I always enjoy finding links to British history when I’m abroad and the Mediterranean is a fruitful source of mid-late Georgian connections. My last holiday, in Sicily, produced connections to Nelson and the Battle of the Nile.
On October 4th 1798 The Times carried as its most prominent advertisement:
Nelsons’ Triumph or Bonaparte in the Dumps
New fireworks analogous to the glorious Battle, off
the Mouth of the Nile, on the 1st of August last, between
the British and french fleets.
…consisting of Song, Dance and
Pantomime; a view of the Egyptian country and also a
view of the two Fleets in real action…
The country had been waiting for the news of this battle since April that year when Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson had been dispatched to Toulon to engage the French fleet which was at anchor there. However, the French slipped through and Nelson’s ships took a battering in a storm. In June more ships joined the British squadron and Nelson was given orders to track down the French.
There followed a game of blind man’s bluff with Nelson unable to pin down the enemy. When Bonaparte invaded Malta on June 10th criticism at home became acute, although The Times stoutly defended the Admiral. Nelson learned of the invasion almost two weeks later, along with the news that the French fleet was off Sicily. When he arrived he was given inaccurate information about the enemy who were only 50 miles distant, and sailed on to Alexandria, then Syria, missing the French who took Alexandria on July 1st. The army proceeded to march south to capture Cairo while Nelson, still with no news of the French, sailed into Syracuse on the south cost of Sicily for supplies on July 21st.
I was in Syracuse, one of my favourite Italian cities, last week and found traces of Nelson’s visit. The Great Harbour at Syracuse is magnificent and was in use as a great naval centre since the city – or, rather Ortygia, the original island – was founded in 733BC as a Greek colony. Two immensely significant sea battles took place in the harbour in 413BC when the Athenian fleet attempted to take the city with 73 triremes. Nelson would have been aware of this significant episode in the Peloponnese War, although whether he had time to think about it is another matter! Above – The masts of sailing ships are a ghost of Nelson’s fleet amongst the modern yachts in Syracuse’s Grand Harbour
He had his fleet’s water casks refilled at the beautiful Spring of Arethusa (below), a remarkable fresh water spring right on the shore of the Grand Harbour. It’s reliable flow was the reason for the initial settlement on the island and today it is the only place outside Egypt where papyrus grows wild – I wondered whether it was growing there in Nelson’s time and whether he could have seen it as an omen.
The magnificent Baroque palazzo where the Admiral stayed while the re-victualing was in progress can be seen in the cathedral square, close to the Spring. It is known as the Beneventano del Bosco Palace, home to Baron Guglielmo Benevento Maria del Bosco and is still in the family today. (Tallest building on the right below)
On July 25th Nelson led his fleet east in a desperate search for Bonaparte. On August 1st the Alexander and the Swiftsure saw the tricolour flying over Alexandria and that afternoon Nelson received signals that the French were lying in Aboukir Bay. He did not delay and at 5.30pm Nelson signalled to the fleet “form a battle line as most convenient” and engaged the enemy. At 10pm L’Orient, the French flagship exploded – Nelson had won the Battle of the Nile.
By August 11th rumours of a battle reached London, but via the Paris papers which were claiming a French victory. By Monday 13th The Times reported “it seems however to be generally believed that an action has taken place, of which we hourly expect to receive advice.” By the 17th the story was that Nelson had captured L’Orient with Napoleon on board but it was not until October 1st that The Times could write “The Government is yet without any official news from Admiral Nelson, but several reports were in circulation on Saturday which tend to corroborate the account of the victory.”
Nelson became an international celebrity as a result of this victory and was created Baron Nelson of the Nile. (By all accounts he was disgruntled by this and thought a viscountcy more appropriate!) The print at the top of this post is a Gilray cartoon “Extirpation of the Plagues of Egypt” showing Nelson clubbing tricolour crocodiles.