Happy Birthday Horatio


Horatio Nelson needs no history lesson here, you know who he is.  Today is his birthday and he was born in 1758.  Despite leaving parts of himself all over Europe this tiny man had a huge impact.  He clearly liked his sun holidays did Horatio, and he used to get up to some crazy antics.  He left his arm behind in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 after one holiday.  He lost his eye in Corsica in 1794 and rumor has it that he lost his heart in Naples in 1798 to Lady Hamilton.

Nelson was ennobled as the First Duke of Bronté and it is this title that gave us the famous Brontë family, Anne, Charlotte and Emily.

The father of the three Victorian writers was born Patrick Prunty from County Down in Ireland.  Patrick attended Cambridge University and perhaps found that his Irish Heritage was a handicap.  These were the days when Europe was in turmoil as Napoleon demolished the Ancien Regime and spread concepts such as the rights of man, enlightenment and republicanism.  Ireland rebelled in 1798 seeking independence from the United Kingdom.  There is even a theory that his own brother was a rebel.  This highly political environment must have been a concern to a young protestant Irish student of divinity.

So Patrick Prunty changed his surname and adopted the name of Nelsons dukedom to become Patrick Brontë.

Fall, leaves, fall; by Emily Brontë

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
lengthen night and shorten day;
every leaf speaks bliss to me
fluttering from the autumn tree.

I shall smile when wreaths of snow
blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
ushers in a drearier day.

Crowded field


A very auspicious day today, very popular with the celebrity birthdays.  It is a crowded field, but for me it will always be Pompey day.  Not only was he born today but he also got leave from the senate to celebrate his third triumph today in 61 BC.  The Senate celebrated Pompey for his war against the pirates, which made him fantastically rich.  He was already rich when he started, but this was the icing on the cake.

He also slipped in at the end of Lucullus’ war against Mithridates VI in the East and claimed the win for himself.  Cheeky!

This was undoubtedly the high water mark of Pompey’s career.  In 59 BC Pompey harnessed his significant senatorial weight to the wealth of Crassus and the populism of Caesar to form the first triumvirate.  From this point the trajectories in the careers of Caesar and Pompey were a reflection of each other as the Elder statesman declined and the young pretender rose in prominence.



Jar Heads

Burning of the Philadelphia

Burning of the Philadelphia

On the night of 16 February 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur led a small detachment of U.S. Marines to burn the USS Philadelphia.

In October 1803 the US ship had run around on an uncharted reef while patrolling Tripoli harbour during the First Barbary War (1801-1805).  The captain, Bainbridge, did his best to refloat his ship under constant fire from the Barbary guns.  He jettisoned his own guns to lighten the ship, then jettisoned everything not necessary to handle the vessel.  Finally, in a last desperate attempt he had the foremast sawn off.  Ultimately he had to surrender himself and his crew to Yusef Pasha in Tripoli.

The Corsairs refloated the ship and brought her into Tripoli harbour, where she served both as trophy and a powerful defense against the US fleet.  There are reports that the Muslim call to prayer in this period was signaled by the firing of guns from the captured ship.

Next followed the action described by Horatio Nelson, at the height of his power on the eve of Trafalgar, as “the most bold and daring act of the age.”  Stephen Decatur  and his detachment of US Marines boarded a captured Tripolitan ketch.  In a classic “ruse de guerre” they pretended to have lost their anchors in a storm, and sought assistance from the Barbary troops stationed aboard the captured Philadelphia.  Decatur’s men stormed the ship and overpowered the Tripolitan sailors. With fire support from the American warships, the Marines set fire to Philadelphia, denying her use by the enemy.   Thus began the legend that became the US Marines.

The legend was sealed a year later when the Marines led a mercenary force from Alexandria in Egypt to capture the city of Derna in modern day Libya.  For the first time in history the US flag was raised in victory on foreign soil.  The successes of the First Barbary War became enshrined in the official Hymn of the US Marine Corps.

The First Barbary War was a result of Muslim disruption of shipping in the Mediterranean in a manner that can only be described as officially sanctioned piracy.  The US suffered particularly following the French Revolution, when they lost the protection of the Royal French Fleet.  When Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with Tripoli’s envoy, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman to enquire concerning the ground for the attacks on US shipping, the ambassador replied that:  It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.   Seems things haven’t changed much in 200 years.

The Marines Hymn; author unknown.

