Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson’s 259th Birthday

Today marks the 259th birthday of one of Britain’s most famous sailors. Horatio Nelson was born on September 29th 1758 in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine Suckling.

On January 1st 1771, he began his naval career by reporting for duty aboard HMS Raisonnable then under command of his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He joined the ship’s company as an ordinary sailor but was soon appointed a midshipman and began his officer training. Nelson would serve on a number of ships during his career and would participate in several expeditions including an effort to find the fabled Northwest Passage; a route through the Arctic to India. In 1778, Nelson received his first command namely the 12-gun brig HMS Badger.

During his career he saw action in the American War of Independence and in the Wars of the Second and Third Coalitions against post-revolutionary France. It was during this last conflict that Nelson led a British fleet in the battle that would make him a legend – the Battle of Trafalgar.

On October 21st 1805, the now Vice-Admiral Nelson led twenty-seven British ships of the line from his flagship, HMS Victory and defeated thirty-three French and Spanish warships under the French Admiral Villeneuve in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war and ended French ambitions to invade England but it would cost Nelson his life when he was shot by an enemy sniper.

Admiral Horatio Nelson nelson's columnIn 1809, Nelson was commemorated with a large granite pillar capped by a statue of his likeness at the top in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, Ireland. In 1843, the similar Nelson’s Column was erected in Trafalgar Square, London and has become an important symbol of the city. In 1966, over 40 years after the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the UK, Irish Republicans bombed the pillar in Dublin which sent the statue at the top crashing to the ground. It was never rebuilt.

Earlier this year, in the wake of a wave of protests in the US against statues to Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, Journalist Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian newspaper;

It is figures like Nelson who immediately spring to mind when I hear the latest news of confederate statues being pulled down in the US…The colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised.

Her article called for Nelson’s Column and a number of other statues of British Empire figures to be taken down but she has been met with strong opposition.



Slavers & Pirates – Midshipman Crawford’s Great Escape

The story of the abolition of slavery within the British Empire is one of forward thinking triumphs and deplorable setbacks. There can be no denying that slavery played a big part in the building of the empire in the first place especially when it came to colonising North America and other parts of the so-called New World but by the dawn of the 19th century a more enlightened British society demanded an end to the act at home and within the Empire. Other countries too tried outlawing slavery but there were always those who stood to lose from its abolition and often these people were the most influential in their countries which was a major obstacle to overcome.

slavery-abolition-ukIn Great Britain, the House of Lords repeatedly stood in the way of ending slavery in the Empire citing that the cost of first losing this abundance of cheap labour in the colonies and then having to employ the freed slaves would significantly weaken the Empire’s economy. They made it clear in the first quarter of the 19th century that they would block any effort to end slavery in Britain’s colonial possessions but they did make one important concession in 1807 with the passing of the Slave Trade Act. The act finally put an end to British vessels transporting slaves and a fine of £120 per slave (approx. £8,500 today) was put in place for any captain caught in such activity. It was hoped by the Abolitionists in Britain that the Slave Trade Act would itself lead to an end of slavery in the colonies since they would be denied fresh slaves from Africa and the Caribbean but this didn’t happen until the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

In the meantime, as was often the case in the time of the British Empire, it fell to the Royal Navy to enforce the law across Britain’s vast colonial possessions. As such, in 1808 the Royal Navy established a dedicated patrol force to combat slavers still engaged in the Atlantic slave trade between Africa and the Americas. The new tasking, while morally praiseworthy, was met initially with a level of consternation by the Admiralty who were concerned by the cost of maintaining such a patrol force especially given the ongoing conflicts with Napoleonic France. Nevertheless, the West Africa Squadron was formed although initially it consisted of just two ships – the 32-gun frigate HMS Soleby and the 18-gun HMS Derwent.

