Trafalgar: The Aftermath and the Hurricane
Collingwood Takes Command
Late in the afternoon on the 21st of October 1805, as prisoners were rowed from
the destroyed French ship Achille to the British ship, Revenge,
Captain Thomas Hardy left the Victory and boarded the Royal Sovereign,
bearing the news of the death of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson to his successor as
Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood.
Collingwood had been a close friend of Nelson's since they had served together
in the Lowestoffe, 28 years earlier. Unlike his emotional friend,
Collingwood was known to be reserved, but still was seen to shed tears upon
hearing of Nelson's death.
Hardy also passed on Nelson's final instruction: that the fleet must anchor.
But Collingwood's reply was, "Anchor, it is the last thing I should have thought
Collingwood had not escaped the battle unharmed, and had a badly
wounded leg and had narrowly escaped being killed by a cannonball.
Nonetheless, he accepted his role in command without hesitation. In the
early evening, as the discipline of the British seamen overrode their exhaustion
and they got to work clearing the decks, throwing bodies overboard and making
temporary masts and rigging to replace those lost in battle (to the amazement of
French officers who were used to their seamen frequently being 'drunk or
disabled' after a battle), Collingwood transferred to the Euryalus
frigate. The Royal Sovereign's masts had been destroyed in the
battle so he couldn't fly signals from them - a bit of a handicap for a
commander required to issue orders to a large fleet!
At the start of the battle, the combating fleets had been 18 miles west from
Cape Trafalgar, and 22 miles south-south-west from Cadiz. During the hours
of battle, the rising swell of the sea had slowly pushed them closer to the
coast. Now, the wind was picking up, and the ships, many of which were
very badly damaged or even dismasted during the battle, were in danger of being
unable to avoid the shallow waters. This was what Nelson, with his
sense for the changes of the weather in this part of the sea, had foreseen, and
he had known that by anchoring, the fleet could have ridden out the worst of the
storm in relative safety.
But it wasn't as simple as that. Many of the ships needed urgent repairs
just to stay seaworthy, and there was also the problem of the small enemy
squadron that had escaped to Cadiz. If they were to return, they could
cause a lot of damage to the limping, exhausted fleet, and there was also the
possibility of enemy cruisers running into them. Though the swell and the
wind were picking up, there didn't seem to be an immediate danger of being
pushed against the rocks. On balance, Collingwood decided that the rocks
did not present as big a danger as the enemy and damage to the ships, and so he
made the decision to sail for Gibraltar, away from Cadiz.
The Storm's First Victims
As the wind began to pick up, the disabled ships were taken in tow, and the
fleet began to move slowly around Cape Trafalgar. The plan was to make it
round the shallows before the storm reached its peak. But in the event,
only the Belleisle, and the Naiad which was towing her, made it
round before the storm ended, and even they were nearly wrecked. No one
(except, perhaps, Nelson) could have predicted how fast the storm would come on,
and how ferocious it would be.
By midnight, many ships were already dangerously close to the rocks. The
wind, for a short time, changed direction so that they could move away from the
shore, but only on a course that made them double-back on themselves and head
towards Cadiz. But the wind changed direction often as it grew stronger
and stronger, until it became hurricane-strength. It was accompanied by
torrential rain and lightning, and the sky was so thick with clouds that for a
week the sun, moon and stars were obscured. It was impossible to pull away
from the coast completely, and the seamen still had to try to work to repair the
It was around midnight that the storm took its first victims. The French
ship Fougueux had been so badly damaged during the battle that she had to
be towed by the British frigate, Phoebe. She had lost her masts and
rigging, so was utterly disabled, and to make matters worse, she had several
large battle wounds in the form of holes through which the churning water poured
faster than it could be pumped back out. As the storm increased in
intensity, the tow rope between her and Phoebe snapped. The crew of
the Phoebe tried to get a new line to the Fougueux, but found it
impossible. Eventually, the French ship was thrown against the rocks and
broken up, killing nearly the whole crew and the British boarding party that had
been sent from the Temeraire to take control of her.
