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My Darling Temeraire

A meditation on English identity

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Sometimes history turns on a puff of wind. On the morning of 21 October 1805 light breezes failed the fleets of Spain and France, and they turned for the safety of Cadiz. The British fleet was waiting for them at a cape called Trafalgar. Admiral Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, followed closely by Captain Eliab Harvey’s 98-gun Temeraire, cut through the line of enemy vessels. In French téméraire means reckless. That day, she was soon trapped between two 74-gun French vessels, the Redoutable and the Fougueux. The sane response, to escape, was not the Royal Navy’s way. Captain Harvey lashed the Temeraire to both of them and, in two hours of hellish fire, gunned them to shreds. Too badly damaged to sail, Harvey’s ship was towed home by a small frigate: a pre-enactment of her final voyage.

The Temeraire was only twelve years old, but already obsolete. Vessels were now built more robustly using Indian teak and iron. Her guns were fired just once more, in 1838, for the Coronation of Queen Victoria. At auction the Temeraire was sold for £5530, around £500,000 pounds today, to John Beatson, ship-breaker. Fourteen of the 27 ships under Nelson’s command at Trafalgar had been broken up. They were dismantling an era. Beatson’s yard was 50–55 miles upstream at Rotherhithe just below where Tower Bridge now stands, so his first challenge was to arrange her funeral procession. Already dismasted, she had to be towed. No vessel so large, even stripped down she drew 18 feet of water, had ever gone all the way up to the Pool of London. Even her towline was massive, almost two feet in circumference.

The first spring tides after the auction, bringing twenty-three feet of water to Rotherhithe, fell on the 5 and 6 September. The towing was done by two craft of a type new to the river, steam paddle-tugs: the 32-ton Samson and the 37-ton London, one strapped either side of the Temeraire’s hull. On the first morning they were under way by seven-thirty, entering the slack water before the tide began to advance up-river. In the first hour the Temeraire passed Chatham where she had been launched forty years before. To the few people watching, she glided by like an old, blind lady on the arms of two carers. The historian Jenny Uglow likened her to a ‘Miss Havisham-like ghost’ in her ruined bridal flummery. Like any powerful image the Temeraire bears many meanings but shapes them to itself; together they reinforce what we always felt about the image. In other words, she becomes a symbol.

At one-thirty in the afternoon the tide turned and the Samson and the London were not powerful enough to fight it. The next flood tide would come at 20:30 when it was dark, and too dangerous to move the vast hulk. They anchored at Greenhithe near where the Dartford bridge now takes the M25 over the river. The following morning the tide fell slack by 08:45, and the tugs crept out into the river traffic. By 11:30 the Temeraire passed the hauntingly named Lower Hope Reach, where, in Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s narrator, Marlow, observes: ‘And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.’

With four miles remaining, Beatson and his pilot Scott slowed, so as to arrive just before high tide. The Times wrote ‘every vessel she passed appeared like a pygmy.’ She was a pugilist, more solid and unmoving than the sea herself, an image of intransigence, continuity, and defence. The Temeraire became famous for being in the heart of an action that seized the public imagination as emblematic of a great cause, an action that was vital, successful and just: like a Lancaster bomber that had flown with the Dambusters. Yet there was little understanding of the symbolic power of this journey: not a single ship on the river logged her passing.

They gained Limehouse Reach, the banks lined with orchards and meadows. Around 15:00 the tugs delicately turned her 2000-ton bulk and edged her ever closer to Beatson’s yard, until, with the final lethargic shudder that was her last movement, she lodged in the soft mud, stirring up its stink. An itinerant preacher called Bosun Smith appeared and read the last rites over her.
John Beatson respected her fame. He commissioned a carpenter to make two sanctuary chairs and a side-table, now in St Mary’s Church Rotherhithe, 700 yards away. He even made a wooden right leg for a seaman mutilated in the battle.

Following the catastrophic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, England had experienced dazzling and strangely coloured sunsets and sunrises throughout that summer and autumn. Watching, recording, aged forty, was an artist who never missed a sunset: Joseph Mallord William Turner. There was no gaudy weather on the days of the tow: just rain and cloud. Turner provided it, and burned the Temeraire into memory. Turner was not the first artist to paint the face of the sun, but once you have seen a Turner, the older suns are easily forgotten.

The Fighting Temeraire was a popular success from the day the doors opened on the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1839. The English think of themselves as matter-of-fact when they are sentimental. The Fighting Temeraire is one of England’s ways of coping with decline and mortality. It deals with death, but obliquely, diffidently, romantically.

Turner built his composition not from witnesses but ideas. In the painting the ship’s masts and spars have been returned to her. The actual colours of her hull were waspish, yellow detailed in black, but Turner’s Temeraire is a confection of ornate, rose-tinted, gilded woodcarving, for the colours are not her paintwork, but the light of the sky reflected from the sea. The sun is behind her, down-river, in the east, which means it can only be dawn, but there is also a newish moon, visible only in the evening. One instinctively knows this is a sunset: a final voyage must be at end of day. Turner is creating the scene he desires, painting feeling and meaning, not mapping the river or illustrating the day in question. The Thames was the life blood of London commerce and the nation’s wealth and power. The Navy defended the mercantile fleet, and the Temeraire, made from 5000 oak trees, was one of her floating fortresses, our guardians.

The tug sails in different light, an infernal red world of iron and steel, not wood. William Thackeray wrote of the Temeraire being ‘dragged to her last home by a little spiteful, diabolical steamer. … while behind it … slow, sad, and majestic, follows the brave old ship’. Turner knew she had been strapped between the tugs, but he didn’t want her to look like an invalid. In the painting she may follow the tug, but she dwarfs it. The tow rope, thicker than man’s body is invisible; the ship being towed is in command.

Today, when England play Germany at football, English Defence League skinheads, their skulls tattooed blue-black, sing the ‘Dam Busters March’, angry and sentimental for the loss of an England that never was: the Shire of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. National Trust visitors eat cream teas in the refectories of houses whose servants directed the lower classes to the tradesmen’s entrance. But these disparate people know the Temeraire is as English as the hymn ‘Jerusalem’. In retrospect she somehow represents the loss of an empire that Britain, in 1838, was still building. A feeling hangs over her that it did not need to be this way, even as the tug reminds us that it did. No artist was quicker than Turner to recognise what steam might bring to the world and how it would change it. A nervous strain of patriotism wonders whether Britain will continue to punch above its weight in the world.

In 1839 The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838, was offered for sale at £250 and did not sell. Nine years later the American collector James Lewis asked Turner to name his price. He said it had no price, and called it by another, shorter name: ‘my Darling’. He bequeathed it to the new National Gallery.

The Temeraire is Albion, mythical elemental England, placid, powerful in age, still gliding upstream, greater than the forces which lead her. The England of jigsaws, the Proms and Shakespeare. Some of her rewrought timbers rest in a Rotherhithe Church, and outside the National Gallery Nelson’s statue commands the London square named after the battle which ended his life, but erased the threat from French and Spanish naval power. Yet no oak or stone has endured so well as the oils of Turner’s Temeraire.

John Harrison is a travel, history and fiction writer. His awards include the British Guild of Travel Writers’ best narrative book, and the Wales Book of the Year. He is currently working on a book about the emergence of modern humankind.

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