The harbor at Cartagena, Spain.
Cartagena holds a shipyard as well as a major Spanish naval base.
Cartagena is the base from which the Spanish fleet sailed in February, 1797 to defeat at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. It is where the fictional Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage, holding a forged Protection, was held awaiting transit to the United States. It is also where the real British officers Thomas Hardy and Jonathan Culverhouse were held until their exchange was arranged by Commodore Horatio Nelson on February 10, 1797.
Periodically, we’ve noted instances where actual events enter naval fiction set during the Age of Sail will little more than the names of people and ships changed. Sometimes the actual events are toned down for the novel because of the implausibility of the real event, such as Cochrane taking El Gamo or Nelson using one Spanish first rate as a bridge to board and take a second first rate.
Another incident ties together Midshipman Horatio Hornblower, Lieutenant Lord Ramage, and Commodore Horatio Nelson. Fog and the Spanish Fleet.
In the short story, Hornblower, the Duchess, and the Devil, which is included in C. S. Forester’s Mr. Midhipman Hornblower, Hornblower, commanding a prize en route to England, finds himself enshrouded in fog, a fog which also includes the Spanish fleet and is subsequently captured and imprisoned at the fortress at Ferrol. In Dudley Pope’s Ramage, Lieutenant Lord Ramage, commanding the cutter HMS Kathleen, finds himself in the same unpleasant circumstances. He however, evades imprisonment, gains key intelligence on the Spanish fleet then in port in Cartagena, and is able to warn Admiral Sir John Jervis of their intentions.
The real story is just as strange.
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.