My long-suffering husband is used to me asking him to take photographs of the most unlikely objects and places because I have discovered they have a connection to the Georgian era. I had assured him that our latest holiday – a small-ship voyage down the coast of Italy from Venice to Sicily to taste local wines and food – would be safely Georgian-free and he could relax and take pictures of whatever he pleased.
However, I had not reckoned on Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s incredible voyage through the Mediterranean in 1798 as he desperately tracked Napoleon’s fleet in a game of hide and seek that began at Gibraltar on May 25th and culminated at the Battle of the Nile off the coast of Egypt on August 1st.
The search was critical to the British. Napoleon was somewhere in the Mediterranean with a large fleet and no-one knew where he would strike – the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Greece, Gibraltar which was the last British outpost or Egypt, putting in peril vital trade links with India.
After a frantic search, including missing the French off the Egyptian coast by 25 hours, Nelson, on board his flagship HMS Vanguard, led the fleet into Syracuse on the coast of Sicily on July 21st. The authorities were nervous about admitting the fleet, causing Nelson to rant in dispatches to the Admiralty, but, thanks to the intervention of his friend Sir William Hamilton (his wife Emma famously became Nelson’s mistress) who had influence with the King of Naples, they were finally accommodated. (The picture above shows part of the harbour.)
I discovered this when our guide, standing in front of the fabulous cathedral in the Piazza Duomo, mentioned casually that the Palazzo Beneventano del Bosco (below right) behind us was where Nelson had stayed while the fleet was taking on water and provisions.
That was exciting news – as well as being the great naval hero of the era Nelson was born at Burnham Thorpe a few miles away from where I live, so he’s a local hero for me as well. We managed to get into the inner court, despite the fact that the palace is still in private hands, and it seemed unchanged as we walked through the gateway that Nelson must have used and wondered which window was his bedchamber.
Then the guide took us down almost to the edge of the sea and the beautiful and sacred Spring of Arethusa where fresh water has bubbled up for millennia. This is where the fleet filled its water barrels and Nelson wrote to the Hamiltons –
My dear Friends,
Thanks to your exertions, we have victualled and watered: and surely watering at the Fountain of Arethusa, we must have victory. We shall sail with the first breeze, and be assured I will return either crowned with laurel, or covered with cypress.
The spring, shown left, now has a large planting of papyrus plants in the middle, and archaeologists have discovered that these have been growing on its banks since ancient times. As they are not native outside Egypt it is assumed that someone introduced them, centuries ago, for papermaking. It seems an incredible coincidence that Nelson should be taking water from virtually the one place that grew papyrus outside Egypt when he was destined to meet the French off the coast of that country. No wonder he felt instinctively that it would be lucky for him!
Nelson led his fleet out again on the 25th July, the day after Napoleon had entered Cairo after triumphing at the Battle of the Pyramids. Still with no clue as to where his enemy was, Nelson headed for Cyprus and, by a stroke of luck Captain Troubridge diverted to the Greek coast, captured a French wine brig and spoke to a Turkish official who had news of the French fleet. Still with the wine brig in tow (obviously a man after my own heart!) Troubridge brought Nelson the news.
On August 1st the British fleet met the French in Aboukir Bay, stunned them by engaging immediately despite the lateness of the hour and the battle raged into the night. At 8pm Nelson was wounded in the head but refused to retire to his cabin. Finally the last French ship surrendered late on August 2nd.
The news reached Napoleon on August 13th. His secretary wrote “The catastrophe of Aboukir came like a thunderbolt on the General in Chief.” It was a year before the French finally left Egypt but the trade routes to the East had been saved for the British. After a successful land battle against Ottoman troops at, ironically, Aboukir in August 1799, Napoleon returned to France and seized power.
Syracuse was our last port of call of the holiday so we couldn’t linger and soak up the atmosphere but it has inspired me to seek out another holiday following Nelson’s campaigns in the Mediterranean. Can anyone recommend some equally inspiring locations?