Captain Harvey and the fighting Téméraire

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Captain Harvey and the fighting Téméraire

Ann Stamper tells the story of the hot-tempered Captain Eliab Harvey who fought in the Battle of Trafalgar, and the fate of his ship, known as the fighting Téméraire.


Ann Stamper: Hello, I’m Ann Stamper. I’m a gallery assistant at the National Maritime Museum. At the Museum, gallery assistants often give talks for visitors about the curious stories, facts and histories behind some of the objects in our collections. This talk is about Captain Eliab Harvey and his ship, the fighting Téméraire.

Eliab Harvey was born on 5 December 1758 at Chigwell in Essex. He was educated at Westminster and Harrow, and joined the navy in 1774. When his older brother William died, he inherited the family property, and when he was not serving in the navy he was a Member of Parliament.

Harvey progressed through the ranks of the Royal Navy and was promoted to commander in March 1782, and given the sloop Otter. In 1805 he commissioned the Téméraire, a three-decker with 98 guns which was built at Chatham in 1798. This quite new ship was described as a good sailer, and had a crew of 755 men. Harvey was ordered to join Nelson’s fleet off Cadiz in the same year.

It is serendipitous that Téméraire means ‘bold’, as its captain, Eliab Harvey himself, was brave, bold and hot-tempered. In the two-line formation of the British fleet at Trafalgar, Nelson was leading the weather column with Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood leading the column. Most of the fleet had not wanted Nelson to lead and be in such a vulnerable position. However, Nelson was where he wanted to be: front in line.

Due to the complete lack of wind on the morning of 21 October 1805, the fleets took about five hours from when they were able to see each other, before they were within firing distance. During this painfully slow approach, Nelson realised that the Téméraire, the second ship in the line, was catching up on the Victory. Nelson, from the stern of the Victory, using a loud hailer, addressed Harvey: ‘I’ll thank you Captain Harvey to keep to your station, which is astern of the Victory.’ Harvey complied! However, it was Harvey and the Téméraire that saved the Victory at the height of the battle, drawing the enemies’ fire from the Victory and preventing it being boarded.

At the end of the battle Harvey had captured two French ships: the Redoubtable and the Fougeux. After Nelson’s death, Admiral Collingwood took command of the fleet and could not find words to express his admiration for Harvey’s intervention. Of the crew of the Téméraire, 47 were killed and 76 wounded, but with two ships captured and others damaged, it was an extraordinary achievement for Harvey, his officers, his men, and marines.

Forty years after launching in 1838, the Téméraire was sold to the breaker’s yard, and was seen by the artist J. M. W. Turner being towed up the Thames, by a new-fangled steam ship, to be broken up. Thus the Téméraire has achieved fame through Turner’s painting, but her captain’s name is not as well known.

Here is a short extract from Henry Newbolt‘s tribute to the Téméraire:

Now the sunset breezes shiver Téméraire, Téméraire
And she’s fading down the river Téméraire, Téméraire
Now the sunset breezes shiver
And she’s fading down the river
But in England’s song forever
She’s the fighting Téméraire

To find out more about the Gallery Favourite talks that are on this month at the Museum, please visit our website: nmm.ac.uk/favourites. Thank you for listening.

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