Monday, September 29, 2008

Nelson’s diary, and left hand

It’s Horatio Nelson’s birthday. One of Britain’s greatest heroes was born 250 years ago today on 29 September 1758. He is not famed for his diary-keeping, although there is a published diary, dating from the very last weeks of his life, the original of which is said to have had an odour ‘faintly suggestive of spicy exhalations from tar and hemp and timber’. A typed version is freely available online; but, more interesting is the diary of Elizabeth Fremantle who was at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife - where Nelson lost his right arm.

Horatio Nelson, born exactly a quarter of a millennium ago, was famous for his role in the Napoleonic Wars, most notably at the Battle of Trafalgar, a decisive British victory, during which he lost his life - on 21 October 1805. By 16, he had already travelled the world with the Royal Navy; and by 21, he was one of its youngest captains. He was famed for inspiring loyalty in his crew and for his innovative strategies in battle at sea - he fought in more than 120 engagements. For more biographical information about Nelson on the internet, try Wikipedia, or the BBC, or the Royal Navy.

Nelson did keep diaries, it seems, but - with one exception - they have never been published as such. The exception is the diary he kept in the very last weeks of his life. This was published in 1917 as Nelson’s Last Diary. It covers only a few weeks, from 13 September to 21 October in 1805, but also contains an introduction and notes by Gilbert Hudson. It’s freely available, in various versions, at the Internet Archive. While the diary itself is not that interesting (unless you’re a naval historian), Hudson’s description of it is very appealing.

‘It measures about seven inches by four-and-a-half, and contains twenty leaves now numbered as forty pages all of them except the first, and the last five, being written on both sides entirely by Nelson’s own left hand, interleaved with blotting-paper, and bound in limp leather covers of a deep red shade. Nothing but a slight crinkling of these covers remains to show that the book lay during many years rolled up with the Will and other papers, without distinction of place or treatment. The fact that they have been protected, like thousands of other interesting records, from the deleterious handling of idle curiosity, speaks well for those official regulations which the general public is always ready enough to condemn as arbitrary and unreasonable.

Had the Diary been lodged in scrupulous custody at an earlier date, it might have retained its original number of leaves, whereof two, unfortunately, have long been missing. But the mutilation is not visible except on careful scrutiny, and the book now appears only a little more soiled and worn than when it lay in Nelson’s escritoire, unhurt amid the perilous tumult of Trafalgar.

The time-mellowed pages have a peculiar odour of a much more agreeable pungency than the usual mustiness of ancient records, and more than faintly suggestive of spicy exhalations from tar and hemp and timber. Whether this arises indeed from some old permeation of nautical atmosphere and circumstance, or merely from certain fragrant qualities of the paper and binding, or by chance from any process of fumigation or embalmment, or from what other cause so ever, it deserves at least brief mention if only for the sake of sentiment.’

The diary itself contains only brief entries, here is one which I’ve chosen simply because it’s from the same date as today - 29 September (1805): ‘Fine weather. Gave out the necessary orders for the Fleet. Sent Euryalus to watch the Enemy with the Hydra off Cadiz.’ There’s a small photograph of the diary in a BBC News article dating from 2005 and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Otherwise, one has to google hard on the web to find evidence of Nelson’s diaries. For example, the National Archives has a long listing for Nelson, but does not include reference to any diaries. However, Robert Southey, in his biography - The Life of Nelson (available on the Painted Ships website) - does refer to Nelson’s diaries. And these, it seems, came from an 1809 biography by Clarke and McArthur. However, there are extracts, of what Nelson called his ‘private diary’, in the various volumes of The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson (downloadable from Internet Archive).