A special court was established in Sierra Leone to prosecute cases and Britain used its considerable political influence to force other imperial powers such as Portugal, Spain and Holland to either submit to the ban on the slave trade or as was the case with Portugal impose limits. French slave ships were often taken as prizes under the articles of war. Despite this unprecedented level of international legal cooperation, the Atlantic slave trade continued especially regarding South America. The risks involved in transporting slaves drove costs up increasing profits for captains who were looking to make their fortune which in turn kept the West Africa Squadron busy throughout the middle of the 19th century.

In 1826, the 18-gun brig-sloop HMS Elk stumbled upon two vessels, the Netuno and the Esperanza, from the newly independent nation of Brazil attempting to make it home from West Africa. Suspecting they were transporting slaves, the British warship boarded them and confirmed that their cargo consisted of around 200 African slaves. Interpreting the law of King George IV, the captain of the Elk elected to sail the two vessels and their cargo to Sierra Leone to release the slaves and put the two captains on trial; a potentially inflammatory act since slavery was still very much rife in Brazil forming a significant part of the economy and would continue to do so until 1888.

The incident that followed was recounted in Admiral Edward Giffard’s collected work Deeds of Naval Daring: Anecdotes of the British navy published after his death in 1910. The Netuno was assigned eight men from the Elk to act as prize crew and to command the captured Brazilian crew back to Africa. The prize crew were under the command of Midshipman R. R. Crawford, a promising young officer at the time and one who would later fulfil that promise having a successful career. On March 6th 1826, Crawford and the Netuno sailed for Sierra Leone in company with the Esperanza. However, it was quickly realised that the Esperanza was the faster of the two ships and the Netuno began to fall behind until both ships had effectively parted company.

The journey proved uneventful for the most part until the night of March 20th. Most of the Brazilian crew were kept below deck during the night hours to reduce the chance of them attempting to retake their ship under the cover of darkness. Crawford had retired for the evening but was suddenly awoken by the Brazilian captain who alerted him that they had spotted a vessel on the horizon, its large square rigged sails reflecting the low light enough for a keen eye to spot. Calling his men up on deck, Crawford reasoned that the vessel was HMS Redwing, a sister-ship of his own vessel the Elk and one that was very active in combatting the slave trade on the west of Africa. Having been at sea for almost two weeks he couldn’t have known that the Redwing was herself dealing with a Spanish illegal slave ship hundreds of miles away.


HMS Clio, sister to ship to Elk and Redwind

The pursuing ship fired a shot across the bow of the Netuno and still under the impression that it was the Redwing, Crawford ordered the British red ensign to be raised and that sail was to be reduced to allow them to come alongside. The pursuing vessel manoeuvred to sail parallel to the Netuno allowing Crawford and the Brazilian captain to take a good look at it. What they saw made them realise the predicament they now found themselves in. The vessel that had been pursuing them was in a rather poor condition, lacked any identifying colours and manned by a crew that were both loud and seemingly undisciplined; clearly not a warship of any of the imperial powers. It was however armed with at least 12 visible guns making her a formidable opponent to a vessel such as the Netuno that was armed with only two six pounders that were only useful for discouraging bandits.

The Brazilian captain turned to Crawford and repeatedly began saying the word “Ladrone! Ladrone!” over and over which loosely translated means “robber”. Realising that they were pirates, Crawford ordered his men to make sail and fire their only gun aimed at them to catch them off guard and make good their escape. However, discipline amongst his own hybrid crew of Royal Navy sailors and Brazilian slavers would be his undoing. The sails were unfurled but the gun crew were unable to load a shot quickly enough for many of them feared the consequences of taking on such a heavily armed opponent.

