.  It’s a wonderful, airy building that now serves as Malta’s National Gallery of Art.  It retains relics of its nautical past, however, including plaques that commemorate all of the admirals who commanded in the Mediterranean.  They contain a long list of famous British mariners, including Nelson and Collingwood.  I don’t believe either ever took up residence there, however,

Admiralty House I-001

Admiralty House Entrance Hall, now the Maltese National Gallery of Art

Admiralty House III

Partial roster of Mediterranean Station C-in-C’s

Admiralty House IV

Admiralty House ceiling decorations.


Memorial to Sir Thomas Freemantle at the Upper Barakka. Freemantle was one of Nelson’s “Band of Brothers” and captained HMS Neptune at Trafalgar. He survived the battle and became a rich man from the prize money he gained.

I found Peter Elliott’s, The Cross and the Ensign (1994), in a bookstore during my visit and it details the history of the Royal Navy and Malta from 1798-1979. Elliott does not comment on the coincidence, but he tells the story of one of the more intriguing connections between historical fact and historical fiction.  Although Jack Aubrey commands other ships during the course of the series, his favorite ship and most frequent command is HMS Surprise, a sweet-sailing but small 28-gun frigate.  O’Brian’s fictional Surprise has a real historical antecedent, but Elliott relates the story of a successor 20th century HMS Surprise.  It was a small worship converted into a yacht for the use of the admiral commanding in the Mediterranean. In 1949, then Princess Elizabeth sailed out of Malta on Surprise on a cruise accompanying Earl Mountbatten, who was C-in-C Mediterranean at the time. Accompanying HMS Surprise was HMS Magpie, then under the command of Elizabeth’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.

The Royal Navy left Malta in 1979 in a departure full of sadness and ceremony.   During those last years of the Cold War Malta’s government tried to be non-aligned and NATO fleets could no longer use its harbors (George H.W. Bush did summit with Gorbachev on Malta in the 80’s).   Despite the current lack of any real naval presence (Malta has only a few patrol boats), Malta’s harbors still retain their nautical character.  They now mostly feature yachts and cruise ships, which fill Grand Harbour and Marsamsxett.  Malta’s famous dockyard still operates, however, and there looked to be substantial commercial activity taking place there.

During my visit I sat on the balcony and watched the boats for hours, envisioning the harbors filled with wooden ships as well as their iron and steel successors.  I’ll leave Winston Churchill with the last word.  He called Malta “that tiny rock of history and romance.”  Churchill probably meant romance of the Walter Scott variety rather than of the Nelson-Hamilton kind, and he must have been thinking about knightly valor, chivalry and the Hospitallers’ faith.  Malta’s romance also comes from the sheer notion that such a small place could serve such an outsize role throughout modern Western history.

PS:  Nicholas Monserrat’s novel, The Kapillan of Malta, is an indispensable resource for understanding Malta and its character.  I recommend it to anyone contemplating a visit.


More virtuous stone — Fort Manoel across Marsamsxett from Valletta

Fort St. Angelo

St. Angelo looking towards harbor entrance


Boats in front of Fort Manoel


Valletta from Sliema ferry. Our apartment was just to the right of the church tower.


Water taxi heading back to Victoriosa (Birgu), with St. Angelo in the background


Approaching the Lascaris Bastion and the Upper Barrakka on the water taxi.

Marsamsxett Sunset

Marsamsxett Sunset — a sight to please any sailor’s heart.

“Engage the Enemy More Closely” — Trafalgar and the Death of Nelson

In Spain I deviated momentarily from the Immortal Memory Trail to visit Santiago de Compostela and Salamanca, the latter a university center and site of one of Wellington’s important Peninsular War victories.  Both locations were featured in Bernard Cornwall’s Richard Sharpe novels.   Cornwall also places Sharpe at Trafalgar aboard the fictional HMS Pucelle, although I wish he hadn’t.  O’Brian has the good sense not to have Jack Aubrey at Trafalgar, even though O’Brian has Aubrey frequently reminisce about fighting with Nelson at Cape St. Vincent and the Nile, and Aubrey proudly wears the Nile Medal on his dress uniform.

In my drive from Salamanca to Gibraltar, the highway took me within 25 miles of Cape Trafalgar.   I thought of driving to the spot, but the Trafalgar battle took place ten miles offshore and seeing the changing sea gives you little sense of a battle (unlike the unchanging topography of a land battlefield).

Trafalgar was a quintessential Nelson victory and it’s too bad that he didn’t have a chance to bask in the admiration he would have received had he lived.  The Royal Navy’s Fighting Instructions mandated rigid adherence to an unbroken line of battle and demanded that individual captains give the commanding admiral tight control over all ship movements.  At Cape St. Vincent in 1797, then Captain Nelson had deviated from the Fighting Instructions and broken the line.  At Copenhagen in 1801, as a subordinate admiral, Nelson had (literally) turned a blind eye to the instructions of his commanding admiral and exercised the initiative that led to victory.  When he commanded the Royal Navy squadron at the Battle of the Nile (Aboukir Bay), Nelson fought a somewhat unorthodox night action that destroyed Napoleon’s hopes of using Egypt as a springboard for conquering India.

