Sunday, 24 January 2010

Courage, Chivalry and Cross-dressing at the Battle of Trafalgar

In 1805, Admiral Nelson and his fleet of 27 ships went into action against the combined French and Spanish forces with the famous signal: ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’. Amid the blood and gore of the ensuing battle, Nelson and every other British sailor surely never expected to encounter a woman. But there was a woman there, and this extraordinary story, found in an obscure 100-year old book of reminiscences about the battle, is recounted in Alexander Stilwell’s book The Story of HMS Revenge.

HMS Revenge was a 74 gun ship launched on 13 April 1805 and she sailed in Collingwood’s column at the Battle of Trafalgar in October the same year. As the battle ended, HMS Revenge took on almost 100 survivors from the French warship Achille, which was badly damaged and on fire. The French sailors had torn off their clothes as they jumped ship in order to help them swim more easily and the Revenge’s purser was ordered to issues clothes for them all.

Paul Nicolas, a lieutentant aboard HMS Belleisle, wrote that there was one exception among the naked French sailors, ‘clothed in an old jacket and trousers, with a dingy handkerchief tied round the head, and exhibiting a face begrimed with smoke and dirt, without shoes, stockings, or shirt, and looking the picture of misery and despair. The appearance of this young person at once attracted my attention and on asking some questions on the subject, I was answered that the prisoner was a woman.’

This revelation must have proved an incredible shock – a 19th century sea battle was the last place one would expect to find a woman. A few stories of women impersonating men appear in records of the Napoleonic wars, but conditions onboard made it almost impossible for a woman to conceal herself on a war ship.

The lieutenant, recalling his chivalrous duties, ‘lost no time in introducing her to my messmates as a female requiring their compassionate attention. The poor creature was almost famished with hunger, having tasted nothing for four-and-twenty hours, consequently she required no persuasion to partake of breakfast.

I then gave her up my cabin and made a collection of all the articles which could be procured to enable her to complete a more suitable wardrobe…Our guest, which we unanimously voted her, appeared to be a very interesting young woman.'

Interesting indeed. Jeanette, it seemed, had convinced the French authorities to allow her to accompany her husband, a sailor on the Achille, into battle. As the Lieutenant recounts, 'She said she was stationed during the action in the passage of the fore-magazine, to assist in handing up the powder, which employment lasted until the surrender of the ship. When the firing ceased, she ascended to the lower deck and endeavoured to get up to the main deck to search for her husband, but the ladders having been all removed, or shot away. At this time an alarm of fire spread through the ship, so that she could get no assistance. Death from all quarters stared her in the face.

The fire, which soon burnt fiercely, precluded the possibility of her escaping…and she remained wandering to and fro upon the lower deck, among the mangled corpses of the dying and the slain, until the guns from the main deck actually fell through the burnt planks… The poor creature scrambled out of the gun-room port and, by the help of the rudder chains, reached the back of the rudder, where she remained for some time praying that the ship might blow up and thus put a period to her misery. At length the lead which lined the rudder trunk began to melt, and to fall upon her, and her only means of avoiding this was to leap overboard.’

There’s a happy end to Jeanette’s story. Soon after the battle, she discovered ‘in the greatest possible ecstacy’ that her husband had survived and was also a prisoner. The Revenge’s crew organised a collection for her in Gibraltar, when she assured them that ‘the name of our ship would always be remembered by her with the warmest gratitude.'

I can’t imagine what horrors Jeanette must have endured on that day in 1805. What an amazing, courageous lady! Her story may well have inspired Matthew Dubourg’s engraving Anecdote at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Story of HMS Revenge by Alexander Stilwell is published by Pen & Sword. ISBN 9781844159819

* Painting shown is The Battle of Trafalgar by JMW Turner, oil on canvas 1822-1824. The Achille is shown on fire in the background. Image reproduced from Wikimedia Commons.