Preservation of Nelson's Body
Though the winds didn't lessen, all the ships survived the next day, though with
difficulty. Onboard Victory, Nelson's body was carefully prepared,
by Dr Beatty, for his funeral. As it wouldn't return to England for
several weeks, it had to be preserved. His hair was cut off in order to
obey his instruction to give it to Emma, and all his clothes were removed except
for his shirt. It's possible that women assisted in the preparation of the
body. It's thought that there were several women on board, despite
Nelson's insistence that there should be none, though it is hard to know for
sure as they weren't entered on any official record and their existence is only
know of through witness accounts and the women's own tales. Indeed, one
woman claimed to have washed the blood from Nelson's shirt.
There was no lead on board in order to make a coffin, and so he was put in a
large cask full of brandy, which would act as a preservative, and was guarded by
marines. A legend arose, that still persists today, that the cask was
actually full of rum, and that the guards siphoned it off to drink.
Navy-issue rum was afterwards nicknamed 'Nelson's Blood'. (Incidentally, a
type of rum of that name is available today. I've tried some - it's a
little strong for me!). A little of the brandy was removed at intervals in
order to replace it with fresh brandy, but it's not likely that anyone drank it.
At one point, the cask swelled alarmingly due to the natural release of gases
from the body, and the lid had to be opened a little to let it out.
The End of the Redoutable
The fleet may have survived the day of the 22nd October, but the evening saw
more casualties. The French Redoutable, the ship that had caused
such devastation to Victory and from which a sniper had delivered the
fatal shot to Nelson, was in trouble. She had been all but destroyed in
the battle and so was being towed by the British Swiftsure, but began
taking on a lot of water as the storm worsened. Captain Lucas, along with
two of his officers, had been taken aboard Swiftsure as prisoners earlier
in the day. But now, his ship began to make distress
signals to the Swiftsure, which began sending boats out to rescue men
from the doomed ship. They managed to rescue the British party onboard, as
well as several of the prisoners, but it soon became clear that it was too
dangerous to send out anymore boats. At around 10:15 in the evening,
Redoutable sank. Men in the Swiftsure were subjected to
the horror of hearing cries for help from the men going down with their ship,
but were unable to do a thing to help them.
The Loss of the Algésiras
The French Algésiras had surrendered to the Tonnant during the
battle, and a party of fifty men led by Lieutenant Charles Bennett had been sent
on board to take possession of her. But she had suffered a lot of damage,
and Bennett found it impossible for his fifty men to repair the damage.
During the day of the 22nd, he fired several distress signals, but no British
ship came to help. By the early evening, Algésiras had been driven
dangerously close to the rocks. The lack of help from the British led the
French crew to abandon their honourable obligation to remain prisoners after
their surrender, as they felt they should have been entitled to protection from
their captors. They decided to take back the ship, and Bennett and his men
surrendered to them without putting up a fight and causing any more injury or
loss of life.
The French crew got to work making rudimentary repairs, and managed to rig a
couple of sails to the stumps that were all that remained of the masts.
There was only one anchor, and that was broken, but the crew managed to fix it
to such a condition that it was at least usable. Now able to manoeuvre her
to some extent, they managed to get Algésiras close to Cadiz lighthouse,
and were able to anchor there in relative safety.
At daylight the next day, having safely ridden out the night, Algésiras
found herself to not quite be within the harbour, and still close to the rocks.
Having only one anchor, her position was precarious. Boats from Cadiz were
sent to try to help, but the weather prevented them from getting close.
At around 10pm, the anchor cable snapped, and disaster was narrowly avoided when
Algésiras nearly collided with another drifting ship. Fortunately,
as it turned out, she became stuck on rocks in the shallows, and sat there for
On the 24th, the weather was a little better, and Spanish boats from Cadiz were
able to bring a new anchor and cable to the Algésiras. They tried
to pull her off the rocks, but she was stuck fast. The crew lightened the
ship by throwing guns and other unnecessary items overboard. Thus, as tide
rose in its usual way in the evening, and the wind was fortuitously blowing in
an advantageous direction, she was blown over the rocks and into the harbour.
