At the 1839 Royal Academy exhibition Joseph Turner revealed his most famous oil painting. It was a wonderful work, heavy with symbolism. It showed a Napoleonic warship being dragged to her doom at the breakers yard. To add to the indignity, the tug towing the old sailing ship was driven by steam, the power source that was starting to replace wind in the navy. The sun sets behind the ship (even though they are actually travelling westwards up the Thames) to underscore the era that is drawing to a close. The ship he chose to portray was HMS Temeraire, affectionately known to the public as The Fighting Temeraire. But veteran warships were being broken up on a regular basis in the 1830s, so why did this ship in particular inspire Turner to pick up his brush.
The first Temeraire to serve in the Royal Navy was a 74 captured from the French during the Seven Years War. The name means fearless or reckless, and was retained during her service as a British ship. Later, when three new second rate three deckers were ordered in the 1790s, it was decided to revive the name for one of them. The new Temeraire was a large 98 gun warship, launched at Chatham in 1798. She joined the Channel Fleet the following spring as they blockaded the French fleet in Brest. Two years of dull patrol work followed for the new warship, waiting in the empty Atlantic for the enemy to come out.
Towards the end of 1801 rumours began to circulate of impending peace with France. For the crew of the Temeraire this was especially welcome news. Many of them were pressed sailors who had been passed from one ship to another since the war had started in 1793. Peace negotiations were indeed taking place with the French in Amiens, but an early return to their loved ones was to be denied to the men of the Temeraire. Instead she was sent to Bantry Bay in Ireland to escort a convoy to the West Indies. This disappointment tipped the crew over into munity, and they refused to sail anywhere other than back to England. After several weeks of failed negotiations, the captain was finally able to restore order. He used marines to arrest the fourteen ringleaders behind the rising, and the ship did eventually sail for the Caribbean with its convoy.
With the resumption of hostilities against France, the Temeraire rejoined the Channel Fleet and the blockade of Brest, under the command of Captain Harvey. By 1805 the Temeraire’s record was still very light on fighting, but all that was to change when she was transferred to join Nelson blockading the Franco-Spanish fleet in Cadiz. She arrived in September, and within a month found herself taking part in the greatest battle of the age of sail.
On the day of Trafalgar, the Temeraire was positioned immediately behind Nelson’s Victory, and followed the flagship as she led the windward line of British ships into the heart of the Franco-Spanish fleet. The Temeraire was initially engaged by the Spanish ship Santisima Trinidad, but then Harvey realised that the Victory was in trouble. As the leading ship, she had taken the brunt of the enemy’s fire, and Nelson had been fatally wounded. The French ship Redoubtable had come up alongside her, swept her upper deck clear with musket fire, and gathered her crew, ready to board.
Captain Harvey brought the Temeraire around to intervene at the crucial moment, suddenly appearing from out of the smoke. She poured a raking broadside into the stern of the French ship, and then came up on her disengaged side, ramming her in the process. Another French ship, the Fougueux attacked the Temeraire’s other side, so that Harvey found himself engaging two opponents at once. After a savage fight, he defeated them both, and the legend of The Fighting Temeraire was born.
At the end of the battle, the ship was in a dreadful state. She had lost all her upper masts, both quarter galleys, and her poop deck had been badly damaged when the main mast of the Redoubtable fell across it. An eight foot long stretch of her hull had been stove in, her rudder-head had been shot away, and she had suffered well over a hundred casualties. She was the only ship specifically mentioned in Admiral Collingwood’s despatch on the battle, and returned to Portsmouth to a hero’s reception. Repaired, she served on until 1813, but her hull never really recovered from the damage received in the battle. She was retired from active service, first becoming a prison hulk, and then a receiving ship housing new recruits. In 1838 she was finally scrapped, prompting Turner to paint his famous painting.
The Fighting Temeraire was broken up long ago, but her image still exists, captured in oil paint on canvas, and hung in the National Gallery in London. Appropriately, the main entrance to that building opens onto Trafalgar Square.