Rulers of the waves

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Sean Coughlan watches maritime history unfold at Portsmouth docks. At the turn of the century, Portsmouth dockyard served the biggest navy in the world. Today, with no lack of symbolism, it is a museum, housing examples of the ships that brought Britain to its position of naval supremacy.

While the Royal Naval Museum, also in the dockyard, has display cases full of artefacts and pictures, the real attention-grabbers are three warships which trace the development of Britain's naval power from the Tudors to Victorians.

Of all the ships on show, the Mary Rose is the toughest work for the imagination. You can't walk around the decks, as only a cross-section of the oak and elm hull has been preserved, but you can get an impression of its comparative compactness (32 metres in length) and the craftsmanship involved in constructing the vessel, built from an estimated 36 acres of felled forest.

The Mary Rose, also the earliest of the ships on show, is resting a few hundred yards from where she was built in 1510. Henry VIII's battleship, carrying over 400 soldiers and sailors, sank in a battle fought off Portsmouth against the French in 1545. In 1982 this time capsule of Tudor life, partly preserved in silt, was lifted from the bed of the Solent, together with the weapons, cargo and the personal possessions of the unfortunate crew.

Putting the soggy timbers in context, and warming the imagination, is an exhibition showing items recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. As well as the cannons, swords, bows and arrows that the crew were carrying into battle, the ship was filled with the everyday items of life. Excavated at the wreck site were caps and boots, games such as backgammon sets, musical instruments, surgeon's tools and heaps of pots and pans, along with the bones of a small dog and a baby rat.

Although quills were found on board, most of the crew would have been illiterate, and to help them with tasks such as fitting the right cover to the right hatch, pictogram-like marks were used.

Moving forward two centuries, HMS Victory, built in 1759, is the kind of history you can step inside and look around. With its masts and spider's web of rigging, its rows of cannons and gaudy figurehead, the Victory is the epitome of a warship of the age of sail. It was also at the centre of one of the greatest national legends of the 19th century the death of Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, used throughout the Empire era as a defining moment in British history.

But as one walks through the low-ceilinged gun decks, the most striking image is of the overcrowding, noise and suffering that must have taken place all around. The cannons that fill the deck each had a crew of 12 men and boys (as young as 10-years-old), who lived, slept and, in battle, fought in this confined space. Discipline was harsh and you can wince in empathetic pain at the site where the cat o'nine tails was publicly administered to recalcitrants from a crew made up of volunteers, victims of the press-gang and professional foreign seamen (there were 71 non-British seamen on HMS Victory at the battle of Trafalgar in a crew of 850).

These hugely atmospheric decks are in marked contrast to the cosy gentility of the quarters of Lord Nelson. Here his bed hangs, looking like a child's cot, both for its tiny size and the drapes around it. The coverings (now replicas) were handmade by his lover, Emma Hamilton, the woman who came to dominate his life. Her husband, the British representative in the Kingdom of Naples, Sir William Hamilton, remained on good terms with his wife and her one-eyed, one-armed lover, in spite of their very public affair, with the threesome eventually setting up home together.

Disapproval from the chattering classes was drowned by popular approval from the masses, and with a seat in the Lords, a daughter by Emma Hamilton and enough prize money to live comfortably, Nelson might have hoped to settle down after more than three decades at sea. But in the best conventions of tragedy, war broke out again between Britain and France, and Nelson sailed to his death on HMS Victory, dying at the battle of Trafalgar in October 1805.

A plaque marks the site where he was shot by a French marksman, and standing there it's hard not to feel some of the drama of his story and to think of the Victory smothered in smoke and this slightly-built, highly unorthodox man falling to the ground.

The battle of Trafalgar was a turning point in asserting Britain's naval power, a key factor in the development of a trading empire in the 19th century. To preserve Britain's naval advantage, the royal dockyards built more and more powerful warships, in an ongoing escalation of firepower and speed. The state-of-the-art battleship in 1860 was HMS Warrior, the third historic ship on show in Portsmouth dockyard.

Described by Napoleon III as "a black snake among rabbits", it was the world's first iron-clad battleship, marking the end of the era of wooden battleships. At a stroke it changed naval shipbuilding throughout the world, with its thick armour plating and its powerful guns making its predecessors obsolete. It is also a product of a changing technology, as this half-modern battleship has masts and sails, as well as an engine to drive propellors.

Once again, walking along the gun deck (bigger and airier than the Victory) and looking at the neatly-laid tables in the officers' quarters, there's a strong sense of atmosphere, as you imagine the sleek ship sliding out of harbour, its sides bristling with cannons.

Although it's handy to have these three famous vessels in one place, it's also likely that ship fatigue will set in if you try to see all three at once, particularly if you take in the long halls of the Royal Naval Museum as well. But individually and together they offer a remarkably-preserved insight into the ships that were on the front line of four centuries of power politics.

Flagship Portsmouth, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3LJ. For details of group discounts, ring 0705 839766.

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