It’s 21st October – the day that used proudly, within living memory, to be marked in Britain and the Empire as “Trafalgar Day”, and is still commemorated as such in naval circles, with Nelson’s flagship the Victory, in dry dock at Portsmouth, flying his immortal signal “England Expects ...”. On this, the 205th anniversary of Nelson’s definitive triumph over the Combined (French and Spanish) Fleet off Cape Trafalgar near Cadiz, I’m taking a look at the Jewish angle to the victory that sealed Britain’s supremacy upon the seas for the next 100 years. Some readers might think that this is scraping the bottom of the battle – whoops, sorry, barrel – but as I’m a self-confessed “naval history buff” I do want to address this subject just once.
While their co-religionists on the Continent saw Napoleon as the liberator who emancipated French Jewry and did the same for the Jewries of the countries which his armies vanquished, the Jews of England regarded “Boney” with as much loathing and trepidation as non-Jewish Englishmen did. There were no ghettoes in Britain waiting to be thrown open by force of arms, no continental-style disabling legislation aimed specifically at Jews. The discrimination that the Jews of England suffered was shared by Nonconformists and Roman Catholics as well – for in order to hold public office and officers’ commissions in the armed services, a man had to be an Anglican; in other words, he had to swear allegiance to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, the nation’s established church. There was no need of a Bonaparte to emancipate British Jewry – only of a Parliament that would be convinced, as Lord Macaulay was to put it in 1831 in arguing for the right of professing Jews to sit as MPs, that “The points of difference between Christianity and Judaism have very much to do with a man’s fitness to be a bishop or a rabbi. But they have no more to do with his fitness to be a magistrate, a legislator, or a minister of finance, than with his fitness to be a cobbler.”
Jews had wait until 1858 to take their seats in Parliament, when they were at last excused the obligation to swear a Christian oath, but with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1829 they were permitted to serve as commissioned officers in the Army and Navy. This came too late for the 15 Jewish officers who (in the Duke of Wellington’s recollection) served under him at Waterloo: they had to adhere to Anglicanism in order to get beyond non-commissioned rank. It also came too late for Royal Navy officer Sir Alexander Schomberg (1720-1806), portrayed, all gold braid and gold-blond hair, in a fine painting by Hogarth that hangs in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Of Jewish birth, Schomberg had embraced Anglicanism with the encouragement of his father, a prominent London physician from Württemberg ambitious for his family. As a frigate captain in 1759 he covered General Wolfe’s landing in Quebec, and from 1771-1804 he commanded the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland's yacht. Since that position disqualified him from advancement to admiral’s rank (which he would otherwise have automatically achieved through seniority), he was for very many years up until his death the most senior captain in the Navy. Knighted in 1777, he died the year preceding Trafalgar, but we may safely assume that many a Trafalgar participant was familiar with Schomberg’s A Sea Manual recommended to the Young Officers of the Royal Navy as a Companion to the Signal Book, published in 1789.
Familiar to Lord Nelson were the first specialists in bill broking in the City of London, Abraham Goldsmid (c1756-1810) and Benjamin Goldsmid (c1755-1808). Of Dutch origin, they were the uncles of the financier Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, a famous communal figure who was a principal founder in 1828 of London’s University College, which unlike Oxford and Cambridge deliberately did not require students to profess Anglicanism (and which is, ironically, now one of the most anti-Israel campuses in Britain). The Goldsmid brothers’ role as loan contractors during the wars with France, combined with their generous contributions to charity and their lavish entertaining, ensured their entrée into highly-placed non-Jewish society. Abraham Goldsmid, who owing to money worries and other matters shot himself in 1810 (his depressed and gout-ridden brother is also said to have committed suicide, by knotting a silk cord on his bed post around his neck) was a friend of Lord Nelson, often hosting the admiral, Lady Hamilton, and on at least one occasion the admiral’s country clergyman father, at his country house in Morden, Surrey. At such gatherings Lady Hamilton sometimes played the piano, and John Braham, the renowned Jewish tenor, sang. Benjamin Goldsmid was a notable philanthropist of the Naval Asylum, an orphanage established to maintain and educate the children of sailors killed in battle, and to celebrate Nelson’s victory at the Nile in 1798 he gave a very grand fete at his Roehampton home.
