19 October 2010

Below decks at Trafalgar

The Temeraire meeting its ignominious end

I will freely admit that I have a fascination for the history of the Royal Navy, especially tits exploits during the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. I can quite cheerfully devour naval histories by the (jolly)boatload!

Unsurprisingly, the great majority of contemporary accounts come from those who walked the quarterdeck rather than those who lived in the lower decks (midshipmen excluded). It is always good to read accounts from ordinary sailors

Today’s Guardian reports that eyewitness written by Robert Hope, a 28 year old sailmaker who served on the Temeraire

In a letter written to his brother John in Ashford he said:

What do you think of us Lads of the Sea now, I think they won't send their fleets out again in a hurry

Hope described how his ship engaged the Spanish four-decker Santissima Trinadad, alongside Nelson's flagship Victory, but was soon caught in a firestorm, surrounded by French ships.

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 (Fougueux) and the other dropt on our larboard side called the Doubtable (Redoubtable), 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.

Quintin Colville, curator of naval history at the Royal Maritime museum, said: "It instantly demolishes the cliched view of life below decks as villainous and ignorant – this man was obviously highly educated, and he gives a most vivid and lively description."
Colville says Hope would have joined a gun crew for the battle.
"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.

The letter ends with tender greetings to his sister and father:
… please to let him know that I am arrived in England for I long very much to hear from him.

The letter has remained in the family until now, treasured. It cost us a considerable amount of money, but it was worth every penny," Colville said. "This is such a rare thing, a voice from the lower decks. It will be very well used here – and eventually we hope to be able to flesh it out with a full biography of Robert Hope. We don't know what happened to him in the end yet, but he survived 21 October 1805”

Utterly fascinating stuff!

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