Here is Southey using Nelson’s diary. It is June 1805, just a few months before Trafalgar: ‘Nelson’s diary at this time denotes his great anxiety and his perpetual and all-observing vigilance. ‘June 21. Midnight, nearly calm, saw three planks, which I think came from the French fleet. Very miserable, which is very foolish.’ On the 17th of July he came in sight of Cape St. Vincent, and steered for Gibraltar. ‘June 18th,’ his diary says, ’Cape Spartel in sight, but no French fleet, nor any information about them. How sorrowful this makes me! but I cannot help myself.’ The next day he anchored at Gibraltar; and on the 20th, says, ‘I went on shore for the first time since June 16, 1803; and from having my foot out of the VICTORY two years, wanting ten days.’ ’

But others around Nelson were keeping diaries, and one of the most intriguing and interesting is that by Elizabeth Fremantle. She was one of five Wynne sisters, three of whom kept journals, These were edited by a descendant and published in several volumes in the 1930s - as The Wynne Diaries - by a Fremantle descendant. Subsequently, they were further edited into a single volume. The Diary Junction has some information and links, as does the Dukes of Buckingham website.

Of interest, though, is that Elizabeth (or Betsey) Wynne married one of Nelson’s captains, Thomas Fremantle (later a vice-admiral), and was onboard with him during various sea battles, not least the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797, where Nelson lost his arm. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has a painting by Richard Westall of the moment, accompanied by a good summary of events:

‘Nelson was ordered to take possession of the town and harbour of Santa Cruz in Tenerife, where Spanish treasure ships were reported to be lying. He immediately set sail with three ships of the line, three frigates, and a cutter and was joined by a fourth frigate and a bomb vessel en route. After several failed attempts Nelson decided upon a direct assault on Santa Cruz by night, aiming for the central castle of San Cristobal where the Spanish general staff were based. Nelson commanded the attack, leading one of six divisions of boats . . . However, the initial boat-landings went wrong when many of them were swept off course and the element of surprise was lost. During his attempt to land Nelson was about to disembark when he was hit just above the right elbow by a musket or similar ball fired as grapeshot, which shattered the bone and joint. The arm was amputated aboard the Theseus that night. The attack ground to a halt, the British force landed at the harbour negotiating a truce with the Spanish Governor under which they returned to their ships. The Spanish also offered hospital facilities for the wounded and to sell the squadron provisions.’

Although a bit short of punctuation at times, extracts from Elizabeth Fremantle’s diary (a 1982 edition of The Wyne Diaries) give a marvellous on-the-spot account of what it was like to be there - even if the author is understandably more concerned about her husband’s wounds than Nelson’s arm! They also suggest Betsey may have received one of the first notes Nelson wrote with his left hand.

Thursday 25 July
‘The troops landed at two oclock this morning. There was much firing in the Town, but from the ships it seemed as if the English had made themselves masters of it, Great was our mistake, this proved to be a shocking, unfortunate night Fremantle returned at 4 this morning wounded in the arm, he was shot through the right arm the moment he had landed, came off in the first boat, and stayed on board the Zealous till day light, where he wound was dressed. Thank God as the ball only went through the flesh he will not lose an arm he managed it so well that I was not frightened, but I was not a little distressed and miserably when I heard what it was, and indeed he was in great pain and suffered cruelly all day but it was fortunate that he did get wounded at first, God knows if ever I should have seen again had he stayed on short. It was dreadful, poor Captain Bowen killed on the spot, The Admiral was wounded as he was getting out of the Boat and most unfortunately lost his arm. The fox Cutter was lost and poor old Gibson drowned Captain Thompson is likewise wounded. All the rest remained on shore very few people returned to the ships in the morning. As they threatened to burn the Town they had their own terms and were sent off . . .

This is the most melancholy event, I can’t help thinking of poor Captain Bowens losing his life just at the end of the war in which he had been so fortunate. At the moment he was continually talking of the happy life he should lead when he returned home. . . .

Fremantle was in great pain all day but I hope he will soon get well.’

Wednesday 26 July
‘Fremantle had a very good night’s rest he has no fever at all, his wound was dressed at twelve oclock and Fleming says it looks very well. It is a wonder how nothing but the flesh was hurt as two musquet balls went through the arm, about 15 of our men are wounded and two dead we are lucky as the other Frigates lost about 20 men a piece and some of the line of battle ships a hundred. The Admiral is coming on very well, he wrote me a line with his left hand.’

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