20.12.05

LAYING YOUR SHIP ALONGSIDE THAT OF THE ENEMY. England observed the bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar in October. At that time, I was working through Nelson's Trafalgar, and offer a few observations as Book Review No. 47. The battle itself was fought under conditions racing sailors would describe as a "drifter," with the British to windward and blanketing, and the French and Spanish making every effort to shoot away the British ships' rigging, the better to make their escape and lift the blockade. A few days after the battle, a storm observers describe as a "hurricane" (Is that correct? The just-ended hurricane season was noteworthy for one such storm making landfall in Portugal ...) sank many of the French and Spanish ships that had surrendered to the British. It took a few days, as well, for news of the victory to reach England or the defeat to reach Napoleon. The Franco-Spanish alliance of the day was a bit shaky anyway.

The information the book provides about ordinary life on the ships (squalid) brings a few surprises. Consider "slush fund." It didn't originate with Chicago aldermen receiving kickbacks on street-salt contracts; rather, it's money the ship's cook earned by selling the fat-scum off the stew-pot to supplement his own income. Half of that scum was requisitioned by the ship to waterproof the rigging ... picture yourself going aloft in a blow gripping shrouds reeking of rancid cow fat. In order to pack space in the few cupboards in the mess, plates were square with raised edges, giving rise to the expression "a good square meal" (the author suggests this terminology is ironic; it has always been the sailor's one prerogative to gripe) as well as "on the fiddle," referring to the sailor that filled his plate to the raised edges, called "fiddles."

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