Horacio Nelson (I)                                                                                                                                                  

Chatham, England, 1771. A raw March wind blew white- caps across the harbor and splashed the piers with spray. Sails flogged and tavern signs creaked. An officer of the Royal Navy was walking along the waterfront when a youngster approached him. The boy was neat despite his plain clothes, and he projected an air of quiet self-assurance. He did not ask for money, as the officer had expected him to. He had a sea bag over his shoulder, and he wanted directions. Where could he find the Raisonnable? And how could he get out to her?

His Majesty's ship of the line Raisonnable lay in the Medway River estuary, along with other warships that had recently been recommissioned. The youngster confided that he not only knew the name of the Raisonnable's commander, Captain Maurice Suckling, but he was, in fact, Suckling's nephew. He was reporting for duty as a midshipman.

The Naval officer was acquainted with Captain Suckling. He escorted the lad to his own lodgings, gave him some food and hot tea, and then arranged for a boat to take him out to the Raisonnable. No doubt he forgot the incident, as well as the boy's name. He would remember it later, though, when this slender child became the most famous fighting admiral in the Royal Navy—or the entire world, for that matter.

Horatio Nelson was 12 years old when he became a midshipman. He was the son of a genteel but impecunious upcountry pastor who had been left a widower with eight children to care for. What had stimulated the enlistment of young Horace, as the family called him, was an account in the local newspaper to the effect that the ship of the line Raisonnable was being readied for combat in view of a likely war with Spain. Her captain would be Maurice Suckling. The youth had persuaded his father to write to Uncle Maurice, who had replied: "What has poor Horace done, who is so weak, that he above all the rest should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come; and the first time we go into action, a cannon-ball may knock off his head, and provide for him at once."

The Raisonnable had been captured from the French after a fierce battle 12 years earlier, during the Seven Years' War. The Royal Navy had followed the usual proud custom of retaining the ship's French name; it was good for morale to keep everyone mindful of ships captured from the enemy, and unlucky to change the name in any case. The Seven Years' War had ended in 1763, and the Admiralty had decommissioned the Raisonnable, along with many other vessels. Officers were placed on half pay and the crew dispersed. Now in 1770 came a new threat of war and from a most unlikely corner of the globe: the barren Falkland Islands, some 200 miles out in the Atlantic off the tip of South America.

Spain claimed the Islands. So did Great Britain, which for a number of years had maintained a marine detachment and a settlers' outpost in the Falklands to secure its claim. Suddenly in June of 1770 a large Spanish force sent from Buenos Aires descended on the handful of British colonists at Port Egmont, the British Falklands settlement, and attacked and occupied the place. It was four months before anyone in England learned about this little flurry in the South Atlantic; then the news triggered a wave of national indignation. England had been the world's dominant power ever since the Treaty of Paris in 1763 had ended the Seven Years' War. For the first time it could be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, an empire that owed its existence largely to Britain's mastery of the seas. The very thought of a Spanish landing party humbling His Majesty's subjects was more than Britons could bear.

To make matters infinitely worse, after the news reached Britain, the Spaniards behaved in an astonishing manner. Confronted by demands for restitution, Spain's King Charles III equivocated, meanwhile turning to Britain's old enemy, France, for an alliance. Charles' behavior triggered an outburst of war fever in England. Ships of the line were recommissioned; officers were recalled to duty; crews were rounded up.

As it happened, the Falkland Islands dispute evaporated after a few months. France's King Louis XV had no appetite for another war with England so soon, and Spain, left on its own, quickly capitulated, yielding the Falklands to Britain in 1771. England's war fever cooled as swiftly as it had risen. Young Midshipman Nelson had spent barely five months aboard the Raisonnable before she was decommissioned.

Nelson's uncle managed to find him a job as apprentice to the captain of a merchantman sailing to the West Indies. That experience almost cost England its admiral-to-be.

Merchant seamen detested the Royal Navy—for its forced recruiting, for its brutal discipline, for its miserable food and quarters, above all for its risks of danger, disfigurement and death. Young and impressionable, Horatio listened with mounting anger and apprehension to his shipmates' horror stories about the Navy and its callous officers. After a year aboard the merchantman, Nelson related afterward, he returned home with a hatred for the Royal Navy.

It took many long talks and all of Uncle Maurice' persuasive powers to restore the 14-year-old Nelson's faith in Naval service. But at last he agreed to resume his midshipman's training, and in July 1772, Suckling arranged for a berth aboard the 74-gun Triumph, stationed as a guard ship at the Nore, the sandbank at the mouth of the Thames.

