It seems extraordinary now that I found history so boring at school. I don’t know whether it was bad teaching, bad textbooks, or just that it’s one of those things that grows on you with age. Part of it is realising that you don’t have to read history books to learn about history – that novels, biographies, diaries and so on can be just as helpful. Anyway, I’ve been to a couple of Nelson exhibits recently. My particular interest in the Navy of the period is mainly due to the Patrick O’Brian novels (which the film Master and Commander were based on).

One was the Nelson and Napoleon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum. Which was full of good stuff, although Napoleon might have felt that it was inflating Nelson’s importance to give them equal billing. More special, though, was going to visit the HMS Victory, which is fabulous. For a start, it’s really big. It’s a 104 gun warship with a crew of over 800, so of course it’s big, but somehow you always expect these historical things to be quite small in the flesh. It looks quite big from the outside, but even more so when you go round it and see that as well as the upper deck it had three gun decks, an ‘orlop deck’ and the hold. The Admiral’s cabin has a gleaming mahogany dining table that would seat about 30 people; there’s a fully fitted carpenter’s workshop the size of a small shop; the capstan, used for raising the anchor, took 140 men to turn. They were extraordinarily powerful things, of course – at the Battle of Austerlitz, the Allied army of 85000 men had just 278 guns, all 12-pounders or smaller. At Trafalgar, in the same year, the British fleet had 27 ships of the line, each of which would have had at least 64 guns, including many 32-pounders.

One of the most interesting things was the grand magazine, where the gunpowder was stored. They were (obviously) very worried about the possibility of 35 tons of gunpowder exploding all at once. So the magazine is lined with multiple layers of wood and plaster and a layer of copper to stop rats from getting in and trailing powder to other parts of the ship. All the bolts and nails are also copper, to prevent sparks, and men working in the magazine were not allowed to wear any metal. There’s a layer of charcoal in the floor of the magazine to absorb moisture and keep the powder dry. The magazine was completely sealed off from the rest of the ship except for a narrow passage from the deck above, and light was from two lanterns behind glass in a light room with a separate entrance.

Anyway. I recommend it. It’s very interesting.

My favourite Nelson anecdote deals with his only meeting with Wellington. This is Wellington’s version of it:

“I went to the Colonial Office in Downing Street, and there I was shown into the little waiting-room on the right hand, where I found, also waiting to see the Secretary of State, a gentleman, whom, from his likeness to his pictures and the loss of an arm, I immediately recognized as Lord Nelson. He could not know who I was, but he entered at once into conversation with me, if I can call it conversation, for it was almost all on his side and all about himself, and in, really, a style so vain and so silly as to surprise and almost disgust me. I suppose something that I happened to say made him guess that I was somebody, and he went out of the room for a moment, I have no doubt to ask the office keeper who I was, for when he came back he was altogether a different man, both in manner and matter. All that I had thought a charlatan style had vanished, and he talked of the state of this country and the probabilities of affairs on the Continent with a good sense, and a knowledge of subjects both at home and abroad, that surprised me equally and more agreeably than the first part of our interview had done; in fact, he talked like an officer and a statesman. The Secretary of State kept us long waiting, and certainly, for the last half or three-quarters of an hour, I don’t know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. Now, if the Secretary of State had been punctual, and admitted Lord Nelson in the first quarter of an hour, I should have had the same impression of a light and trivial character that other people have had; but luckily I saw enough to be satisfied that he was really a very superior man; but certainly a more sudden and complete metamorphosis I never saw.”

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