Death on the Nile, French style

Napoleon's Lost Fleet
March 3, 2000

No shipwreck from the age of steam is apparently beyond the reach of Robert Ballard and his contemporaries, who have used state-of-the-art technology, post-Cousteau, to reach into the depths and unlock the secrets of semi-mythic vessels such as the Titanic , the Bismarck and the aircraft carrier Yorktown .

The detritus of battles under sail is far more perishable, but can still yield surprises such as the subject of this book. I was first brought into the secret of Napoleon's lost fleet from the battle of the Nile 15 years ago when I interviewed marine archaeologist Jacques Dumas after he had returned with news that he had found the wreck of L'Orient , the 124-gun French flagship, with a time capsule of Napoleonic maritime warfare.

This television-led publishing venture (an offshoot of the Discovery Channel) offers a window on the nautical treasure trove Dumas uncovered in the murky waters of Aboukir Bay and which continues to be excavated by his deputy, Frank Goddio.

The fish-eye lens has captured some fascinating images: sword hilts and muskets, coated with silvery crustacea and sticking out of the sand like spectral Arthurian talismans; anchors, gold coins galore, and the original name plate of the ship whose grave this is, Le Dauphin Royal . All had rained down from the night sky on August 1 1798, after the most spectacular explosion then seen in maritime warfare, when L'Orient - renamed for rising young general Napoleon Bonaparte's ambitious campaign to cut the British off from their far eastern trade - met a fiery end at the hands of another hero in the making, Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson.

The book is coffee-table history, with some splendidly reproduced paintings of the careers of Napoleon and Nelson, as well as contemporary plans and cutaways of the Nile campaign and the ships that fought it. This should not detract from the value of a text written by two American amateur historians, guided in the technicalities of late 18th-century sea fighting by the deputy director of Portsmouth Royal Naval Museum.

It skilfully builds the tension of Nelson's long chase of the French expedition around the Mediterannean until the theatrical denouement in a Turner-esque sunset at the Nile's mouth, with the British ships slowly enveloping the anchored French battle line in a pincer - the French matelots having only minutes to appreciate this audacious manouevre before the enemy's cannonade hit them at point-blank range.

The authors give proper weight to perhaps the most important result of the Egyptian campaign: the beginnings of Egyptology, thanks to the scholars whom Bonaparte brought in his train, the translation of the Rosetta Stone text, and the eventual establishment of the Louvre Museum.

John Crossland is a writer specialising in naval history.

Napoleon's Lost Fleet

Author - Laura Foreman and Ellen Blue Phillips
ISBN - 0 297 82555 0
Publisher - Discovery
Price - £20.00
Pages - 215

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