It was fortuitous that Uncle Maurice salvaged his nephew for the Navy. Although few Englishmen realized it at the time, the Falkland Islands incident signaled a crucial turning point for England, and particularly for the Royal Navy. It was the beginning of the .greatest challenge to Britain's command of the seas since the Spanish Armada almost two centuries before. The challenge would continue and grow in intensity for the better part of four decades. Within a few years, an infuriating, but relatively minor, threat would come during the American Revolutionary War; but the major crisis would occur in European waters as France and Spain joined forces during the Napoleonic Wars in an attempt to destroy the Royal Navy. At the height of the challenge, England would be threatened with invasion, defeat and occupation by the looming power of Napoleon Bonaparte.

And who, in this time of terrible ordeal, would turn out to be Britain's chief protector, indeed, its savior? The Little midshipman of 1771, the sensitive youth who at first had quailed at the harshness of Navy life, the reluctant boy now learning the ropes aboard a patrol ship rocking back and forth along a coastal sandbank.

In those desperate days, England's ultimate defense was the Royal Navy—"the wooden-walls of England," as it was so proudly called. And it was the confrontation between the Royal Navy and the burgeoning fleets of France and Spain that precipitated the greatest and most awesome Age of Fighting Sail. Though scarcely 35 years in duration, from the first impudent challenge in the Falkland Islands to the climactic Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, it was a period of titanic clashes, of death and destruction at sea, of boundlessly brave sailors and brilliant, though sometimes foolhardy, tacticians and strategists. If Horatio Nelson's name was to become the most conspicuous in the international pantheon of naval heroes, there were others almost as lustrous: Rodney, Jervis, Troubridge and Collingwood, Brueys, Villeneuve, Gravina and John Paul Jones—not to mention a landbound genius named John Clerk, who devised, as an exercise on paper, the revolutionary naval maneuvers that ultimately secured victory for England.

Those few years of fierce struggle saw as well the perfection of the sailing warship, bristling with scores of cannon and billowing with acres of canvas. From the time of Alfred the Great every English monarch could muster a fleet of ships. Yet not until the reign of King Henry VIII could these collections of vessels be called a permanent fighting navy. In earlier days, ships were used mainly to ferry armies, and when battles were fought at sea, the soldiers boarded the enemy and fought on his decks. It was Henry VIII's 1,000-ton Great Harry, with her massive bronze guns, that first symbolized England's sea power. The vessel was the greatest of the Tudor monarch's "great shyppes" and had the distinction of being the prototype of the modem, as opposed to the medieval, man-of-war. But only during the 18th Century were sailing ships truly perfected as weapons in themselves. The ship's wheel, which activated pulleys to move the rudder, replaced the clumsy deck-wide sweep of the old-fashioned tiller, and provided greater maneuverability in battle. Copper-sheathed hulls were developed to retard the marine growth that had fouled and slowed the older wooden vessels. The first use of copper sheathing on the hull was nearly disastrous because of the corroding action that caused the iron hull fastenings to fall out. In short order, copper bolts were substituted for the iron ones.

As the state of the art progressed, the high fore-and-aft castles of yesteryear were eliminated; with a lower center of gravity, vessels could raise more sail for greater speed. Moreover, the sails themselves were vastly improved; triangular fore-and-aft jibs at the bow and staysails between the masts helped warships sail Gloser to the wind than had been possible with nothing but square sails. Even the motive power of the square sails was enhanced by the addition of studding sails (pronounced and often spelled "stuns'les"), which could be extended from the yard­arm of the traditional sail. Under full sail a large warship might mount as many as 36 sails and surge through the water at a speed of 10 knots.

The most telling refinement in the 18th Century warship could be found belowdecks: row upon row of deadly cannon. A 200-foot-long ship of the line, mounting over 100 guns in three tiers of its massive hull, could fire half a ton of devastation, each cannon bail as big as a man's head, in a single broadside. It could also let loose clouds of grapeshot the size of musket halls, screaming tangles of chain, rockets, red-hot cannon balls and bowling storms of nails and assorted razor-edged funk. Nothing then known to man could match the murderous firepower of a fully armed, well-fought ship of the line.

These engines of destruction were made even more formidable by their method of fighting, as signified by their name: "ships of the line." They were warships powerful enough to fight in the great line of battle in major fleet actions. The ultimate weapon at sea, at least from the Royal Navy's viewpoint, was the battle formation of these ships of the line, perhaps a dozen of them sailing single file, bowsprit to sternpost, all bearing down past the enemy, firing as they came and concentrating all their withering impact on their targets. On the Royal Navy's six-stage rating scale for warships  only first-, second- and third-rated vessels mounting between 120 and 64 guns in their main armament qualified as ships of the line.