Seeing that the Netuno was attempting to escape, the pirate vessel fired a shot which sent a cannon ball between the masts of the Brazilian slave ship. To Crawford’s amazement he then spied them hoisting French colours before hailing the Netuno demanding that they stop and identify themselves as well as present their papers. Crawford nor the Brazilian captain were fooled but knowing that to attempt to run now would only invite a barrage of gunfire to which they had little response decided to comply if only to buy themselves time. The “French” captain ordered Crawford to come aboard his ship to present his papers which Crawford was unable to do because the Netuno lacked its own sea boat. Therefore, the “French” captain said he would provide him with his own boat and one was readied with five men commanded by what appeared to be an officer although to Crawford his attire was in poor order for a man claiming to be of such a position. The men rowed to the Netuno where the officer again repeated his captain’s demands that Crawford produce his papers. The officer spoke French to one of his men who then relayed the words in English to Crawford with a distinctly Irish accent. During the exchange of words the “French” officer revealed his true identity by accidentally breaking in to Spanish although Crawford feigned ignorance so as to not ignite the situation.

Crawford acknowledged that he would produce the papers and that he had to go to his cabin to get them. The pirates waited in their boat alongside the Netuno and Crawford ordered that under no circumstances were they to be allowed on board. In his cabin, Crawford readied two pistols and prepared himself for whatever was to come next knowing that whatever he did to appease the pirates they would try and take his ship at some point. He left his cabin with his hands behind his back clutching the two pistols and made his way towards where the pirate boat was positioned alongside his captured slave ship. He spoke to the officer and asked if the papers could be inspected by his captain without Crawford having to come aboard their ship but as they conversed the pirate spotted one of Crawford’s pistols and attempted to leap aboard and rush at him. Crawford’s hand was too quick however and he put one of the pistols to the man’s chest and shot him dead at point blank range. A second man then leapt aboard the Netuno and Crawford put him down with his other pistol.

The four remaining men in the boat including the Irishman threw their hands up and Crawford instructed them to get in the water and hold on to the sides of their boat. This was to prevent them from making similar attempts to board the Netuno. Suddenly, the air boomed with the sound of the pirate vessel opening up on the Netuno with their guns despite the fact they still had four of their own men in the water alongside it. Their aim was good enough to get several hits on the Netuno and despite the David and Goliath odds, Crawford had no choice but to return fire with his single six pounder gun pointing in the pirate ship’s direction. The gun was handled by Crawford, one of the prize crew and the Brazilian captain while efforts were made to get the vessel under sail. Once mobile again, the Netuno tried to pull away from the pirate ship hoping they would attempt to recover their men who were still clutching to their boat thus giving the Netuno time to escape but instead it gave chase.

Despite their superior firepower, the Spanish pirates were unable to inflict a mortal wound on the Netuno which managed to either escape from or survive barrage after barrage. Incredibly, Netuno’s six pounder scored a lucky shot that must have ignited the gun powder on board for it produced a large explosion that Crawford’s men speculated killed or wounded at least twenty of their number. Crawford put their lack of success down to poor discipline and training for he noted that many of the pirate’s guns were firing at high angles of elevation that sent the rounds flying between the Netuno’s masts.

For nearly two hours the two ships exchanged fire while Netuno attempted to make good her escape. Then, to the relief of the men aboard the Netuno the pirate vessel began broke off the engagement. Testimony from the Netuno’s men later claimed that as the pirate ship broke off, fighting between its crewmembers could clearly be seen up on deck. The captured slave ship had survived the encounter but did not come off entirely unscathed. A single shot had hit the slave hold killing a woman and taking off a young girl’s arm while up on deck Crawford himself had been severely wounded by splintering wood that struck him in the temple and hand. He collapsed on deck and had to be nursed back to health during the voyage to Sierra Leone but he made a full recovery.

During the investigation by the courts in Sierra Leone, Crawford was praised for his actions and was soon promoted for his deeds. The key piece of evidence came from the Brazilian captain of the Netuno who had nothing but praise for the British officer despite the fact Crawford’s own ship had seized his vessel a few weeks prior.

FINAL NOTE: HMS Redwind, the ship Crawford initially believed was the vessel approaching them before realising they were in fact pirates, would be lost at sea under mysterious circumstances just a few weeks after this incident. Pieces of the vessel would wash up on the African shore but it is still unclear what her fate was.



