Excerpt of Sharpe's Trafalgar by Bernard Cornwell
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Introduction and Excerpt from Chapter One
The most recent book in the US is Sharpes Trafalgar which is a bit of a cheat, for a soldier really does not have any business being at Trafalgar which was, of course, the great triumph of Horatio Nelson and the Royal Navy, but Sharpe has spent four or five years in India, has to go home, and both the timing and the geography were such that he might well (with a bit of bad luck) have been off Cape Trafalgar on October 21st, 1805.
The battle was arguably the most decisive of the nineteenth century, even more so than Waterloo. After 1805 there is only one navy that counts; the British, the rest have been sunk or captured. Before that there were three navies in Europe that could have challenged the British; the French, Spanish and Danish. The Danes have the second largest navy after Britain, but they are neutral so dont fight (which doesnt prevent them losing their whole navy to Britain in 1807). The French and The Spanish have the next two largest fleets and, in 1805, they combine their navies to protect the invasion of Britain by Napoleons Grand Army. That invasion, of course, never happened, mainly because the combined fleets could never reach the channel, but they remain a threat until Admiral Nelson intercepts them off Cape Trafalgar.
What results is as spectacular as it is horrific. The largest fleet battle of the age of sail when 33 French and Spanish ships carrying 30,000 sailors and 2,568 heavy cannon take on Nelsons 27 ships manned by 17,000 men with 2,148 heavy guns. It is a battle fought at incredibly close quarters, for the tactics of the age demand that you lay your ship close to an enemy and then try to rip the heart out of her with gunnery. It is butchery on a massive scale and at its end, when Nelson is dead and an Atlantic storm is brewing out of the west, the French and Spanish navies have been finished off. They will never again challenge Britain. The nineteenth century belongs to the winners, and Sharpe, slightly more than a spectator, is there to see it.
"A hundred and fifteen rupees," Ensign Richard Sharpe said, counting the money onto the table.
Nana Rao hissed in disapproval, rattled some beads along the wire bars of his abacus and shook his head. "A hundred and thirty-eight rupees, sahib."
"One hundred and bloody fifteen!" Sharpe insisted. "It were fourteen pounds, seven shillings and threepence ha'penny."
Nana Rao examined his customer, gauging whether to continue the argument. He saw a young officer, a mere ensign of no importance, but this lowly Englishman had a very hard face, a scar on his right cheek and showed no apprehension of the two hulking bodyguards who protected Nana Rao and his warehouse. "A hundred and fifteen, as you say," the merchant conceded, scooping the coins into a large black cash box. He offered Sharpe an apologetic shrug. "I get older, sahib, and find I cannot count!"
"You can count, all right," Sharpe said, "but you reckon I can't."
"But you will be very happy with your purchases," Nana Rao said, for Sharpe had just become the possessor of a hanging bed, two blankets, a teak traveling chest, a lantern and a box of candles, a hogshead of arrack, a wooden bucket, a box of soap, another of tobacco, and a brass and elmwood filtering machine which he had been assured would render water from the filthiest barrels stored in the bottom-most part of a ship's hold into the sweetest and most palatable liquid.
Nana Rao had demonstrated the filtering machine which he claimed had been brought out from London as part of the baggage of a director of the East India Company who had insisted on only the finest equipment. "You put the water here, see?" The merchant had poured a pint or so of turbid water into the brass upper chamber. "And then you allow the water to settle, Mister Sharpe. In five minutes it will be as clear as glass. You observe?" He lifted the upper container to show water dripping from the packed muslin layers of the filter. "I have myself cleaned the filter, Mister Sharpe, and I will warrant the item's efficiency. It would be a miserable pity to die of mud blockage in the bowel because you would not buy this thing."
Copyright Bernard Cornwell, 2001. All rights reserved. Reproduced by the permission of the publisher, Harper Collins.