It was in Morden, close to Goldsmid’s property, that Nelson and Lady Hamilton acquired a house, Merton Place (which Goldsmid later acquired), where in the month before Trafalgar Nelson, walking in the grounds with a fellow-officer, talked of the relatively novel battle plan that he intended to use against the enemy, and which he did indeed employ on 21st October : that of “breaking the line”. This meant that the British fleet would not lay itself in a parallel line alongside the enemy as in conventional engagements, but would assemble in two divisions and steer for the middle of the enemy line and cut through in two places thereby creating chaos – and achieving the “pell mell battle” that Nelson sought.
There was no need for Jews or other non-Anglicans to accept the Thirty-Nine Articles in order to serve in the army’s rank-and-file, in the militia, or below decks in the Royal Navy. Although Jews were more familiar in seaport towns as purveyors of “sailor’s slops [clothing]” and other supplies, as moneylenders, and (at least during the wars with Revolutionary France and Napoleon) as navy agents, it’s known for certain that by the time George III ascended the throne in 1760 there were Jewish seamen.
At Trafalgar such individuals included Benjamin da Costa, a midshipman on the Temeraire, Captain Eliab Harvey’s famous ship immortalised by the painter J. M. W. Turner – Captain Harvey raced Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, for the honour of being first into action against the enemy, until sharply ordered by the admiral to drop astern. Moses Benjamin and Joseph Moss served at Trafalgar aboard the Victory, John Benjamin on the Royal Sovereign (flagship of Nelson’s second-in-command, Admiral Collingwood), Henry Levi, Benjamin Solomon, Joseph Manuel and Nathan Manuel on the Britannia (flagship of the third-in-command, the Earl of Northesk, but slow on that frustratingly almost breezeless day to get into the thick of the fight), Philip Emanuel on the Colossus, and Thomas Brandon and James Brandon, who was killed, on the Revenge.
The 5th December 1805 was proclaimed a day of general thanksgiving for Trafalgar, and as a contemporary reported: “All the Churches and Chapels were crowded, all distinctions of sects were done away and Christian and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, all united in the expression of one feeling of piety and gratitude to the Almighty.” The Chief Rabbi, Solomon Hirschell, and the Haham (spiritual leader of the Sephardim), Raphael Meldola, jointly prepared “The Order of Service and Special Prayer of the Hebrew Thanksgiving”, recited in all London synagogues. Hirschell, whose normal vehicle was Yiddish, preached a commemorative sermon at the Great Synagogue that was subsequently translated into English and printed; Meldola delivered one at the Sephardi synagogue, Bevis Marks.
The admirals and captains who fought at Trafalgar were honoured with specially struck medals, among other marks of the nation’s gratitude – the Reverend William Nelson was awarded a peerage merely for being the slain hero’s brother, and, Collingwood, quite rightly, received one too. The men who served in the lower ranks had to wait somewhat longer for a national token of their bravery. When – in 1847! – the authorities finally got around to awarding a medal to everyone who had served on that glorious day, there were a few of the Jewish sailors still alive to receive it: Benjamin da Costa, Thomas Brandon, and Joseph Manuel.
Fantastic article! thanks! Long live Horatio Nelson!ReplyDelete
Thanks, Juniper. I don't think old salts would be to everyone's taste, so glad you like it.ReplyDelete
We need to clone Nelson aka "The Immortal Memory" - and it's also time for Drake's drum and for Arthur and Excalibur to rise from the water!
Interestingly the Harry's Place blog just did a piece on Fascist supporting Green candidate Pippa Bartolotti who wrote a conspiracy piece about Napoleon supposedly converting to Islam and the Rothschilds.ReplyDelete
She was photographed proudly an SSNP flag.
Thanks, Anon. I have just followed both those links you gave me. I wonder what drives such views - there's a clue in her reference to "Big Money" supporting Israel, of course!ReplyDelete