Trafalgar Women

TRAFALGAR WOMEN

Much is known about crew men but less so of the women. “Many as equally useful” as men when working heavy guns in action were denied medals. In the French navy it was accepted that some of the best ‘topsmen’ were women. After Trafalgar several French women were rescued; two of whom were Judith Comadu and Jeanette Caunant. Judith Comandu was found clinging to an oar and taken aboard the Victory. It was probably Judith who described how she had to fight her shipmates for the oar. She boasted, although savagely bitten on various parts of her body, that she sent three or four men to ‘Davie Jones’s Locker’.

Jeanette Caunant slipped aboard the French Achille 74 in disguise to be with her husband, one of its topsmen during the battle she worked below the waterline in the passage next to the forward magazine’s powder room. .

Achille was pounded from close range by the Revenge 74, the most heavily armed 74 in the British fleet. So close that the bowsprit of the Achille swept over the Revenge’s deck tearing away some of her rigging. Achille raked the Revenge and dismounted three of her guns. Archille also came under fire from Polyphemus 64 who brought down her mizzenmast, smashed her wheel and started a fire. As the fire spread Prince 98 fired several more broadsides into Achille from close range. Fire raged along the whole of her top deck until, eventually, the upper deck cannons crashed through to the deck below smashing all the remaining companionways.

Jeanette was trapped! Frantically she searched amongst the dead and dying for a way out. She managed to crawl through the gunroom port and, by using the rudder chains, was able to sit on the back of the rudder. Although the fire raged above her she was reluctant to enter the water because she could not swim. After some time the lead lining of the rudder chain hawse began to melt and drip on her. Seeing a large piece of cork floating nearby she removed her clothing and lowered herself into the water where she then managed to reach the cork. Fortunately a fellow crewman swam to her aid and pushed a long plank under her arms.

Archille burnt down to the waterline and exploded into a “wonderful golden tree” several hundred feet high that killed the remaining three hundred trapped below. Jeanette, her face smeared and blackened by gunpowder estimated that she was in the water for two hours before Belleisle’s long boat found her. Gallantly its crew gave her a jacket, trousers and a handkerchief “so that she might cover herself”. Like other survivors, she was taken to the Pickle 10 where Assistant-Surgeon Simon Gage Britton treated her quite extensive burns. Eventually Surgeon Britton MD became a consulting physician to North Devon Infirmary and died in Barnstaple on the 6th March 1856 aged 73. So many survivors were put aboard the Pickle that they outnumbered her crew of thirty-five. Overnight one of Pickle’s lieutenants heard prisoners plotting to mutiny and take the ship. Next morning all of the prisoners were transferred to the Revenge. Captain Moorsom of the Revenge, on being told that the “youth exhibiting a blackened face of misery and despair” was a woman, ordered an area to be screened off next to the wardroom door where the sentry could protect her. He also gave Jeanette the opportunity of using his cabin as a dressing room

One of Revenge’s lieutenants gave Jeanette a length of blue sprigged muslin he had intended for his wife and the Chaplain gave her a pair of his old shoes. Jeanette, originally a dressmaker, quickly made herself “a jacket and dress in the Flemish fashion”. She also “transformed two check shirts given by the Purser into a form of outer petticoat”. Additionally she was given a blanket, two pairs of white stockings and two silk handkerchiefs. Having presumed that her husband had been killed, Jeanette was in great emotional distress. However, after four days she excitedly approached Captain Moorsom saying she had discovered her husband amongst the other prisoners on board and wanted to join him. She thanked Moorsom profusely but she said it would be unfair to her husband and his companions if she continued to enjoy the privileges Moorsom had so generously granted her

On arriving at Gibraltar each of the Revenge officers gave Jeanette a dollar before she was sent ashore for transport to England. However, those captives from the Revenge, “by some administrative error”, were landed at “the Neutral Ground” and promptly disappeared. (c) Roger Sugar

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