Trafalgar Day Repost: Conrad on Nelson at Trafalgar
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A repost from 2010 in honor of Trafalgar Day, commemorating Nelson's great victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets on this day in 1805. I have always been struck that of all the commentary I have read on the famous battle, Joseph Conrad is the only writer I am aware of to have asked one simple question — what if the wind had changed? How would a wind shift have altered the history which we all take for granted?
The final essay in Joseph Conrad's wonderful, if somewhat odd book, The Mirror of the Sea, is entitled "The Heroic Age." It starts out rather disappointingly as a paean to Nelson. There is nothing wrong with praising Nelson, except that everyone does it, so another bit of hagiography doesn't necessarily add anything new.
Then, well into the essay, Conrad does something rather remarkable. He wonders what would have happened if the wind had shifted on that morning of the 21st of October.
Conrad had sailed off Cape Trafalgar. Like Nelson, Conrad was a windship sailor. He paid attention to and understood the vagaries of the wind in a manner that steam ship captains of both his day and ours could never fully grasp. He wrote: "To this day I cannot free myself from the impression that, for some forty minutes, the fate of the great battle hung upon a breath of wind such as I have felt stealing from behind, as it were, upon my cheek while engaged in looking to the westward for the signs of the true weather."
From Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea, "The Heroic Age:"
And yet the fact remains that, had the wind failed and the fleet lost steerage way, or, worse still, had it been taken aback from the eastward, with its leaders within short range of the enemy's guns, nothing, it seems, could have saved the headmost ships from capture or destruction. …
Against every risk, I have said; and the men of to-day, born and bred to the use of steam, can hardly realize how much of that risk was in the weather. Except at the Nile, where the conditions were ideal for engaging a fleet moored in shallow water, Lord Nelson was not lucky in his weather. Practically it was nothing but a quite unusual failure of the wind which cost him his arm during the Teneriffe expedition. On Trafalgar Day the weather was not so much unfavourable as extremely dangerous.
It was one of these covered days of fitful sunshine, of light, unsteady winds, with a swell from the westward, and hazy in general, but with the land about the Cape at times distinctly visible. It has been my lot to look with reverence upon the very spot more than once, and for many hours together. All but thirty years ago, certain exceptional circumstances made me very familiar for a time with that bight in the Spanish coast which would be enclosed within a straight line drawn from Faro to Spartel. My well-remembered experience has convinced me that, in that corner of the ocean, once the wind has got to the northward of west (as it did on the 20th, taking the British fleet aback), appearances of westerly weather go for nothing, and that it is infinitely more likely to veer right round to the east than to shift back again. It was in those conditions that, at seven on the morning of the 21st, the signal for the fleet to bear up and steer east was made. Holding a clear recollection of these languid easterly sighs rippling unexpectedly against the run of the smooth swell, with no other warning than a ten-minutes' calm and a queer darkening of the coast-line, I cannot think, without a gasp of professional awe, of that fateful moment. Perhaps personal experience, at a time of life when responsibility had a special freshness and importance, has induced me to exaggerate to myself the danger of the weather. The great Admiral and good seaman could read aright the signs of sea and sky, as his order to prepare to anchor at the end of the day sufficiently proves; but, all the same, the mere idea of these baffling easterly airs, coming on at any time within half an hour or so, after the firing of the first shot, is enough to take one's breath away, with the image of the rearmost ships of both divisions falling off, unmanageable, broadside on to the westerly swell, and of two British Admirals in desperate jeopardy. To this day I cannot free myself from the impression that, for some forty minutes, the fate of the great battle hung upon a breath of wind such as I have felt stealing from behind, as it were, upon my cheek while engaged in looking to the westward for the signs of the true weather.
Never more shall British seamen going into action have to trust the success of their valour to a breath of wind. The God of gales and battles favouring her arms to the last, has let the sun of England's sailing-fleet and of its greatest master set in unclouded glory. And now the old ships and their men are gone; the new ships and the new men, many of them bearing the old, auspicious names, have taken up their watch on the stern and impartial sea, which offers no opportunities but to those who know how to grasp them with a ready hand and an undaunted heart.
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