The French flagship at Trafalgar

Malta Maritime Museum

On Monday 21st October 1805 the combined fleets of France and Spain were sighted off Cape Trafalgar by the English squadron. Admiral Villeneuve the commander in chief of the French fleet was aboard the Bucentaure of 80 Guns.

The French ship was very heavy for its size, compared to its British advisories however it was the talent of French naval architects that shown through its two decks of guns.

Although heavier the French flagship was faster, more manoeuvrable and furthermore it could be by less men. The ship was a marvel of naval engineering, the envy of the Royal Navy.

Malta had French shipbuilding technology with the help of the Order of St. John. That Order was overthrown out of Malta by the French. Subsequently these were ousted by a combined force of Maltese stubbornness and perseverance.

Through English Naval expertise, Portuguese arms and Neapolitan grain, Malta became a British protectorate. For the British Command, Malta was the perfect base in the Mediterranean to thwart Napoleon’s plans.

In 1805 Napoleon now Emperor was planning an invasion of Great Britain. Nelson was torn between finding and destroying the French fleet and longing for his mistress in Naples.

While Admiral Villeneuve gave Nelson the slip from Toulon, Horatio Nelson wrote to his mistress:

Villeneuve managed to give Nelson the slip aboard his splendid ship the Bucentaure.

However his crew had spent too much time blockaded in harbour and he knew they were not ready if ever they had to come up against a determined enemy.

He begged Napoleon to relieve him of his duty, yet the latter refused. Villeneuve had already seen Nelson’s prowess at Aboukir, and he feared another confrontation.

He sailed from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean, with the British fleet always in chase. Yet no action was ever fought until the returning French and Spanish fleet anchored in Cadiz.

It was evident that now the French and Spanish had only one choice: sail out and fight the Royal

As the fleet sailed out off the coast of Cape Trafalgar one of the most famous naval battles of all time was about to start.

It was a rather choppy seas and it would make it very difficult for the gun crews to achieve accurate firing.

The French and Spanish fleets still used linstock for their cannons which further handicapped their firing while the British had flintlocks on their cannons.

The Bucentaure was immediately engaged by the British ships, Nelson onboard HMS Victory went straight for the French and Spanish flagship. An eyewitness wrote:

The Victory with the flag of Admiral Nelson came on: she seemed to be aiming to break the line between the Santissima Trinidad and the bows of the Bucentaure.

I was all the time following the wake of the Commander in chief; but there was still a wide gap between him and myself.

I pressed on and closed the flagship so as, in effect to keep the Redoubtable’s bowsprit almost touching the taffrail of the Bucentaure. I made up my mind to sacrifice my ship, if necessary, in defence of the flagship.

This I told my officers and men, who answered me with shouts and cheers, repeated over and over again. ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ ‘Vive l’Amiral!’ ‘Vive le Commandant!’

Acts of great valour were witnessed on both sides, however the Bucentaure was about to bear the full grunt of HMS Victory’s broadside.

Nelson had managed to come up to the Frenchmen’s stern and on the up-roll he poured into her a blunder of metal.

The metal crashed into the timbers sending splinters and 20 mounted guns all over the open deck killing hundreds of crew men. Villeneuve was astonished at the damage and death toll aboard his ship.

After more than 3 hours of fighting, the French flagship was dismasted and completely destroyed.

Eleven British ships had poured broadside upon broadside into her.

When the flagship struck her colours the Midshipman from HMS Conqueror climbed aboard to receive the surrender from Villeneuve, the young midshipman described the disaster he found aboard.

The dead, thrown back as they fell lay along the middle of the deck in heaps, and the shot passing through these hand frightfully mangled the bodies...More than four hundred had been killed and wounded, of whom an extraordinary proportion had lost their heads.

HMS Victory had its own experience of carnage aboard; Admiral Nelson would meet his end during the battle. England’s greatest naval hero lost his life.

His distinct uniform caught the eye of an Austrian sharp shooter who shot him while Nelson paced the deck. Aboard HMS Victory during the battle there were at least 4 Maltese seamen witnessing such carnage.

There were at least 25 Maltese men in the whole British fleet on that day, the youngest one was 14 years old called Joseph Baldacchino.

The Royal navy had soundly defeated the combined Spanish and French fleets. However, victory came at a cost. Nelson was afforded a state funeral.

His coffin was made of the mast of the French ship l’Orient that had been defeated in Aboukir seven years before in 1798.

That same ship that had ferried the then General Bonaparte to Malta, then to Egypt. The destruction of the French fleet would spell the end of Emperor Napoleon’s dream to invade Britain.

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