In their dramatic and unprecedented battles, these mighty war ma­chines were employed as part of an elaborate orchestration to outwit, outmaneuver and overcome the enemy fleet. In the early days of naval warfare, individual captains tended to command their ships in battle more or less as they saw fit. As fleets grew larger, this method resulted in great thundering melees that no commander could begin to control. In 1653 the British Admiralty issued a set of Fighting Instructions, designed to bring order out of this confusion and thereby to greatly increase the fleet's efficiency. These Fighting Instructions decreed a "line of battle" in which each vessel followed a cable's length (200 yards) behind the other, all acting on the commanding admiral's signaled orders. Under no circumstances could a captain strike off to fight on his own. These stringently enforced tactics had won the Royal Navy some notable victories against Spain and France during the incessant wars of the early and mid-18th Century.

But now times were changing and the Royal Navy found itself forced to adopt radical new methods in order to meet the challenge of the enemy's improved ships and firepower. And providentially, a new system of communication—a signaling method using a reformed set of flags—was developed during the height of the challenge. The result was a series of sea battles, fought in the West Indies and off the North American coast, in the Mediterranean and off England's own shores, of an intensity and dévastation never seen before.

The 18th Century ship of the line, ponderous and powerful yet seemingly light and graceful as it moved, all sails set to the lift of the wind and sea, was among man's most splendid creations. The classic example of the ship of the line was the Victory (pages 17-19), fifth in a succession of ships named Victory starting in the 16th Century with Sir John Hawkins' flagship in the battle against the Spanish Armada. The fifth Victory was laid down in 1759 and launched in 1765, but peacetime economies delayed her commissioning for another 13 years. She was lying idle at her mooring at Chatham on the March day in 1771 when young Horatio Nelson reported for duty aboard the Raisonnable nearby, and from her deck he could study the ship that would one day wear his flag.

English shipbuilders followed more or less traditional construction procedures, and the Victory resembled most of the other first-rate ships of the line. The major difference was that she was somewhat bigger than her sisters, and her superior sailing qualities were the result of better design and the fact that she could sail Gloser to the wind than most other three-deckers. These attributes made her a favorite with admirals entitled to have flagships.

To anyone approaching by boat, the Victory loomed out of the water like a huge wooden building, and indeed her ornate stem with its three rows of gilt-edged windows gave her the appearance of a floating palace.

The quarter-deck occupied nearly half the uppermost deck of the vessel, from the mainmast aft. This deck was the province of the ship's 49 officers—as was the Victory' s entire stem. In the sharply stratified society of an 18th Century warship, no ordinary seaman was permitted on the quarter-deck—or anywhere else aft—unless summoned there or required to perform some specific duty. The province of the ordinary crewman was the top gun deck, the forecastle (or fo'c's'le, as it was called) and the gun decks below. As crowded as a London Blum and often as evil-smelling, this area offered none of the amenities enjoyed by the officers. The men endured it because they had to—and because life aboard a man-of-war was in some ways better than the brutal existence to which the poor were universally condemned during the 18th Century.

The men slept, ate and, if they were gunners, spent virtually every waking moment beside the monster 24- and 32-pounder cannon on the two lower gun decks. At night the men not standing watch unrolled their hammocks, hung them from hooks attached to the overhead beams and slept swinging over the guns. By day they ate from wooden boards slung from the beams, leaning their backs against the cannon. The decks were cramped and confined, the overhead beams less than six feet from the decking, and the only windows through which natural light and fresh air could enter were the gunports.

The manger at the forward end of the lower gun deck served botte as a bulwark against the seas that leaked in through the anchor hawseholes at the bow and as a cage for the live animals shipped aboard to provide fresh meat for the admiral and his officers. The larger animals—cows, goats and sheep—were securely penned. But chickens, ducks and an occasional pig often managed to escape from the manger and roam through the deck, fouling it like a barnyard. Being but a few feet above the water line, the lower gun deck was a noisome place on a stormy day at sea, with the gunports closed, water sloshing through the manger forward, livestock littering the deck and nearly 600 wet and dirty men crowded together in the stinking dark.

A crewman's life was just as harsh and hazardous as his quarters were cramped, airless and uncomfortable. The man-of-war's day at sea commenced at dawn. With the shriek of the boatswain's pipe and the cry "Ail hands!" the boatswain's mates went through the lower gun deck, flicking knotted ropes at the hard outlines in the hammocks. Those seamen who did not tumble out at once were dumped onto the deck. In short order, spurred on by more stings of the knotted ropes—this encouragement was called "starting"—the men dressed, then lashed their hammocks and headed topside. There was a way of lashing the hammocks and looping the ropes seven times around the heavy canvas, and the boatswain's mates made sure each man did it correctly. The hammocks were then stowed in special nettings along the upper deck's bulwarks, where, in battle, they provided extra protection against small shot and could also be used as life preservers if anyone fell overboard; a welllashed hammock could float for several hours.

