One of the most interesting aspects of the naval fiction set in the wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is that the majority of actions described actually happened in one form or another.
Following the tradition of American radio legend Paul Harvey, I’ll try to tease some of these incidents out of realm of fiction and show how, in some cases, the fictional version is more believable than the actual event.
In our first episode, Alexander Kent’s Richard Bolitho takes the role of Horatio Nelson at the Battle of St. Vincent.
The episode is contained in Alexander Kent’s To Glory We Steer. In it Bolitho, in the frigate Phalarope comes upon the brig Witch of Looe locked yardarm to yardarm with a French frigate and in the process of being boarded. Rather than engage the French frigate on its unengaged side at a disadvantage in weight of metal, Bolitho lays Phalarope alongside the brig firing above her much lower deck into the French frigate’s unmanned side. He then leads borders onto the deck of the Witch of Looe, clears her of boarders and then with her remaining crew boards the French frigate and takes it.
This seems improbable on its face.
Instead of continuing to follow the line, he wore ship, breaking from the line and heading to engage the Spanish van, consisting of the 112-gun San Josef, the 80-gun San Nicolas and the 130-gun Santissima Trinidad. She engaged all three, assisted by HMS Culloden which had come to Nelson’s aid. After an hour of exchanging broadsides had left both Captain and Culloden heavily damaged, Nelson found himself alongside the San Nicolas. He led a boarding party across, crying ‘Westminster Abbey! or, glorious victory!’ and forced her surrender. The San Josef attempted to come to the San Nicolas’s aid but became entangled with her. Nelson then took his party from the decks of the San Nicolas onto the San Josef and captured her as well. As night fell the Spanish broke off and sailed for Cadiz. Four ships had surrendered to the British, two of the them were Nelson’s captures.
The picture at the top of this story depicts Nelson carrying the San Josef.
So there you have, as Mr. Harvey would say, the rest of the story. Nelson disobeyed orders to place his 74-gun ship in an exchange of broadsides with three enemy ships, one of them the largest warship in the world at the time, and takes two of them as prizes. Beside that Richard Bolitho looks like a piker.