Bombardment of Alexandria 1882


Up until the Second World War, Egypt had been one of the most important North African posts within the British Empire. It had gained a new importance with the opening of the French-financed Suez Canal on the 17th September 1869 which took off over 4,000 miles of the journey to India and Britain’s Far East possessions. Britain was initially against the opening of the canal for fear it may be used by France to challenge her regional superiority however it was a British warship, HMS Newport, that was the first ship through the canal.

Britain too had strong interests in Egypt and financed many projects that returned a profit for the treasury including the construction of an extensive railway system. At this time Egypt was under the leadership of the Khedives from the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. Seeing profit in working with the European powers the family cooperated with the British and French by authorizing such large scale projects such as the Suez Canal and the rail network as well as providing large numbers of slaves to work on them.

Tewfik Pasha

Tewfik Pasha & Ahmed ‘Urabi

In 1879 the throne passed to Tewfik Pasha and he continued the policy of cooperation but a growing nationalist movement was under way in his country that resented the influence the foreigners were having on Egypt. Leader of this movement was Ahmed ‘Urabi (sometimes known as Ahmad Arabi or Arabi Pasha), an officer in the Egyptian Army who led a mutiny against Tewfik’s rule. Tewfik tried to counter this uprising for fear of looking weak in front of his naturally nervous foreign supporters but the sides in Egypt were rather equally divided. Tewfik therefore agreed to reform his cabinet with a number of ‘Urabi’s supporters holding positions. This did little to curb ‘Urabi’s nationalist movement however and by 1882 he was the de facto head of the Egyptian government.

In June 1882 Urabi’s displeasure at foreign nationals took fruition as he organized a force to march on the port city of Alexandria where a large number of British and French were living. By this time Britain had purchased the Khedive’s share in the Suez Canal and was an equal partner to France in its operation. In what was labelled as anti-Christian rioting by the British press the nationalist supporters forced out British, French and any other non-Egyptian or non-Muslim from the city. Knowing the European powers were responding by sending warships to Alexandria, ‘Urabi then began fortifying the city in preparation for what seemed to be an inevitable confrontation.

The warships sent to Alexandria were of an Anglo-French force and their standing orders were to protect British and French citizens; orders which were open to interpretation with regards to execution. Leading the British fleet was Admiral Frederick Beauchamp Seymour aboard his flagship, HMS Invincible, who had held the post of Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet since 1880. He had therefore kept abreast of events in Egypt and upon learning of the increasing fortifications at Alexandria believed that they would be used to fire on their warships the moment they entered harbour. He therefore issued an ultimatum on the 10th July 1882 to ‘Urabi’s forces demanding they withdraw from the fortifications or they would be bombarded.

HMS Invincible

HMS Invincible – Admiral Seymour’s Flagship

It was at this point that the united front Britain and France were portraying collapsed. Political unrest in France meant that the French Navy was hoping to avoid a fight in case it had to be recalled home and were furious that Seymour had taken it upon himself to issue the ultimatum. They informed him that if the British fully intended to commit to a bombardment that the French fleet would have no part in it and would retreat to Port Said until the exchange stopped. This left Seymour and his force of 16 warships to carry out the bombardment alone. When ‘Urabi learned of this he felt his position had been reinforced believing that either the British were bluffing or that his own forces could repel the ships of the British Mediterranean Fleet. Either way the ultimatum passed and the nationalist forces remained in place. An incensed Seymour, whose honour was now at stake and was still acting under orders that allowed him to do what he felt was necessary, signalled from Invincible for the bombardment to commence at 0700 on July 11th 1882.