Nelson intended to follow in that tradition at Trafalgar.  In his plan for battle, Nelson planned to deviate from the Fighting Instructions from the beginning, approach the combined French and Spanish fleet in two columns, break the French line, and then depend upon English gunnery and individual ship captains’ initiatives to gain a victory.  He could do so because the Royal Navy had built up operational excellence and an indomitable fighting spirit over several decades of hard-won experience.  Many of Nelson’s captains shared his decades-long experience at sea and had themselves fought single-ship actions where they made independent command decisions.

I’ve read many descriptions of the Trafalgar battle and to me they all describe the successful deployment of Nelson’s fleet in two columns, the slow sail under fire towards the combined Franco-Spanish line of battle, and the breaking of the line, first by the column headed by Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign and then by the column headed by Nelson in the Victory.  After that the battle seems to have devolved into individual or multiple-ship melees, most of which ended in the surrender or destruction of a French or Spanish ship.  Nelson’s final signal, “Engage the enemy more closely,” flew during this phase of the battle until the signal flags were shot away.

Collingwood never gets all the credit he deserves for his role at Trafalgar, and there will be more about him in a later blog.   I’ll introduce him now, however.  Like Nelson, Cuthbert Collingwood led from the front.  He began his career about the same time as Nelson and their paths intersected often. Like Nelson, Collingwood began his combat experience in North America during the American Revolution.  They captained their respective ships at Cape St. Vincent.  Although alike in their choice of careers and their success in the Royal Navy, they differed markedly in temperament.  Collingwood was sober, phlegmatic, and calm.  I like his reported response on seeing Nelson’s “England Expects” signal.  “I do wish Nelson would stop signaling.  We all know what we have to do.”  Because of wind and position, Collingwood broke the enemy line about an hour ahead of Nelson and his actions contributed significantly to the overall victory.


Spot on the Victory’s Quarterdeck where Nelson was felled.

Back on the Victory, Nelson paced the quarterdeck with his Flag Captain as the Victory took on four ships, including the 140-gun Santisima Trinidad.  About 45 minutes after joining battle, a French sharpshooter in the fighting top of the Redoubtable found Nelson in his sights and shot him at the spot now marked by a plaque on Victory’s deck. Nelson was taken below to the cockpit of the Victory, where the surgeon quickly determined that the wound was mortal.  Nelson’s death was well-chronicled and Devis’ painting displayed on Victory is the most famous rendition of it.  Nelson lived for several hours, though, long enough to learn that the fleet had gained a magnificent victory.IMG_3539.CR2

Nelson’s famous flag signal.

HMS Victory


Victory’s stern galleries, with accommodations for flag officers and the captain.


Original gun from Trafalgar and exhibit showing selection of shot that could be fired.


Replicas of Nelson’s uniforms, from Great Cabin on Victory. During the Trafalgar battle he refused to cover his epaulettes and medals, this making himself a highly visible target.


Great Cabin set up to look like it did at the time of Trafalgar. Note Emma Hamilton’s portrait. All of this would have been struck below before Victory engaged in battle.


Wider-angle view of Victory’s Great Cabin.


Middle gundeck on Victory. These are replica cannons.


Victory showing the three gundecks and her tumblehome style of ship architecture

HMS Victory currently rests in drydock at Portsmouth Royal Navy Dockyard undergoing a refit of her masts and rigging. With no topmasts or topgallant masts she looks rather “curtailed,” to borrow one of Patrick O’Brian’s most famous puns. There are many paintings of Victory under full sail in all her glory.  I particularly recommend any done by Geoff Hunt, who has painted all the Aubrey-Maturin bookcovers and has done several studies of Victory at Trafalgar. The following is “Victory and Squadron in Light Airs”, copied from a book I own, The Marine Art of Geoff Hunt.HuntL24-VictorySquadWe think of wooden ships as low tech, but “Ships of the Line”  or line-of-battle ships, were the technological marvels of the 18th and 19th centuries.  The well-informed docents on board Victory point out all of the ingenious solutions that shipwrights and outfitters came up with to deal with the problem of creating stability, fire-resistant gunpowder storage, and facilities for cooking.  British ships like Victory also enjoyed a significant technological advantage over French and Spanish ships at Trafalgar.  British cannon had flintlocks, while Spanish and French gunners still depended on “slow match” to fire their big guns.  The latter were a slow burning fuse-like material.  On rolling decks, instant-firing flintlocks gave gunners a much better aim because they could fire when they wanted to (“on the roll”).  A heavy swell was running before and during the Trafalgar battle, and Nelson’s strategy surely took into account his technological superiority.  History records that the British gunfire was more accurate than the French or Spanish (the Royal Navy rate of fire was also quicker because of constant drilling on the big guns).

Victory, a “first rate” three-decker, was about as as large as Royal Navy ships got at that time.  The Royal Navy had no more than a few ships of Victory’s size — the most common ship of the line was a 74 gun two-decker.  Victory’s hull and interior have been meticulously restored and you can admire the beauty of her lines and the quarters that admirals and captains enjoyed,  Then you realize that over 700 men lived on Victory and you can imagine how poor their living conditions must have been.  (My grandfather, great-grandfather and great uncle sailed “before the mast” on English merchant ships in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)


Chair made with wood from HMS Temeraire, which followed Victory through the line at Trafalgar


Temeraire’s emblem.


Commemorative Plaque onboard HMS Victory


Victory with Gunports Open