William Beatty, Authentic Narrative Of The Death Of Lord Nelson (1807) [Battle History]

Friday, February 4, 2022

Dr. William Beatty was the chief surgeon of HMS Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, and it is thanks to this book that we have the intimate details of how Admiral Horatio Nelson died. It became a bestseller when it was published in 1807, and its sparse, factual prose still has the power to move over two centuries later.

Born in Derry in Ireland, Beatty had joined the Royal Navy as a surgeon’s mate in 1791 at the age of eighteen. Early in the French Revolutionary Wars, aboard the frigate HMS Alligator in the West Indies, he had to deal with an outbreak of yellow fever on board that killed a quarter of the crew. He survived the beaching of his vessel on Guernsey, and in 1799 won £2,468 in prize-money—forty times his annual salary—when his squadron captured a fleet of Spanish bullion galleons. After a spell blockading Toulon, Beatty was appointed surgeon in Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. Of the 821 men aboard Victory at Trafalgar, 62 were killed and 109 wounded, with Beatty personally carrying out no fewer than eleven amputations that day.

Nelson knew that his bullet-wound was terminal, telling Beatty “I felt it break my back.” Eighty minutes after being shot, Nelson was able to shake hands with Captain Hardy of HMS Victory and learn that the Franco-Spanish fleet had been almost entirely captured or sunk, and that therefore after three years of peril, Britain was completely safe from invasion by Napoleon. Beatty recorded the dying Nelson telling his flagship captain, “Take care of my dear Lady Hamilton, Hardy; take care of poor Lady Hamilton. Kiss me, Hardy,” and the last words he repeated over and over until he died: “Thank God, I have done my duty.” Nelson could not have known it, but his victory at Trafalgar secured British naval supremacy for the next century.

In his later career, Beatty held various important medical posts, including Physician Extraordinary to Kings George IV and William IV, and he served on the committee that chose the designs for Nelson’s Column and Trafalgar Square, before dying aged 68 in 1842.