From an historical point of view Seymour’s fleet was a fascinating one as it aptly displayed the changing nature of warship design and technology of the era. Gone were the magnificently crafted wooden ships-of-the-line with their immense sails and two decks of muzzle loaded cannon balls. On the surface Seymour’s ships certainly resembled those days but now they were clad in iron armour and had much improved weapons but perhaps even more significantly they were all now powered by a mix of traditional sail and the revolutionary steam power. At the time the Admiralty saw the advantages in steam such as speed and manoeuvrability but didn’t trust its reliability and disliked the limited range compared to sail. Therefore sailing rigs were retained for long distances (with the steam used when the wind was low or combat was expected) and as a back up should the steam engines fail which was surprisingly often in those early days. Some ships such as HMS Monarch also had the first large naval turrets for ocean going use. An interesting addition to the fleet although one which played little part in the bombardment was HMS Hecla, a high speed torpedo boat!

HMS Alexandra

HMS Alexandra

Upon the passing of the deadline, Seymour ordered HMS Alexandra to commence the first attack by shelling the fort at Ras-el-tin. The Alexandra was a central battery ironclad armed with two 11-inch and ten 10-inch guns. Alexandra closed in and fired on the fort which in turn retaliated and was followed with shelling by HMS Sultan and Superb. The obvious advantage enjoyed by a warship over a fort is that it can remain mobile and therefore provide a difficult target. However during the bombardment of Ras-el-tin it was found that the gun crews had difficulty in properly aiming at the fort with shells landing short, too far or on parts of the fort already hit. Therefore by 0940hrs the order was given to bring the ships to a halt and fire a planned-out artillery barrage at the fort. While this improved accuracy it also made the warships more vulnerable and Alexandra took several hits. It would not be until the arrival of HMS Inflexible that the fort’s guns were finally suppressed. It was not the best start.

Further along the coast, HMS Invincible and HMS Temeraire began their attack on the fortifications around the Mex Citadel. Temeraire fired salvoes of 10- and 11-inch ammunition from her rifled guns with a fair degree of accuracy. Invincible supported the attack but occasionally turned guns on the troublesome Ras-el-tin fort to support Alexandra. Meanwhile a small number of the main force fired from long ranges with mixed success. Then disaster struck as Temeraire hit a previously uncharted reef grounding her but fortunately not causing any significant damage to the hull. She was nevertheless a sitting duck to the shore batteries who sensed an opportunity.

HMS Condor

HMS Condor

The grounding was witnessed by HMS Condor, commanded by Lord Charles Bereford, who ordered his ship to steam to Termeraire’s assistance. HMS Condor was categorized as a composite gun vessel which is broadly equivalent to a modern day gunboat in that her size and armament was relatively light and more suited to security missions than bombarding Egyptian forts. Her armament comprised of one 7-inch muzzle loaded gun and two 64-pdr muzzle loaded guns. She displaced just 774 tons compared to Temeraire’s 8,500 tons but nevertheless the two crews persisted and together they pulled Termeraire off the reef and continued their attack on the forts.

With the bulk of the Royal Navy force firing at long ranges to distract or suppress the guns of the main fortifications, three ships – HMS Condor, HMS Monarch and HMS Penelope – were ordered to close in on the nearby forts at Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout. Firing from a much shorter range they produced more accurate results. At this point Admiral Seymour’s flagship, HMS Invincible, had strayed into range of the guns at Fort Marabout and sensing an opportunity the Egyptian gunners fired relentlessly at the large British battleship. HMS Condor decided to go to her flagship’s aid and steamed inland to offer an easier target while at the same time firing accurate shells at each of the fort’s gun emplacements. Having saved a second ship and successfully suppressing the gun emplacements at Fort Marabout, Seymour signalled from Invincible “Well done Condor.”

Bombardment of AlexandriaIt was now early afternoon and both sides were trying to take stock of the situation. The forts at Ras-el-tin, the Mex Citadel, Mars-el-kanat and Fort Marabout had all taken a heavy pounding and were either destroyed or their occupiers had retreated. At 1330hrs HMS Superb was shelling a fifth fort, Fort Adda, when a direct hit on stacked ammunition caused an immense explosion that put the entire fort out of action. In the chaos of the fighting the Egyptians had observed several British ships such as the Alexandra receive hits and somehow came to the conclusion that three British warships had been sunk. While the Royal Navy had taken hits from defensive batteries the entire force was still operational.

