Name ring a bell? Probably not. Everyone’s heard of Admiral Nelson, but few know the name of his old friend and second-in-command Admiral Collingwood. But they should.
Being interested in naval history I already knew a bit about him, but I’ve just finished reading Admiral Collingwood by Max Adams and have been very impressed both by the book and its subject.
Most people who know about Trafalgar believe that the British destroyed the French naval threat to Britain. It didn’t. It was certainly a decisive victory, but many of the heavily involved British ships like the Victory were left virtual floating wrecks themselves. Napoleon was still active in Europe, and it was imperative that Britain’s Mediterranean interests were protected. The responsibility fell to Collingwood.
Before that, he had to ensure that the crippled British ships at the end of the Battle of Trafalgar survived the worst storm that some of the experienced captains in the fleet had ever experienced, which he did.
But then came years of unspectacular, grinding, frustrating duty in the Med, a mix of naval presence and political juggling among the apprehensive British allies under pressure from France – something he did brilliantly and successfully, but quietly. No spectacular, major battle was involved so he never got much credit, and the responsibility and years of unremitting life on board took its toll on his health. For around five years he longed to return home and spend time with his wife and family, but no one possessed his combination of naval and diplomatic know-how and the chance never came. The years at sea wore him out. When his health finally gave out and he was allowed to resign his post, he did not survive the journey home.
Because his work drew no headlines, few knew how much he had achieved. But some did. After Collingwood’s death at sea was announced, a shrewd politician wrote that following Trafalgar
…Collingwood alone, by his sagacity and decision…sustained the interests of England and eternally defeated the projects of France. He was, in truth, the prime and sole minister of England, acting upon the seas, corresponding himself with all the surrounding States, and ordering and executing everything on his own responsibility.
He also knew how to die. A nauseating sea-swell built up during his voyage home and a concerned officer friend asked if it was troubling him. This was his reply:
No. I am now in a state in which nothing in this world can disturb me more. I am dying, and I am sure it must be consolatory to you, and all who love me, to see how comfortably I am coming to my end.
(I have always thought of him as the man who, worried about the destruction of Britain’s oak forest to build the ships he sailed on, used to roam the countryside with a pocketful of acorns, scattering them around as he went.)