The British had lost a prize, but their boarding party and the few hundred
French seamen, had not lost their lives.
On the morning of the 23rd, Captain Cosmao-Jerjulien (pictured left), who
had escaped to Cadiz, decided to come back to retake some of the captured French
and Spanish ships. His ship, Pluton, was very badly damaged, but
nevertheless she led the Indomptable, Neptune, Rayo, San Francisco de Asis,
and the frigates Cornélie, Hermione, Hortense, Rhin and Themis.
When he left Cadiz, the wind direction was perfect for bearing down upon the
British, and was also less fierce. But that didn't last long, and it soon
turned against him and began to pick up. The rain and spray from the sea made
visibility poor, and as Cosmao's ships came into view of the British, they
mistook his frigates for battleships, and thought that his fleet was bigger than
it actually was, and 11 ships began to manoeuvre into a line of battle to meet
them. In so doing, they had to abandon two of their prizes: Santa Ana
and Admiral Villeneuve's former flagship, Bucentaure.
Bucentaure was abandoned by Conquerer as the British ship
got into line and, uncontrollable due to the damage she'd sustained, she began
to drift towards the shore. French and Spanish boats from Cadiz harbour
managed to rescue most of the French seamen from Bucentaure, as well as
the British boarding party, and took them onboard the Indomptable.
But, sadly, that ship was not enough to save them for, shortly after
Bucentaure was wrecked, she ran aground and gradually broke up. Out of
the 1000 souls by that time on board, only 100 survived.
They were not the only ships to meet a sorry fate. San Francisco de
Asis, one of the ships Cosmao had brought with him from Cadiz, had to anchor
outside the harbour, but her anchor cables broke and she too was wrecked.
Rayo couldn't make it back into Cadiz, either, and anchored a few miles
away. She was dismasted during the storm, but survived.
The British ships formed their line, blocking off the rest of their prizes and,
with the weather also against him, Cosmao decided he didn't want to fight, and
went back to Cadiz. The only ship that he was successful in rescuing was
the Santa Ana. But in doing so, he lost two of the ships he'd
started with, and indirectly caused the wreck of another. Still, he was
later praised for his actions, and Napoleon called him "The best sailor of
the time; none was ever braver and more generous."
Meanwhile, the British party aboard their prize, the former Spanish ship
Neptuno, upon seeing Cosmao's little fleet, tried to join the British line
as it was forming. But the crew, believing they would be rescued, rose up
and took back control of the ship. One of Cosmao's ship, the frigate
Hortense, got to Neptuno and started to tow her towards Cadiz.
But they were stuck outside the harbour all night, and in the morning the anchor
cable snapped and she was driven ashore. The British prisoners helped the
Spanish to build rafts to get everyone off the ship and, aside from some that
drowned when the raft capsized once, they managed to get almost all of those
onboard the ship, to safety.
'Prepare to Quit'
At 8.30am on the 24th, Admiral Collingwood flew the signal 'Prepare to quit and
withdraw men from prizes after having destroyed or disabled them if time
permits'. The storm was not abating, and the men were by now beyond
exhausted. It was becoming virtually impossible to repair the most damaged
ships, and it was proving to be fatal to remain on them. Collingwood
decided to cut his losses and save the British ships and crew, even if meant
losing their prizes. But he would at least have them destroyed so the
enemy couldn't get them back. In the circumstances, there was very little
else he could do.
But nature hadn't finished with them yet.
The majestic Spanish giant, Santisima Trinidad, had been difficult to
keep afloat since the battle, to the point that the crew hadn't even had
opportunity to clear the decks of blood and body parts. Towed by the
Prince, she was boarded by British men from that ship as well as from
Neptune and Ajax. On the 24th, realising that she was sinking,
they began to abandon ship, and men were lowered by rope from the stern to get
into the boats. All but 30, who were deemed too badly wounded to move,
were rescued, and only ten minutes after the last boat left, the largest
battleship in the world sank.
