"Oh, Could I but Read . . . ."
Wearing the flag of Vice-Adm Cuthbert Collingwood, at the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805), the 100 gun ship-of-the-line HMS Royal Sovereign led Lord Nelson’s lee column against the combined Franco-Spanish fleet. Just before noon, as she approached the enemy line, she became the first British ship hit in the action, taking fire from the French Fouguex (74 guns), the Spanish Santa Ana (112), and possibly two other ships-of-the-line as well. This fire caused damage to Royal Sovereign’s rigging, and men exposed on her deck were killed or wounded.
During this approach, the Royal Sovereign was ably conned by her master, William Chalmers. But just a few moments before the battleship broke through the enemy line, Chalmers was hit, a cannon ball tearing through his body as he stood at the ship’s wheel on her quarter deck, literally a few feet from Admiral Collingwood. As he lay dying, Royal Sovereign passed between the Fouguex and Santa Ana, emptying her double-shotted port broadside into the latter’s stern with devastating effect, inflicting some 400 casualties. Royal Sovereign poured broadside after broadside into the Spanish vessel, which, having suffered enormous casualties and the loss of all her rigging, soon struck, upon which, Chalmers expired.
After the battle, Collingwood would write,
"He left a mother and several sisters, whose chief dependence was on what this worthy man and valuable officer saved for them from his pay. He stood close to me when he received his death. A great shot almost divided his body; he laid his head upon my shoulder, and told me he was slain. I supported him till two men carried him off. He could say nothing to me, but to bless me; but as they carried him down, he wished he could but live to read the account of the action in a newspaper. He lay in the cockpit, among the wounded, until the Santa Ana struck, and joining in the cheer which they gave her, expired with it on his lips."
Chalmers was one of 47 men killed aboard Royal Sovereign that day, which also suffered 94 wounded, and lost her main and mizzen masts.
Note: Another officer who was present quoted Chalmers' last words as, "Oh, could I but read the Gazette of this glorious day!"
"With this Knife . . . ."
In 1796, Amary Ngone Ndella, the Damel – lord – of the Wolof principality of Cayor, in the Senegambia region of West Africa, received an embassy from King Abdul Kader Kane of Futo Toro, a neighboring state. Now Cayor was committed to its traditional religion, which greatly offended Abdul Kader, a devout Moslem who had several times waged war to impose Islam on nearby peoples.
The ambassador was accompanied by two aides, each of whom carried a long pole which had curious sort-of knife fixed to its end. When the ambassador was presented to the Damel, he offered greetings from his king, and then ordered his aides to step forward and lay their burdens at the Damel’s feet.
The ambassador then pointed to the first knife, saying, “With this knife, King
Abdul Kader will condescend to shave the head of the Damel, if he will embrace the Moslem faith. Then, pointing the second weapon, he went on, “. . . and with this other knife, King Abdul Kader will cut the throat of the Damel, if he refuses to embrace Islam – take your choice.”
The Damel replied that he chose neither to have his head shaved, nor his throat cut, and dismissed the ambassador.
Abdul Kader shortly invaded Cayor with a large army. Prepared for the onslaught, on the orders of the Damel, the people initiated “scorched earth” measures, filling in wells, destroying whatever goods, live stock, and provisions that they could not carry off, and burning their homes, before fleeing into the interior of the country. As a result, although Adbul Kader met no military resistance, as his army advanced, it began to suffer from a shortage of water. By the third day of the invasion, the situation was becoming critical, as men and horses began to die of thirst.
Then a scout brought word of a watering hole hidden in some woods. The king promptly advanced to the place, again meeting no opposition. At the watering hole, Abdul Kader’s men drank their fill, many becoming sick from over indulgence. That night, the exhausted troops slept among the trees, with scant attention being given to security.
Shortly before dawn, the Damel led his army into the woods. Many of the sleeping men were slain as they lay or trampled beneath the feet of the Wolof horses, others were cut down attempting to flee, and many more were taken prisoner. The Battle of Bungoy resulted in the virtual annihilation of Adbul Kader’s army, the king himself becoming a prisoner.
Abdul Kader was led in irons into the royal presence, and flung upon the ground at the feet of the Damel. As the prisoner awaited his fate, the Damel spoke, “Abdul Kader, answer me this question; If the chance of war had placed me in your situation, and you in mine, how would you have treated me?”
“I would have thrust my spear into your heart," came the defiant reply, “and I know that a similar fate awaits me.”
But the Damel responded, “Not so, my spear is indeed red with the blood of your subjects killed in battle, and I could now give it a deeper stain, by dipping it in your own, but this would not build up my towns, nor bring to life the thousands who fell in the woods. I will not therefore kill you in cold blood, but I will retain you as my slave, until I perceive that your presence in your own kingdom will be no longer dangerous to your neighbors. Then I will consider of the proper way of disposing of you.”
Abdul Kader remained a prisoner of the Damel of Cayor for three months, working as a slave. At the end of that time, the Damel, having received a request from the people of Futo Toro to have their king back, released the humiliated monarch, who thenceforth tended to behave himself, at least with regard to Cayor.
This – and other – deeds of the Damel Amary Ngone Ndella were later woven into an epic cycle of poems that were long recited among the Wolof, even after they converted to Islam, nearly a century later.