From the Halls of Montezuma
To the shores of Tripoli;
We fight our country’s battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag’s unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes,
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here’s health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we’ve fought for life
And never lost our nerve.
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes,
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

Casabianca (not Casablanca)


Most readers will have been introduced to this poem through parodies, of which there are many. My favourite is Spike Milligan, who transposed the first two lines and finished off the poem with a single word in the third line…”Twit”.
What fewer people know is that the poem is based on a real life event and a real person.
The event was the 1798 Battle of the Nile, which cemented the fame of Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, who later became Admiral Lord Nelson. As with many battles it has two names. It is also called the Battle of Aboukir Bay. The latter is a more accurate name for the battle, as it occurred in Alexandria, which is some distance from the Nile. But the British public knew nothing of Aboukir Bay, but recognised the Nile. So for propaganda purposes it became the Battle of the Nile.
The battle exhibited the brilliance of Nelson and the shortcomings of Napoleon when it came to matters at sea. Napoleon invaded Egypt as a prelude to carving out a route to India with the intention of depriving Great Britain of that jewel. On land he was invincible. But he had no sense of naval tactics. He insisted that the French fleet station itself nearby in case he required an exit from Egypt.
This was far from ideal. Aboukir bay is open and exposed, impossible to defend. A stronger admiral would have refused Napoleon and taken his fleet to a secure bay in Crete or Cyprus. From the islands a fleet could command approach routes, and sweep down on a weaker enemy at will. More importantly it could defend itself from a stronger foe in a secure harbour.
Instead François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers was compromised into anchoring his fleet off Alexandria. In Aboukir bay he took his ships inshore as close as he dared and chained them in a defensive line. He reasoned that the British, if they found him, would be forced to keep to the open side of his line, and he could fight them on even terms. Chaining the ships together prevented the enemy from getting amongst them.
Nelson arrived, assessed the situation and made a quick decision. He sent his shallow draught ships into the channel between the land and the French. A brave and risky manoevre, and entirely unexpected. His heavier ships sailed in parallel on the open side of the French fleet. The British then unleashed a double broadside on the French. It is certain that the inland guns of the French were unprepared for the engagement.
The result was a devastating blow, taking the French apart. Of 13 ships of the line the French had 2 sunk and 9 captured.
The poem is a celebration of the eponymous young French boy who stood his station as his ship erupted in flame.
Casabianca by Felecia Dorothea Hemans

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm –
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on – he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He called aloud: – ‘say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.

‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
‘If I may yet be gone!’
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair;
And shouted but once more aloud,
‘My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
There came a burst of thunder-sound –
The boy – oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!–
With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part –
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.


Springbok Mandela

In 1994 Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the elections that changed South Africa.  He had no reason to love the Whites who locked him away for 27 years.  The title of this post is his prison number.  While in prison Mandela read the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley.  It gave him the mental courage to continue his struggle.  He read the poem to other inmates to keep them motivated.

My greatest memory of Mandela is how, in 1995, he donned the Springbok shirt.

The Springboks were the bastion of white supremacy, the symbol of Apartheid.  Other, lesser, leaders of the ANC might have refused to attend the rugby world cup.  Mandela embraced it.  He shared his love of Invictus with Francois Pienaar, the Springbok captain.  South Africa won a celebrated victory against a seemingly unbeatable All Black squad featuring Jonah Lomu at the peak of his game.

Mandela presented the cup to Pienaar, wearing the Springbok shirt, symbolising the union of black and white.  “If you want to make peace with your enemy you have to work with your enemy.  Then he becomes your partner“….Nelson Mandela


Invictus; by William Ernest Henley


Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds and shall find me unafraid.


It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

To Victory


The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up, 1838; J.M.W. Turner

October 21st is the anniversary of Trafalgar. These days it is difficult to conceptualise how significant a battle it was.  History permits us the luxury of looking back through time to find the root of a significant outcome. From the battle of Trafalgar (1805) until the battle of Jutland in 1916 (and some would claim another couple of decades) the British Navy literally ruled the waves. The sun did not set on the British Empire because of the power of the British Navy. This gave the British a mastery over world trade that allowed them considerable wealth for 100 years.

The British naval policy in this period was to have a naval strength greater than the combined fleets of the second and third largest forces. The Royal Navy, ever England’s bulwark against the world, and the “senior service”. A naval commission has always carried far more prestige in Britain than one in the army. Trafalgar was also a day of national mourning, with the loss of Lord Nelson, hero of the Nile and Copenhagen and the darling of the British public. Nelson was a living legend in his own lifetime, and the regency version of a rock star. One armed, one eyed, a small man with a high squeaky voice, women swooned wherever he passed.

The painting above, “The Fighting Téméraire tugged to her last berth to be broken up” is considered by many to be the requiem for the days of sail. The glorious Téméraire followed HMS Victory into battle at Trafalgar. When Victory was in trouble this plucky second rate ship of the line stepped in to rescue her, and finished the day with two captured Frenchmen to her name. (Such anthropomorphism!)

Turner captures the Swan Song of the great ship. Stripped down, we see a hint of her former glory in the fully rigged ship in the background. Téméraire is towed by a steam tug, belching sulphurous black smoke. With this powerful image we see the passing of a golden age of romance and chivalry and the blue skies of the left of the painting. It is replaced with the arrival of technological progress, inevitable, inexorable and dirty as seen on the right of the painting. It brings to mind the the dark satanic mills of William Blake in the poem now better known as the Hymn “Jerusalem”.

And did those feet in ancient time.

Walk upon Englands mountains green:

And was the holy Lamb of God,

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;

Bring me my Arrows of desire:

Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!

Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

Till we have built Jerusalem,

In Englands green & pleasant Land