Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge > Text of Sailor's Fortune - Essay IV

An essay by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A Sailor's Fortune - Essay IV

Title:     A Sailor's Fortune - Essay IV
Author: Samuel Taylor Coleridge [More Titles by Coleridge]

- the generous spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright;
Who, doom'd to go in company with pain,
And fear and bloodshed, miserable train!
Turns his necessity to glorious gain;
By objects, which might force the soul to abate
Her feeling, rendered more compassionate.

At the close of the American war, Captain Ball was entrusted with the protection and convoying of an immense mercantile fleet to America, and by his great prudence and unexampled attention to the interests of all and each, endeared his name to the American merchants, and laid the foundation of that high respect and predilection which both the Americans and their government ever afterwards entertained for him. My recollection does not enable me to attempt any accuracy in the date or circumstances, or to add the particulars of his services in the West Indies and on the coast of America, I now therefore merely allude to the fact with a prospective reference to opinions and circumstances, which I shall have to mention hereafter. Shortly after the general peace was established, Captain Ball, who was now a married man, passed some time with his lady in France, and, if I mistake not, at Nantes. At the same time, and in the same town, among the other English visitors, Lord (then Captain) Nelson happened to be one. In consequence of some punctilio, as to whose business it was to pay the compliment of the first call, they never met, and this trifling affair occasioned a coldness between the two naval commanders, or in truth a mutual prejudice against each other. Some years after, both their ships being together close off Minorca and near Port Mahon, a violent storm nearly disabled Lord Nelson's vessel, and in addition to the fury of the wind, it was night time and the thickest darkness. Captain Ball, however, brought his vessel at length to Nelson's assistance, took his ship in tow, and used his best endeavours to bring her and his own vessel into Port Mahon. The difficulties and the dangers increased. Nelson considered the case of his own ship as desperate, and that unless she was immediately left to her own fate, both vessels would inevitably be lost. He, therefore, with the generosity natural to him, repeatedly requested Captain Ball to let him loose; and on Captain Ball's refusal, he became impetuous, and enforced his demand with passionate threats. Captain Ball then himself took the speaking-trumpet, which the fury of the wind and waves rendered necessary, and with great solemnity and without the least disturbance of temper, called out in reply, "I feel confident that I can bring you in safe; I therefore must not, and, by the help of Almighty God, I will not leave you!" What he promised he performed; and after they were safely anchored, Nelson came on board of Ball's ship, and embracing him with all the ardour of acknowledgment, exclaimed, "A friend in need is a friend indeed!" At this time and on this occasion commenced that firm and perfect friendship between these two great men, which was interrupted only by the death of the former. The pleasing task of dwelling on this mutual attachment I defer to that part of the present sketch which will relate to Sir Alexander Ball's opinions of men and things. It will be sufficient for the present to say, that the two men whom Lord Nelson especially honoured, were Sir Thomas Troubridge and Sir Alexander Ball; and once, when they were both present, on some allusion made to the loss of his arm, he replied, "Who shall dare tell me that I want an arm, when I have three right arms--this (putting forward his own) and Ball and Troubridge?"

In the plan of the battle of the Nile it was Lord Nelson's design, that Captains Troubridge and Ball should have led up the attack. The former was stranded; and the latter, by accident of the wind, could not bring his ship into the line of battle till some time after the engagement had become general. With his characteristic forecast and activity of (which may not improperly be called) practical imagination, he had made arrangements to meet every probable contingency. All the shrouds and sails of the ship not absolutely necessary for its immediate management, were thoroughly wetted, and so rolled up that they were as hard and as little inflammable as so many solid cylinders of wood; every sailor had his appropriate place and function, and a certain number were appointed as the fire-men, whose sole duty it was to be on the watch if any part of the vessel should take fire; and to these men exclusively the charge of extinguishing it was committed. It was already dark when he brought his ship into action, and laid her alongside L'Orient. One particular only I shall add to the known account of the memorable engagement between these ships, and this I received from Sir Alexander Ball himself. He had previously made a combustible preparation, but which, from the nature of the engagement to be expected, he had purposed to reserve for the last emergency. But just at the time when, from several symptoms, he had every reason to believe that the enemy would soon strike to him, one of the lieutenants, without his knowledge, threw in the combustible matter: and this it was that occasioned the tremendous explosion of that vessel, which, with the deep silence and interruption of the engagement which succeeded to it, has been justly deemed the sublimest war incident recorded in history. Yet the incident which followed, and which has not, I believe, been publicly made known, is scarcely less impressive, though its sublimity is of a different character. At the renewal of the battle, Captain Ball, though his ship was then on fire in three different parts, laid her alongside a French eighty-four; and a second longer obstinate contest began. The firing on the part of the French ship having at length for some time slackened, and then altogether ceased, and yet no sign given of surrender, the senior lieutenant came to Captain Ball and informed him, that the hearts of his men were as good as ever, but that they were so completely exhausted that they were scarcely capable of lifting an arm. He asked, therefore, whether, as the enemy had now ceased firing, the men might be permitted to lie down by their guns for a short time. After some reflection, Sir Alexander acceded to the proposal, taking of course the proper precautions to rouse them again at the moment he thought requisite. Accordingly, with the exception of himself, his officers, and the appointed watch, the ship's crew lay down, each in the place to which he was stationed, and slept for twenty minutes. They were then roused; and started up, as Sir Alexander expressed it, more like men out of an ambush than from sleep, so co-instantaneously did they all obey the summons! They recommenced their fire, and in a few minutes the enemy surrendered; and it was soon after discovered that during that interval, and almost immediately after the French ship had first ceased firing, the crew had sunk down by their guns, and there slept, almost by the side, as it were, of their sleeping enemy.

[The end]
Samuel Taylor Coleridge's essay: Sailor's Fortune - Essay IV