When Britannia ruled the waves

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2007

For the last few years I have collected rare books, most concerning the history and exploration of the "Northwest Coast," a term used to identify Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska 200 years ago.

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But occasionally I pick up a book that just catches the imagination.

One such is a small volume on simple paper printed in London in 1802. It is called "Steele's Naval Chronologist of the War." It tells of what happened to the fighting ships in the war between France and England from February 1793 to 180l.

During most of the 18th and early 19th Century a struggle between France and England finally culminated in the battle of Waterloo in 18l5. Many of the battles were fought at sea.

In the period of 1793 to 1801 Steele lists almost 70 English ship captains with the designation beside the name of "blown up, drowned or killed." There must have been tens of thousands of under officers and seamen likewise lost.

It is astounding to discover and contemplate the size of the English fleet and its range around the world. In 1801 there were 946 ships in service, from the sixth rate of 20 to 30 guns up to the first rate of 100 guns and more.

Around the world they sailed.

"On the Channel and Irish stations"

The "Downs and North Sea Stations."

"Spain, Portugal and Gibraltar"

"Mediterranean and Egypt"

"America and Newfoundland"

"At the West Indies and on the Passage"

"On the Jamaica Station"

"Africa and Madeira"

"Cape of Good Hope and East Indies."

In a National Geographic article of October 2005, titled "Fatal Victory" by Simon Worrall the awful power of a ship of the line is enumerated. Nelson's "Victory" had 100 guns, a crew of 820, including 14 commissioned officers, 70 petty officers and 665 seamen, 31 of whom were boys. Worrall claims that the "Victory" alone had more firepower than an entire land army such as ones led by Wellington or Napoleon.

As they went into battle on Oct. 21, 1805, near Cape Trafalgar, Adm. Nelson said to Capt. Hardy, "This is too warm work, Hardy, to last long."

After the battle, the second in command, Capt. Collingwood wrote of the fallen Nelson, "there is nothing like him left for gallantry and conduct in battle. It was his principle of duty which all men owed their country in defense of her laws and liberty."

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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