Once on deck, the men were immediately put to work washing down the decks and scraping them smooth of splinters with holystones, so named because the smaller of these sandstone scrapers were the size of a prayer book. The deck was sprinkled with sand: the sand helped scour the surface, but it also cut into the bare knees of the men, who had rolled up their trousers to conserve the precious clothing.

At 6 a.m. the boatswain's pipe shrilled again and the men took their first meal of the day, usually "burgoo," a gruel of water and oatmeal, washed down with Scotch coffee, a bitter concoction made of burned biscuit dissolved in hot water.

Food on an 18th Century man-of-war was usually adequate in quantity, but miserably short on quality. The main meal of the day came at noon and often consisted of salt pork or beef, biscuits, a pease pudding, beer and occasionally, butter and cheese. Hearty and not wholly unappetizing—until the later stages of a patrol when the sait beef became so hard that it could be carved into mahogany-colored trinkets and the cheese was filled with long red worms. As for the biscuits, they were not so bad when infested with maggots; this was only the first stage of decay. The maggots did not deter a hungry man. In fact, they were regarded with a certain relish. As one midshipman described them, they were "very cold when you eat them, like calf's foot jelly." But later, when the weevils took over, the biscuits crumbled into powder and lost ail their nourishment. At this point, the men would eat the ship's rats—if they could catch them. The rats were wryly known as "millers" because of the white coats the animals got from spending much of their time in the flour; a large, neatly skinned rat was a much-appreciated item to a hungry tar.

It was this noon meal that, perhaps more than anything else, pointed up the double standard of the Royal Navy. While the men at their swing-ing tables on the lower gun deck were eating—and sometimes gagging over—their humble fare, the officers in their wardroom, and the captain and admiral in their dining cabins, were served, as available, roast beef or lamb freshly butchered and fine wines.

The men, however, would not have preferred the officers' wine to the beverage that followed dinner and made their day: grog. The fifer struck up a jolly tune and a selected man from each mess took a tub up on deck that a mate filled with a ration of rum and water; some men gave it an extra little zip by mixing in the lemon juice they were issued for its scurvy-preventing Vitamin C. Each sailor's grog portion was strong enough, and copious enough, to bring the drinker to the edge at least of happy inebriation.

After grog the men not on watch were permitted to nap and loaf around the gun decks and the forecastle. The men on watch had to stick to their posts and keep their wits about them; any slight sign of drunkenness could result in a severe flogging for dereliction of duty.

The night watches were the hardest, especially when the ship was in cold, stormy seas. These watches ran four hours-8 p.m. to midnight, midnight to 4 a.m., and so on—and they could be torture for men dressed as inadequately as the average seaman was. Their clothes were usually of canvas and cotton, and there were no snug peacoats or greatcoats: the Royal Navy did not issue uniforms until the mid-19th Century.

The most brutal part of an 18th Century seaman's life was the punishment that was inflicted for even the smallest breach of the Navy's many regulations. For a minor crime such as excessive swearing a man was put in the leg irons on the exposed top gun deck. He was kept in a sitting position, with his hands secured behind him, and remained so until the captain released him.

The floggings were far worse. Punishment hour was traditionally 11 a.m. The shriek of the boatswain's pipe and a roll of drums summoned ail hands to the top gun deck to see the edifying spectacle. On the quarter-deck stood the officers, in formal dress and wearing their swords. Before them stood the master-at-arms, several sturdy boatswain's mates and, guarded by a pair of quartermasters, the manacled sailor who was to be punished. The captain asked the malefactor if he had anything to say for himself. He usually did not. "Strip," the captain ordered. The man removed his shirt. "Seize him up," the captain commanded. The quartermasters tied the man's hands to a pair of gratings. "Seized up, sir," they reported. The captain then read the appropriate passage in the Articles of War, as all those present respectfully removed their bats. He then turned to the boatswain's mate: "Do your duty."

At that, the mate pulled out the knotted cord cat-o'-nine-tails, drew back and laid on the first stroke with all his strength, grunting from the effort. The first lash left a pattern of livid red welts along the man's back. The next few lashes cut more deeply, and a dozen lashes turned the flesh into a pulpy, dripping mass. Now, between each stroke, the mate ran the cat's tails between his fingers to clear away the blood, flicking it onto the deck. A powerful boatswain's mate liked to brag that he could lay on the second dozen lashes as heavily as the first, but often a second mate was substituted just to make sure. A veteran seaman also boasted about how many lashes he could endure without screaming. Some sadistic captains ordered 100 lashes or more. No man could remain stoic in the face of that torture; not many men even survived the ordeal.


The uniforms and even a bit of the spirit of the Royal Navy's officers and seamen are captured in this 1799 series of aquatints by the famed illustrator and caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson. White Rowlandson put a flattering face on most of the crewmen, he could not resist mocking "Old Nipcheese," the parsimonious purser.


To be followed