Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

Which nationalities fought in Nelson's Navy?

battle of trafalgar, hms victory
Image 'Fall of Nelson' from 'Histoire du Consulat et de l'Empire, faisant suite a l'Histoire de la Revolution Francaise' 1845.
Image courtesy of British Library on Flickr NKCR

A suprising number of different nationalities fought in Nelson's navy.

The British Navy during Nelson's time was composed of not only British sailors, but many other nationalities. The crews of the ships that fought at Trafalgar included sailors from America, Ireland, Prussia, Sweden, the West Indies, Africa, and even France and Spain against whom the British were fighting. On Nelson's ship HMS Victory there were 22 nationalities involved in fighting on the British side.

Recruiting and manning ships was a continual problem for a ship's captain during the Napoleonic Wars. During peacetime there were sufficient volunteer seamen for the navy, but the opening of hostilities meant that ships which were in mothballs had to be quickly manned.

Experienced seamen were a valuable commodity and returning merchant ships were often intercepted before they docked and the sailors press impressed, or they were sought out in dockside taverns and alehouses. If possible, the press gang preferred not to take 'landlubbers' as they would need training, although volunteers were accepted.

Sailors of non-British nationality were recruited in foreign ports, or transferred allegiance when their ship was taken as a prize in battle.

At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, over 18,000 sailors and marines fought on the British side. Their names have now been collated into a database at The National Archives. The information has been extracted from ships' musters, survey returns, pensioners' records and certificates of service, while some of the information is sketchy and may be inaccurate, it does give an indication of multi-national crews.

Apart from English, Welsh and Scottish, the Irish were by far the largest contingent with over 3573 men indicating that Ireland was their place of birth. There were over 361 American born sailors. There are examples of Swedes (78), Norwegians (25), Prussians (23), Russians (9), Maltese (25), and Italians (115).

From France there were 20, and Spain 8. Even from land-locked Austria there were at least 5.

From Canada, particularity Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, 31 men. 17 are listed as born in Africa. They were all probably black although race is not given. Similarly 123 from the West Indies. Probably all former slaves, now free men and sailors. One appears in Denis Dighton's painting 'The Fall of Nelson'. Albeit 20 years after the battle, it is an acknowledgment that they served in the navy at the time. (Click on the top part of the link to view the image at the National Maritime Museum. [we have no control on the layout of this link])

How each of these men came to be serving in the British Navy would be a fascinating story to research and tell.

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