Meanwhile, the Spanish Monarca, which had been boarded by a small British
crew, found herself dismasted and close to the rocks. The Spanish seamen
were exhausted and gave up trying to pump water out of the ship, and prepared to
let her run aground. But in the morning, as the weather was a little
better, they raised their hopes again and got back to work on the pumps.
Nearby, the Rayo, one of Cosmao's ships, remained anchored and dismasted.
The British Leviathan came up and fired a single shot, to which the
Rayo surrendered without a fight. The men aboard Monarca were
evacuated to Leviathan, with the exception of about 150 Spanish who were too
afraid to get into the boats. Monarca and Rayo were left at
anchor as they were too badly damaged to move in such bad weather. But
both of their anchor cables snapped, and on the morning of the 25th Monarca
was wrecked, with Rayo following her on the 26th.
The French Aigle, having surrendered to the British Defiance
during the battle, was drifting away from the fleet after the British crew had
failed to set up a tow rope. During the night of the 24th, the French crew
overpowered their British captors and took back the ship, and managed to get her
close to the harbour, but in the morning she scraped on rocks and lost her
rudder. Uncontrollable, Aigle ran aground and was wrecked.
Intrépide, abandoned by the British Britannia which had to join
the line against Cosmao, was leaking badly. Giving up hope, the French
crew abandoned the pumps and broke into the storeroom to get drunk instead.
Luckily, the British Orion passed nearby and was hailed by the prize
crew. She was able to take men off Intrépide, and the prize was set
on fire. The San Augustin was also burned, and Argonauta was
Captain Malcolm and the Donegal
mention here goes to Captain Pulteney Malcolm of the Donegal. He
had just returned from Gibraltar with supplies, and upon arriving took
possession of the doomed Rayo before anchoring. He saw the French
Berwick anchored nearby with a British prize crew onboard.
Suddenly, and inexplicably, the French prisoners cut the Berwick's anchor
cables, and she began to be driven by the wind towards the rocks. Taking a
big risk to his own ship, but unable to sit back and watch the men aboard
Berwick be killed without trying to help, he had Donegal's cables
cut, and went after her. He sent boats to rescue first the French wounded,
then the British prize crew. But he couldn't save many more before
Berwick hit the rocks, and 300 men were killed.
"May humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet,"
had been Nelson's wish as he wrote his 'Trafalgar Prayer' before the battle, and
Captain Malcolm certainly fulfilled that wish. The wounded French were
given cots and bedding at the expense of the British and, with that bedding to
make their journey as comfortable as possible, were sent into Cadiz under a flag
of truce, where they could receive treatment. The Donegal then
anchored off Cadiz.
The aftermath of the hurricane presented a far bleaker picture of tragedy and
devastation than the battle had done. Only one ship, the French Achille,
had been destroyed during the battle. In the week that followed, 14 of the
prizes taken by the British were destroyed. The loss of life had been
horrendous, far more than during the battle. Only four of the prizes
remained in possession of the British - Bahama, San Ildefonso, San Juan
Nepomuceno, and Swiftsure, and these were sent to Gibraltar. In
the end, with the addition of Cosmao's ships which were wrecked, Nelson almost
got his wish of 20 ships destroyed or taken.
Even as long as 10 days after the battle, bodies and wreckage were still being
washed ashore at Cadiz. Because the British showed humanity in returning
the Spanish prisoners, the Spanish were happy to help them, and the hospitals
were soon full of British wounded along with the French and Spanish.
Besides, the Spanish and British had never really hated each other like they did
the French, and it isn't likely that Spain would have allied with France at all
if it weren't for the pressure Napoleon put them under.
Admiral Collingwood set about returning to some semblance of a normal duty,
arranging for exchanges of prisoners, and organising a blockade of the Cosmao's
ships. The British succeeded in keeping them there until 1808, when
Napoleon invaded Spain, and the Spanish army took the ships to use against the
Victory went to Gibraltar for repairs and for her wounded to receive
treatment. From there, she sailed to England, taking Horatio Nelson on his
Copyright Vicki Singleton 2013.