“Yes,” said James Dillon, looking into vacancy and seeing a leaping spring of fire in the still air, a first-rate ablaze from truck to waterline, with eight hundred men aboard. “You could hear the flames a mile away and more. And sometimes a sheet of fire would lift off and go up into the air by itself, cracking and waving like a huge flag. It was just such a morning as this: a little later in the day, perhaps.” (Patrick O'Brian, "Master and Commander")
17 March 1800: Today, 213 years ago, the first rate battleship-of-the-line HMS "Queen Charlotte" met her fate off Leghorn (Livorno). The veteran of the Glorious First of June (1794) and the Battle of Groix (1795) served as Lord Keith's flagship in the Mediterranean and was preparing for the invasion of the French held island of Cabrera.
According to survivors, someone had stacked hay (of all the things...) on the battleship's upper deck near her guns. When she was ready to make sail and her signal guns were to be fired to recall the shore party, a slow match ignited the stuff and the fire spread quickly to her mainsail. Soon, the 180 foot warship was ablaze and the 800 people aboard fought for their lives - and lost. The "Queen Charlotte" exploded at noon, almost 700 men and boys were dead.
|HMS "Speedy" and the wreck of "Queen Charlotte"|
Lord Keith was on shore when the disaster struck, another of "Charlotte"'s officers was not present - Lord Cochrane who sailed a prize, the French ship-of-the-line "Genereux" to Gibraltar, was promoted Commander for saving her in a storm and returned to Leghorn in his new command, the "Speedy", four days later - as depicted in the watercolour above, showing spars of "Charlotte"'s wreck in the foreground.
And (a little bit) more on: