EHS 2018 special: Foreign sailors in Nelson’s Navy: a forgotten story

by Sara Caputo (University of Cambridge) 

 

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Nelson as a Midshipman, 1775. Available at <http://www.admiralnelson.info/Timeline.htm&gt;

Few aspects of British history have attracted more patriotic enthusiasm than the nation’s naval exploits at the time of Nelson and Trafalgar. A less-known fact is that during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars against France (1793-1815), the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign sailors.

My doctoral research, co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Robinson College, Cambridge, aims to reconstruct these men’s experiences for the first time, as well as giving an indication of the size of the phenomenon.

A quantitative study conducted on a sample of crews, chosen among those serving the furthest away from Britain – and thus most likely to include foreigners – revealed that 14.03% of the seamen sampled (616 out of 4,392) were born outside Britain or Ireland. Aboard one of the ships stationed in Jamaica in 1813, the proportion rose to 22.83%.

These sailors came from every corner of the world, and their numbers oscillated depending on the British state’s need for skilled seafarers in times of crisis. But their presence is often forgotten in favour of nationalistic narratives of British glory. Quantitative analysis of this kind helps to confirm that the British Navy of the Age of Sail, of Nelson and Trafalgar, was far from being manned only by ‘True Britons’. If Britannia ruled the waves, it was not always entirely by her own devices.

Americans were the largest group found in the sample (176 men), followed by natives of what today is Germany, West Indians, Swedes, Danes and Norwegians, Dutchmen, Portuguese and East Indians. Italians, Frenchmen (even though they were nominally the enemy), Africans and Spaniards were also well represented, and other smaller groups included Poles, South Americans, Russians, Maltese, Finns, one Greek and even – quite surprisingly – a Swiss, an Austrian, a Hungarian and a Chinese.

Previous studies have analysed the composition of crews in the eighteenth century Navy, but because no one has focused specifically on foreigners the samples had been chosen and interrogated in different ways. My research aims to cast light on changes over the whole time span of these wars, and across different geographical stations.

Three ships were chosen from each of three points in time – roughly the beginning, middle and end of the wars. The results show that the proportion of foreigners was lower in 1793, at the start of the conflict, with only 6.24% of the men in the sample coming from abroad, but went up to 14.94% in 1802, halfway through the war, and 18.49% by 1813, towards the end of it.

This is likely to be a symptom of the Navy’s increasing hunger for manpower, as the war progressed with heavy casualties and the British reserves of seamen becoming depleted.

As is often the case when dealing with matters of national belonging, the status of many of the men in the sample is potentially ambiguous: legal distinctions between ‘British’ and ‘foreign’ were complex and far from clear-cut, depending on ideas of birthplace and ‘blood’, but also on cultural aspects such as personal choice, length of service, political loyalties, social status and general usefulness to the country.

If the British armed forces today only employ UK or Irish nationals, or Commonwealth nationals with settled status, this was not always the case: 200 years ago, men we would nowadays define as foreigners were actively sought and recruited by the British monarchy, and played an important role in British society and economy at large, as well as in the construction of an overseas empire.

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