Trafalgar from Below Deck

There are few other battles in the whole of British maritime history that hold quite the same resonance as Trafalgar. Fought during the Napoleonic Wars, Trafalgar assured that Britain ruled the waves, significantly limiting Napoleon Bonaparte’s ability to expand beyond Continental Europe or, more importantly, to acquire supplies from abroad. The British forces were led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, perhaps the greatest British naval commander in history—a man so inspiring that British forces often subsequently went into battle with the cry: “Remember Nelson!” You can learn far more about Trafalgar and its place in the larger European struggle against Napoleon by clicking here.

As the 205th anniversary of the battle approaches, archivists at the British Maritime Museum recently attained a rare view of the battle from below deck.  The account, written by a 28-year-old sailmaker named Robert Hope, describes what it was like on the HMS Temeraire—one of Nelson’s ships.  He writes:

“When five more of the enemy’s ships came upon us and engage us upon every quarter, for one hour and sixteen minutes, when one struck but being so closely engaged that we could not take possession of her at that time, two more seemed to be quite satisfied with what they had got so sheered off, but the other two was determined to board us. So with that intent, one dropt on our starboard side called the la Fue and the other dropt on our larboard side called the Doubtable, they kept a very hot fire for some time. But we soon cooled them for in the height of the smoke our men from the upper decks boarded them both at the same time, and soon carried the day.”

Life on English warships was anything but easy.  Voyages were long and cramped.  During battle, the horror was so palpable that the floor of the gun decks was painted red to obscure the gore.

Indeed, Hope notes

“The gun deck would have been a vile place, terrifying, deafening, highly dangerous, with great splinters flying from where the balls hit – we think of a splinter as something under your fingernail, but these could be chunks of wood two feet long that would disembowel a man. . . .

We had forty three Killed and Eighty five wounded, and twenty seven drowned in the Prizes.

Counted when Smoke Cleared away Seventeen Prizes and one all on fire, but we have only got four into Gibraltar, for a Gale of wind came on the day following that we was obliged to scuttle them for they was so very leaky.”

Of course, for many of us, the single most memorable moment in the battle came when Nelson was shot by a sniper.  The bullet, fired from the rigging of an opposing ship, entered his shoulder and then moved downward through vital organs.  Hope does not mention the loss.  The curator of the National Maritime Museum is not surprised by the omission, noting that a sailor’s life was very much limited to his own ship.  The view from below deck was limited.

To learn more about Robert Hope and his account of Trafalgar, check out the Guardian.

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