On October 21, Britons marked the 217th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar, at which the British navy, commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated the combined maritime forces of France and Spain—ending Napoleon’s quest for naval dominance. Georgia Gilholy delves into the stories of the Jews who fought in the battle:
Possibly the youngest fighter at Trafalgar was John Edwards, born Menachem ben Shmuel, who is thought to have been a “powder monkey”—the crew who carried gunpowder—aged only ten on the Victory. Prior to his death in 1893 he was believed to be the last survivor of the historic battle. In June 1841 his occupation was noted as a slop-seller in London’s Radcliffe Highway. He later moved to Portsmouth where he became synagogue warden and a city councilor.
While the 1673 Test Act forbade all non-Anglicans from becoming naval officers until 1829, no such barriers existed for lower-deck seamen, and many Jewish men played their part at Trafalgar. The admiralty was known to bend its rules when convenient, and 71 of HMS Victory’s 820 crew were “foreigners,” most of whom were probably “pressed” into joining or received a bounty for volunteering.
Regardless of the impediments to promotion, many Jews volunteered for the Royal Navy. Joseph Manuel, Nathan Manuel, Henry Levi, and Benjamin Solomon, all London-based Jews, joined up on the same day, choosing to serve on the HMS Britannia, which lost ten men at Trafalgar.
A Hebrew ode commemorating the death of Nelson, on display at the Jewish Museum in London, speaks to the regard its commander was held in by the many who had fought under him on that perilous day.