History of HMS Victory, Nelson’s pursuit to the West Indies, Part Nine

Nelson in H.M.S. Victory joining the fleet off Cadiz prior to the battle of Trafalgar
Chrono date: 
1805 May 10

On May 10th Nelson put into Lagos Bay to get more provisions, and on the 11th, having sent the Royal Sovereign back to the Mediterranean, as a slow sailer who was likely to hinder him, he started in pursuit of the 18 ships of the enemy, with but 10 of his own. His anxiety at this time was extreme; he was very ill, and had been told by his physicians that he ought to go home, but “salt beef and the French fleet is far preferable to roast beef and champagne without them; he writes, ‘my health or my life even must not come into consideration at this important crisis.” Captain Hardy is reported to have said to him, “I suppose, my Lord, that by crowding all this sail you mean to attack those i8 ships?” “By God, Hardy,” said he, “that I do;” and on the passage over, he took every opportunity of making his plans known to his captains, that a success might be ensured if possible. Barbadoes was reached on June 4th, and here he received information that led him to suppose that either Tobago or Trinidad was the object of the combined fleet, who had been seen on the 28th May, and, embarking 2000 men, he hurried on for the latter island. Off Tobago he received corroborative news from an American schooner, who must have deceived him on purpose and all was preparation in the English fleet.

Ealy on the morning of the 7th June, the ships stood: along the north shore of Trinidad; and had anything been wanting to confirm the intelligence they had received, it was supplied in the conflagration of a battery, that protected a little cove in the steep coast, and the flight of its garrison, who were seen speeding away in the direction of the town. The remembrance of Aboukir Bay rose in their minds, every man expected that the deeds of that glorious day would be repeated in the Gulf of Paria, and as the ships sailed, prepared for battle, through the Bocas of Trinidad, expectation was strained to the utmost, to catch the first glimpse of the enemy they fully relied on seeing on rounding, the point.

What was their astonishment then on coming in view of the town, to find the Union Jack still waving over the forts, and no French men-of-war to be seen.

Nelson at once anchored for the night without communication, and early next morning sailed for Grenada.

In the meantime, the town of Puerto d’Espana, the capital of Trinidad, was the scene of the wildest excitement. The lieutenant of artillery in command of the above-mentioned out-post, finding a fleet close to him in the morning, and making no doubt it was that of the enemy (for no one knew of Nelson’s arrival in the West Indies, had burnt his barracks, thrown his guns over the cliff, and hastened back to the town, spreading dismay with the intelligence that the French were upon them. The inhabitants at once fled to the interior, the troops were drawn into the forts, and the town was left at the mercy of the French Republicans, of whom there were many in the island, and who now came forward and proclaimed themselves, believing their friends were at hand.

The movements of the fleet were inexplicable to the governor, and he was at once puzzled and relieved, when daylight revealed the strange ships underweigh, and leaving their shores. It, was some days before the mystery was explained, and they learnt that Nelson had paid them a visit.

He, in the meanwhile, was hurrying along the chain of islands to the north, getting information, true or false, every day. On the 11th he heard that the enemy, now consisting of 20 sail, had passed Antigua, steering northward; and at once concluding that they were bound for Europe, he landed the troops at Antigua on the 12th, and left next day for Gibraltar, not without hopes of still catching them up.

This promptitude on the part of Nelson in following Villeneuve to the West Indies, doubtless saved some of our possessions there, as there was no force to withstand the combined fleets; but such was the terror of his name, that no sooner did the enemy hear of his approach, although he had but half their number of ships, than they immediately started again on their return, without attempting to carry out that part of their programme, which directed them to ravage our colonies.

Nelson’s squadron, after a most tedious voyage, arrived at Gibraltar on July 20th, when he went on shore; this was the first time for two years that he had put his foot out of the Victory, for such had been his anxiety during his long blockade of Toulon to be ready at any moment, that it had never suffered him to leave his ship for an instant. Nothing up to this time had been heard of the enemy, and the indefatigable Nelson, after watering and provisioning at Tetuan, sailed again on the 23rd July.

He spoke Admiral Collingwood’s squadron on 26th, and receiving information that the enemy had gone to the northward, he proceeded for Ushant, off which, on August 15th, he met Admiral Cornwallis with the Channel fleet of 24 sail of the line, and from him received an order to leave eight of the ships with him, and repair with Victory and Superb to Portsmouth.

The two ships arrived at Spithead on the 18th, when they were put in quarantine for a day, to Nelson’s great indignation; they were then released, and Nelson went to his home at Merton, to get that rest he so badly needed. The Victory remained at Spithead, and did what repairs she could at that anchorage during her brief stay.

A short account of the proceedings of the combined fleets up to this time, may tend to the elucidation of the state of affairs.

When Villeneuve made his escape from the Mediterranean, the Brest squadron attempted to put to sea to join him at Martinique, but the determined front put on by Lord Gardner, who commanded the Channel fleet, then blockading Brest, daunted the enemy, who put back again into port. This was failure number one, in Buonaparte’s scheme. We have followed Villeneuve with his 20 sail of French and Spanish line-of-battle ships to Antigua; thence he proceeded for Brest, intending to effect a junction with the fleet awaiting him there; but on July 22nd, Sir Robert Calder, who was watching Ferrol and had been warned by a frigate from Lord Nelson of the probable approach of the enemy, met and engaged him, and though he numbered but 15 to 20, he took two ships of the line, and forced the French admiral from his design. This was the second breakdown in the programme; however, Villeneuve go into Ferrol and joined the ships there, which made his force 29 sail of the line, and with these he sailed on August 9th, but, for some unexplained cause, instead of now making his way to Brest, he turned south and entered Cadiz on the 2tst, driving off Admiral Collingwood’s small squadron.

Reference

  • Captain W.J.L. Wharton, RN, A Short History of HMS Victory, Portsmouth, Griffin & Co,2, The Hard, Portsmouth.

 

History of HMS Victory  – Part One

History of HMS Victory, Early Career – Part Two

History of HMS Victory, Engagement with the French off Ushant – Part Three

History of HMS Victory, Siege of Gibraltar – Part Four

History of HMS Victory, Occupation of Toulon – Part Five

History of HMS Victory, Imminent peril of the Victory – Part Six

History of HMS Victory, Battle of Cape St. Vincent – Part Seven

History of HMS Victory, Blockade of Toulon – Part Eight

History of HMS Victory, Nelson’s pursuit to the West Indies - Part Nine

History of HMS Victory, Battle of Trafalgar – Part Ten

History of HMS Victory, Death of Nelson – Part Eleven

History of HMS Victory, Damage sustained by Victory – Part Twelve

History of HMS Victory, Victory again in Active Service – Part Thirteen

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