A satisfying tale of a mighty ship, and of a half-century under the mast in some of Europe’s fiercest wars.
HMS Bellerophon, writes English maritime historian Cordingly (Women Sailors and Sailors’ Women, 2001, etc.), came into existence in 1782 with only the grudging consent of the Admiralty, which foresaw little use for a big, 74-gun vessel at the time. Soon enough, though, the Bellerophon—whose crew, not trained in the gentlemanly study of Greek mythology, called her the “Billy Ruffian” or “Belly Rough One” or variants thereof—was chasing around the high seas after French privateers, then Napoleon’s fleet, facing down said blighters in encounters such as the Battle of the Glorious First of June (1794), the Battle of the Nile (1798), and, most famous of all, the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). She took her blows and lost plenty of hands, but fewer so than her French foes; Cordingly describes one engagement in which the French commander lost both his legs, but “got himself strapped into a chair and was heard to say that a French admiral ought to die on his own quarterdeck”—just before being cut in two by a cannonball. (The incident, Cordingly adds, inspired the once widely recited poem that opens “The boy stood on the burning deck.”) By good fortune, the Bellerophon received intelligence that Napoleon was planning to flee France after the Battle of Waterloo (1815) and kept after him until the emperor surrendered; the ship escorted him to Plymouth, where curious onlookers rowed out to gawk at the captive, but was judged incapable of making the long voyage to St. Helena, where Nappy lived out his days in exile. Alas, the Bellerophon lived out her own last days as a prison ship, an inglorious end to a much-vaunted vessel of the line.
Solid and well-researched stuff, and a pleasure for fans of Patrick O’Brian, C.S. Forester, and other chroniclers of the fighting sail.