Tales from Nelson's navy
As historical treasures go, a book containing sailors' first-hand reports from some of Britain's greatest naval victories takes some beating. Sam Willis introduces 10 dispatches that offer us a unique perspective on the golden age of the Royal Navy
In a satin-lined wooden box in the bowels of the British Library is one of the jewels of British history. Inside is a massive book, so heavy that it requires two people to pick it up. It is bound in navy-blue velvet and decorated with exquisite nautical detail.
Inside are the naval dispatches sent back to London after the major fleet victories of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. They describe a period of military dominance that equals any in history, a period in which the Royal Navy shaped the modern world.
The book contains the official dispatches from the admirals describing their victories, but also, to support their evidence, there are reports from captains, ships’ logs, damage reports, casualty lists, captured enemy accounts, even battle plans. Some of the original envelopes even survive. History comes off them like heat.
"My unfortunate situation"
Tearing the enemy apart
A tweet from the 18th century
The shirts off their backs
Splinters and shattered limbs
Nelson annihilates the French
Three maps tell the tale of the Royal Navy’s triumph at the battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798
The boy on the burning deck
Echoing down the ages
“Sir, you surrendered yourself to me”
Vice Admiral Collingwood reminds Spain’s Vice Admiral D’Alava that he is a prisoner of war, 30 October 1805
“A moment’s time may not be lost”
Dr Sam Willis is a presenter, maritime historian and archaeologist.