By Janet Sloss
Britain’s Last Conquest of Menorca 1798 - 1802
© 2002 Bonaventura Press
The eighteenth century was coming to an end. In Europe, it had been a century of remarkable achievements in science, industry, philosophy, medicine, transport, music and literature. Politically, it had seen two important revolutions, with the colonies in America breaking away from England in 1776 and the French people deposing their king, Louis XV, in 1779. The old enemies, France and England, were still the major powers, and still fiercely competitive. There were small principalities scattered about whose allegiance could be bought and, in the Mediterranean, islands whose harbours were important trading points.
The road to power lay in successful trade. Britain was a small country compared to the land area of the continental European nations. The country of the industrial revolution, its economy was based on trade. When England lost its lucrative American colonies, its trade depended on possessions in the West Indian islands, in India and in access to the east. It maintained a powerful navy to protect its trade routes but let its army run down. Only in England was recruitment voluntary and there were not many recruits.
France had been economically ruined by the extravagant style of her monarchs and by the losses of her colonies and shipping to the English navy. After the Treaty of Versailles in 1783, the new Republican government went into a frenzy of activity, raising a large army by conscription. Every French man, woman and child was called on to defend the country. Louis XV was guillotined in January 1793 and France, under a republican Directorate, declared war on Britain and Spain. France had now the largest army in Europe but no organised navy to oppose the naval power of England.
By 1796, the French army was on the move and the energetic, ambitious young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, had captured Nice, Savoy, Piedmont and northern Italy, giving them new names as French republics. The following year, Spain was persuaded to enter into an alliance with France. Spain had a navy and two attempts were made to invade Britain, one in Ireland and one on the coast of Wales. Both failed, but Napoleon claimed that the conquest of England was only postponed. “Our government must destroy England. That done, Europe is at our feet.” And if he couldn’t conquer Britain with an army, the next best thing would be to cripple her trade.
One year later, he was master of Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and the Roman republic. When he conquered the Low Countries, England became alarmed. 120,000 French troops were now in sight on the other side of the English Channel. George III declared war.
What turns a man into a national hero? Firstly, he must have courage, tenacity and devotion to his country but, above all, he must be successful. In 1797, aged 39, Horatio Nelson was largely responsible for a victory over the French navy. The English fleet was anchored off the coast of its ally, Portugal, and in February, by one brilliant stroke at Cape St Vincent, Nelson began his career of defeating the even younger Napoleon. When he saw that the Spanish fleet had become separated into two divisions, Nelson broke from the line and interposed his ship ahead of the Spaniards, tackling single-handed three Spanish first-raters, the Salvador del Mundo, the San Josef and the Santissima Trinidad. After an hour of fighting, the San Nicolas collided with the San Josef, whereupon Nelson laid his ship alongside the San Nicolas and captured both ships by boarding them. When the battle was over, the British had captured four Spanish ships, while the Santissima Trinidad also surrendered but sailed off before they could take possession. Nelson’s success was due in part to new regulations by the English Navy Board. Under the old rules, ships had to keep in strict battle formation, much as on land, regiments lined up facing each other. Admiral Byng’s altering battle formation at Mahon had cost him his life. Now Nelson was promoted to Rear Admiral.
Napoleon had risen swiftly to the position of Chief Consul in the new republican France. “The Republic regards the Mediterranean as its sea and wishes to dominate it,” was his straightforward statement, and his plan was to capture Malta and Egypt, build a canal through the Isthmus of Suez and remove the English from their possessions in the Far East. His fleet of 300 ships, under the command of Vice Admiral de Brueys, left Marseilles on the 19th of May, 1798. They were joined by two more fleets at Genoa and Civitavecchia, the Papal state. The English fleet was still off Lisbon. Spies alerted them and Admiral Nelson was put in command of a squadron with orders to find and defeat the French. Earl St Vincent, the British naval commander in the Mediterranean, added eleven more battle ships to Nelson’s squadron. Nelson sped to Genoa and then proceeded south east along the Italian coast. Three days later, he learned that Malta had fallen to the French. Napoleon had conquered the island in a three-day siege at the beginning of June, ousting the Knights of St John, stealing treasure worth millions and promising to set up a republican government. He had then sailed on to conquer Egypt
Off the southern tip of Sicily, Nelson was told that the French fleet had left six days earlier. It was false information. In fact the French fleet had passed through just three days before. Nelson made all sail to Alexandria, only to find no French there. The French had not taken the straight route, but sailed by way of Corsica. (The English navy had the advantage over the French in speed, owing to their coating their wooden ships with copper. Their prows cut through the water like knives through butter.) Nelson immediately headed north again, and the French arrived on the coast of Egypt a few hours after the disappointed English had left.
Napoleon landed his ‘army of Egypt’ on July 3rd, took Alexandria, and three weeks later was victorious in the ‘Battle of the Pyramids’ and entered Cairo. On July 25th, he captured Aboukir, a long bay ten miles west of Alexandria, leaving Admiral de Brueys there with a fleet of seventeen warships.
Nelson raced back to Sicily, thinking this had been Napoleon’s real objective. Then he zig-zagged for a month around the eastern Mediterranean in his search. At last, on August 1st, the Zealous sighted the masts of the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay. The sight of the enemy ships anchored in a straight line in shallow water along the shore of that long sandy bay must have filled his heart with joy. “My disposition,” Nelson wrote in his diary, “cannot bear tame and slow measures”.
The French warships were like sitting ducks. Nelson brought his fleet in from the north-east, sending five ships ahead of the French line to anchor on the shore side, while the Vanguard led the remainder of the fleet along the outside of the French line. The French ships were roped together, anchored from the stern, leaving them with no mobility. They were trapped and at a great disadvantage. It was late in the afternoon. The light was fading. According to naval tradition at that time, fighting only took place in daylight hours. Nelson signalled his captains to hang lamps on their mainmasts so that no British ship would fire on another, and the battle began. After four hours of heavy shelling, at ten at night the French flagship Orient blew up. The awesome explosion stunned the men of both fleets into a ten minute silence. Some said the noise could be heard at Cairo. Admiral Brueys had both legs shot off but continued to give orders until the next cannon ball killed him. 1
At dawn the next day, the French flagship had sunk, three others were disabled, six showed the white flag of surrender, and three more had sailed away as quickly as they could. The ‘Battle of the Nile’ was over, leaving Napoleon’s army stranded and hungry in the desert. Nelson was created Baron Nelson of the Nile, second in command of the British navy, and also the Duke of Bronte by King Ferdinand of the Two Sicilies. With their thanks for keeping trade routes open, the directors of the East India Company made him a gift of £10,000 “for His Lordship’s magnanimous conduct in this glorious event.”
1 Underwater archaeologists have been working recently
at the site of the Battle of Aboukir Bay. Begun in 1983 by Jacques Dumas,
exploration is still carried on by Frank Goddio. Work shows that the French
flagship L’orient was sunk by two massive explosions, not one as
previously thought. Seven anchors have been discovered, showing the position
of the French fleet, and a massive collection of coins from France, Spain,
Malta, the Ottoman Empire and Venice substantiate the story of Napleon’s
plundering of the Knights of Malta’s treasury.
Napoleon Bonaparte visiting the sphinx and the pyramids
of Egypt, 1798
Admiral Francois Paul Brueys D’Aigalliers
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