The Scene at Cádiz after the Battle of Trafalgar

At the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off the southwest coast of Spain on October 21, 1805, a British fleet led by Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet under Vice Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve. It was the most decisive naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. More than 4,800 people were killed, including Lord Nelson, and over 3,700 were wounded. The majority of the casualties were French and Spaniards. Traveller Robert Semple described the horrible scene at Cádiz, the closest Spanish port, a week after the Battle of Trafalgar.

The Battle of Trafalgar by J.M.W. Turner, 1806

The Battle of Trafalgar by J.M.W. Turner, 1806

Crossing the Bay of Cádiz

Soon after leaving the little creek on which el Puerto de Santa Maria is situated…some of the terrible effects of the late battle became visible. On the north-west side, between el Puerto and Rota, lay a large Spanish ship, the San Raphael, seventy-four [guns], broadside upon the rocks, bilged and the waves breaking over her. At the bottom of the bay was a large French ship, the name of which I have forgotten, aground, but upright. In the centre towards Cadiz lay a group of battered vessels, five or six in number, bored with cannon shot; some with two lower masts standing, others with only one and a piece of a bowsprit, and one without a single stump remaining from stem to stern….

As the wind was contrary to our crossing over, the boat was obliged to make several tacks. In one of these we approached so near the shore that we plainly discerned two dead bodies which the sea had thrown up. Presently one of a number of men on horseback, who for this sole purpose patroled the beach, came up, and having observed the bodies, made a signal to others on foot among the bushes. Several of them came down, and immediately began to dig a hole in the sand, into which they dragged the dead. Such is a faint account of the scenes to be observed in the bay of Cadiz eight days after the battle. (1)

In Cádiz after the Battle of Trafalgar

[I]n Cadiz, the consequences, though equally apparent, were of a very different nature. Ten days after the battle, they were still employed in bringing ashore the wounded; and spectacles were hourly displayed at the wharfs and through the streets sufficient to shock every heart not yet hardened to scenes of blood and of human sufferings. When, by the carelessness of the boatmen, and the surging of the sea, the boats struck against the stone piers, a horrid cry which pierced the soul arose from the mangled wretches on board. Many of the Spanish gentry assisted in bringing them ashore, with symptoms of much compassion; yet as they were finely dressed, it had something of the appearance of ostentation, if there could be ostentation at such a moment. It need not be doubted that an Englishman lent a willing hand to bear them up the steps to their litters; yet the slightest false step made them shriek out, and I even yet shudder at the remembrance of the sound.

On the tops of the pier the scene was affecting. The wounded were carrying away to the hospitals in every shape of human misery, whilst crowds of Spaniards either assisted or looked on with signs of horror. Meanwhile their companions who had escaped unhurt walked up and down with folded arms and downcast eyes, whilst women sat on heaps of arms, broken furniture and baggage, with their heads bent between their knees. I had no inclination to follow the litters of the wounded; yet I learned that every hospital in Cadiz was already full, and that convents and churches were forced to be appropriated to the reception of the remainder.

If leaving the harbour I passed through the town to the point, I still beheld the terrible effects of the battle. As far as the eye could reach, the sandy side of the Isthmus, bordering on the Atlantic, was covered with masts and yards, the wrecks of ships, and here and there the bodies of the dead. Among others, I noticed a topmast marked with the name of the Swiftsure, and the broad arrow of England, which only increased my anxiety to know how far the English had suffered; the Spaniards still continuing to affirm that they have lost their chief admiral and half their fleet.

While surrounded by these wrecks I mounted on the cross-trees of a mast which had been thrown ashore, and casting my eyes over the ocean beheld, at a great distance, several masts and portions of wreck still floating about. As the sea was now almost calm, with a slight swell, the effect produced by these objects had in it something of a sublime melancholy, and touched the soul with a remembrance of the sad vicissitudes of human affairs. The portions of floating wreck were visible from the ramparts; yet not a boat dared to venture out to examine or endeavour to tow them in, such was the apprehensions which still filled their minds, of the enemy. (2)

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  1. Robert Semple, Observations on a Journey Through Spain and Italy to Naples; and Thence to Smyrna and Constantinople, Vol. I (London, 1807), pp. 147-149.
  2. Ibid., pp. 154-157.

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Ten days after the battle, they were still employed in bringing ashore the wounded; and spectacles were hourly displayed at the wharfs and through the streets sufficient to shock every heart not yet hardened to scenes of blood and of human sufferings.

Robert Semple