Today, the 21st October, is the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. This decisive sea battle between the French (and their allies the Spanish) and English fleets took place in 1805. Jane Austen lived through this perilous period, and makes one direct reference to this battle in Persuasion. It is in Chapter 3 when Anne Elliot, while helping Mr Shepherd explain who is destined to be Sir Walter Elliot’s tenant, also reveals to us her keen interest in the fortunes of all the members of her beloved Frederick Wentworth’s family:
“And who is Admiral Croft?” was Sir Walter’s cold suspicious inquiry.
Mr. Shepherd answered for his being of a gentleman’s family, and mentioned a place; and Anne, after the little pause which followed, added —
“He is rear admiral of the white. He was in the Trafalgar action, and has been in the East Indies since; he has been stationed there, I believe, several years.”
Jane Austen, of course, was vitally interested in the fortunes of Nelson’s navy, not only as a patriotic Englishwoman, but because her brothers Frank and Charles were naval officers. Frank, below, served directly under Nelson as one of his captains. Indeed, Nelson wrote admiringly of him:
I hope to see [Captain Austen] alongside a French 80-gun ship, and he cannot be better placed than in the ‘Canopus’, which was once a French Admiral’s ship, and stuck to me. Captain Austen I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man.
(quoted in Jane Austen: A Family Record by DeirdreLe Faye, page 151)
For most of 1805 Frank was involved in chasing the French fleet and its commander, Admiral Villeneuve, across the Atlantic to the West Indies and then back again to the entrance of the Mediterranean near the Straits of Gibraltar. Below is a scan of my copy of Kelly’s map of Spain and Portugal dating from 1816, which you can enlarge to see the detail:
This is a section of it showing the position of Cadiz and the Straits of Gibraltar:
Villeneuve and his fleet were kept blockaded in Cadiz by the British during the whole month of September. Nelson arrived on The Victory on September 28th and then Frank was ordered to Gibraltar to “complete supplies”, and then on to Cartagena to help protect a convoy which was en route to Malta, further into the Mediterranean to the east. As a result, he missed the action at Trafalgar, a circumstance he had feared might occur, as is revealed in this later to the woman who was his fiancée and future wife , Mary Gibson. Note this letter was actually written on the day of the battle:
Our situation is peculiarly unpleasant and distressing, for if they escape Lord Nelson’s vigilance and get into the Mediterranean, which is not very likely, we shall be obliged, with our small force, to keep out of their way; and on the other hand, should an action take place, it must be decided long before we could possibly get down even were the wind fair, which at present it is not. As I have no doubt but the event would be highly honourable to our arms, and be at the same time productive of some good prizes, I shall have to lament our absence on such an occasion on a double account, the loss of pecuniary advantage as well as of professional credit. And after having been so many months in a state of constant and unremitting fag, to be at last cut out by a parcel of folk just come from their homes, where some of them were sitting at their ease the greater part of last war, and the whole of this, till just now, is particularly hard and annoying.
“You, perhaps, may not feel this so forcibly as I do, and in your satisfaction at my having avoided the danger of battle may not much regret my losing the credit of having contributed to gain a victory; not so myself!
“I do not profess to like fighting for its own sake, but if there have been an action with the combined fleets I shall ever consider the day on which I sailed from the squadron as the most inauspicious one of my life.
And so it was: Frank missed the action, the decisive sea battle victory over the French, and regretted it bitterly, as he told Mary in his next letter to her , dated 27th October, a letter which was first published in Jane Austen’s Sailor Brothers by J.H. and E .C. Hubback:
Alas! my dearest Mary, all my fears are but too fully justified. The fleets have met, and, after a very severe contest, a most decisive victory has been gained by the English twenty-seven over the enemy’s thirty-three. Seventeen of the ships are taken and one is burnt; but I am truly sorry to add that this splendid affair has cost us many lives, and amongst them the most invaluable one to the nation, that of our gallant, and ever-to-be-regreted, Commander-in-Chief, Lord Nelson, who was mortally wounded by a musket shot, and only lived long enough to know his fleet successful.
And that was the rub, the bitter in so much sweet. Nelson died as a result of injuries sustained in the battle. Frank Austen paid tribute to him in the same letter:
In a public point of view, I consider his loss as the greatest which could have occurred; nor do I hesitate to say there is not an Admiral on the list so eminently calculated for the command of a fleet as he was. I never heard of his equal, nor do I expect again to see such a man. To the soundest judgment he united prompt decision and speedy execution of his plans; and he possessed in a superior degree the happy talent of making every class of persons pleased with their situation and eager to exert themselves in forwarding the public service. As a national benefit I cannot but rejoice that our arms have been once again successful, but at the same time I cannot help feeling how very unfortunate we have been to be away at such a moment, and, by a fatal combination of unfortunate though unavoidable events, to lose all share in the glory of a day which surpasses all which ever went before, is what I cannot think of with any degree of patience; but, as I cannot write upon that subject without complaining, I will drop it for the present, till time and reflection reconcile me a little more to what I know is now inevitable.
Nelson’s body was returned to England, and lay in state at Greenwich. He was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, with all the pomp of a state funeral. This is a picture of his tomb in the crypt :
Today in Britain, Trafalgar Day is not celebrated as a public holiday as it was during the mid 19th century, though recently politicians have tried to revive the idea that the Monday nearest the date be reinstated as a bank holiday. But the Sea Cadets do celebrate it on theSunday nearest the 21st October. Members of the Sea Cadets all over the country parade in towns to celebrate the great sea victory still .In London 500 sea cadets parade in Trafalgar Square under the beady eye of Nelson’s statue on his column in the square. This square, and its commemorative column did not, of course, exist in Jane Austen’s day. But I daresay her sentiments regarding the battle, especially knowing that Frank escaped injury, may have been similar to how she expressed her feelings on hearing of deaths in battles in the Peninsular War
How horrible it is to have so many people killed! And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!
(Letter to Cassandra Austen dated 31st May 1811)