The British did have a problem however; they had expended a large quantity of their ammunition. Having suppressed the main fortifications he had intended to, Seymour elected to pull his ships back to the open sea and assess the overall condition of his fleet. Despite some casualties the fleet had come out of the action relatively intact. With the fires from the damaged or destroyed forts still burning Seymour decided to wait until the next day to launch a reconnaissance operation to asses the results of the bombardment.

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire

HMS Temeraire was chosen to lead the reconnaissance mission and in the early hours of the morning of the 12th July 1882 the ship returned to the waters off Alexandria. Her lookouts observed that some of the defences were being rebuilt by ‘Uradi’s men and upon reporting this back to Seymour he ordered that Tameraire and Inflexible should return and bombard them again. At 1030hrs the two ships fired on the rebuilt defences. ‘Urabi’s men were not as determined to resist for a second day and within twenty minutes flags of truce appeared on the shore and the bombardment stopped.

An Egyptian boat carrying representatives of ‘Urabi’s government sailed out to the British fleet to begin negotiations. These negotiations failed miserably as neither side were willing to submit. Therefore in late afternoon the bombardment resumed however the spirited defence the British had encountered the day before had gone and many of the forts, against ‘Urabi’s wishes, flew the white flag and were therefore not attacked. As late afternoon gave way to night large numbers of ‘Urabi’s men abandoned their posts believing a British invasion was imminent. With no law in place in Alexandria they went on an orgy of looting and arson.

Seymour had a contingent of Royal Marines at his command but refused to land them until the situation on shore had been established. It would not be until two days later, the 14th July 1882, that he finally took his ships inland and landed his troops. Instead of fighting ‘Urabi’s men the Royal Marines found themselves fighting off bands of looters. Nevertheless Seymour had achieved his goal of securing Alexandria.

There was much criticism of Seymour’s actions after the event. Some were furious that he took it upon himself to effectively make up Britain’s foreign policy, that of armed intervention, regarding Egypt on his own. Some also accused him of exaggerating the strength and threat the fortifications presented to British interests in the region. Others however have argued in his defence stating that even if he had attempted a more diplomatic approach it would only have delayed the inevitable confrontation by which time ‘Urabi’s men would have been even stronger. Either way the event cost Seymour’s force ten men dead and 27 wounded. The number of Egyptians killed in the bombardment and in the chaos of the following two days before Royal Marines restored order is thought to be much higher.

If a hero was to emerge from the whole affair then the title has to go to Lord Charles Bereford, captain of HMS Condor who rescued the grounded Temeraire and then came to the defence of the flagship Invincible. Proof that even in the Victorian era it was not always the biggest ships that had the glory. Despite resistance from the British government under William Gladstone, British troops were eventually landed in Egypt and ‘Urabi’s revolt was crushed once and for all. Tewfik Pasha was restored as head of the Egyptian government and Egypt became a British protectorate. Among the officers of the Army embarked upon this mission was a brash young Lieutenant named Winston Spencer Churchill.

27th July 1880 – Battle of Maiwand


The Battle of Maiwand on 27 July 1880 was one of the principal battles of the Second Anglo-Afgan War. Under the leadership of Ayub Khan the Afghans defeated two brigades of British and Indian troops under the command of Brigadier General George Burrows. Their success was at a high price however with between 2,050 and 2,750 Afghan warriors killed and another 1,500 wounded. British and Indian forces suffered 969 soldiers killed and 177 wounded.

The battle dampened morale for the British side, but was also partly a disappointment for Ayub Khan because he had lost so many men to gain a small advantage. Ayub Khan did manage to shut the British up in Kandahar, resulting in General Frederick Roberts’s famous 314-mile relief march from Kabul to Kandahar in August 1880. The resulting Battle of Kandahar on September 1 was a decisive victory for the British.

(Source: Wikipedia)