Graves Found Shows Women Fought With British in the 1798 Battle of the Nile

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Nick Slope records a burial, a casualty of the Battle of the Nile in 1798, interred on Aboukir Island, Egypt.
Nick Slope records a burial, a casualty of the Battle of the Nile in 1798, interred on Aboukir Island, Egypt.Credit: The Nelson's Island Excavation

Excavation of graves found on "Nelson's Island" in Egypt has uncovered 40 bodies – not only of British Navy officers, soldiers and sailors, but of women too, who sailed and fought with the British navy during The Battle of the Nile against the French in 1798.

“Most people think that Nelson's ships were all male. They weren’t. They had women and children onboard,” Dr. Nick Slope, who excavated the graves and is also the vice-chairman of the Nelson Society, told Haaretz.

It was while excavating Hellenistic and Pharaonic structures on Aboukir Island, a.k.a. Nelson's Island, that the archaeologists stumbled upon relatively modern burials. Some corpses were found with musket balls, gun-flint, and military buttons. “It was immediately clear that these bodies had something to do with the Battle of the Nile,” Slope told Haaretz.

That confrontation was a turning point in centuries of snarling between the British and French. This episode was a naval battle, fought on the 1st and 2nd of August, 1798, in Aboukir Bay, an inlet of the Mediterranean off Egypt.

The British fleet, led by Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, crushed the French, led by Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d'Aigalliers. And that was that. But casualties were suffered, and now some of them have been found.

Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, by Lemuel Francis AbbottCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Small island, big history

Aboukir Island is all of 350 meters long. Just 20 kilometers east of Alexandria, the island may be tiny, but it boasts a rich history. The island itself was a major commercial and religious center in Pharaonic Egypt, being right on a primary commercial route leading to the Nile River. Also, Aboukir Bay (today) contains the submerged remains of the ancient city of Canopus.

In antiquity, Aboukir Island was considerably larger, but erosion and heavy quarrying of sandstone during earlier periods reduced its size. In antiquity, the island's outcrop was probably connected to the mainland, like the tip of a hook stretching from the modern-day naval base of Aboukir.

Aboukir also housed a necropolis for the rich during Pharaonic times, excavation has shown. That era was followed by that of Alexander the Great, who among other places, conquered ancient Egypt – only to have his extraordinary empire divided between his jealous generals (the Diadochi) after his death.

Egypt was taken over by Ptolemy, whose forces occupied and fortified Aboukir Island.

Fast-forward 2300 years, when the Egyptian bay was bitterly fought over again, this time by the French and British in the famous Battle of the Nile. The Royal Navy, led by Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson engaged the French Republic fleet, headed by Admiral Francois-Paul Brueys d’Aigailliers, who rode at anchor in a line across Aboukir Bay.

Aboukir Bay in Egypt: Screenshot of a photo by NASA.Credit: NASA World Wind (v1.4)

Nelson gets shot in the head

The British Royal Navy broke the French line by a series of brilliant naval maneuvers, culminating in the British fleet circumventing the French ships  while delivering devastating broadsides. Furious bombardments from both sides ensued, erupting in in a havoc of screaming sailors, gunpowder and flying wood splinters from the stricken ships.

In the fog of war, a musket ball struck Nelson on the forehead, tearing a flap of skin, which fell over his one good eye, rendering him temporarily blind.

When the fog from the cannons had dispersed, Nelson and his men turned out to have destroyed most of the French fleet. After the battle, the Island was renamed “Nelson's Island”, a name modern Egypt has kept.

Despite the French Navy's crushing defeat in the bay, the French held on to Egypt, for the nonce. They hoped their hold on the island would help them cut the British Empire off from India and disrupt trade.  It was not to be.

In 1801, the British launched a full-scale invasion of the Egyptian mainland, aiming to drive out the French. On March 8, an invasion force of 12,000 British reserve troops was ferried to the beaches of Aboukir Bay.

On the sand dunes, they met spirited resistance by the French soldiers, but prevailed. The French entrenched themselves in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great. But after several months of siege, Alexandria finally fell to the British on September 2, 1801, and France capitulated in Egypt.

The Destruction of "L'Orient" at the Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, George Arnald (1763 – 1841)Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich

Visit by God

Most of the dead from the battles were buried at sea. Those who survived until their wounds or disease could kill them were buried on the island.

The Royal Navy recorded deaths in the ships' logs. Quite often the expression “visited by God” was used for the deceased, meaning they died from disease or accident, not war injury.

Some of the dead were buried in wooden coffins. Others were just wrapped in hammocks.

Three were buried in full uniform, and in one case, possibly as a neoclassicist gesture, copper coins minted in Malta had been placed over each eye. Also, three skeletons were found with a musket ball next to their right shoulders. It was clear to the excavators that these bullets had been placed there and had never been fired. Why remains a mystery.

One soldier was even buried with his uniform and boots on, though by the time of his discovery, they were heavily decayed.

“In that period the soldiers use to have long hair and they would tie it in a pony tail. But the French use to have side bits of hair hanging down and they would tie a musket ball in it to keep it straight,” said Slope and added, “English soldiers were normally not buried in uniform, since everything was recycled. So these must have been French soldiers.”

The excavators had expected to find only soldiers. They were astonished to discover that the graveyard also contained three infants. Each was wrapped in a shroud, held together with small bronze pins, and laid to rest in wooden coffins.

Two of these infants had been stillborn or had died shortly after birth. One had died just a few months old.

Next to one of the infants was the grave of a woman. Her face was covered by sailcloth. Creepily, “When we opened the coffin, we saw her lying in a white dress. As soon as the air hit her, it went black,” said Slope., adding that the cause was probably centuries of trapped gases escaping.

Excavating a burial of Nelson's soldiers on Aboukir Island, also known as Nelson's Island, in the Mediterranean off the Egyptian coast, near Alexandria. Credit: The Nelsons Island Excavation

The woman’s coffin lid was marked with the letter "G" made of metal. She could well have been a warrior, judging by the memoirs of John Nicoles, a sailor under Nelson during the Battle of the Nile. He tells how several women served the guns during the battle, passing gunpowder up from the magazine to the gunners. A woman from Leth, Scotland was injured during the battle and buried on the island.

“There is only one island in the bay, and guess on what ship she served? HMS Goliath,” Dr. Slope said, but noted that it is impossible to know which of the female bodies found there was hers. But that tell-tale G on the woman's coffin could stand for "Goliath". Or Guards.

The Navy's logbooks note a Mrs Lambe of the 3rd Guards regiment and Sarah Weber of the Coldstream Guards.

Women 'pestered' the men?

It has long been believed that women were rarely, if ever, allowed on board warships. Admiralty regulations strictly forbade women to be taken to sea so “that the ship may not be pestered with them”.

Whatever the rulebook said, it is clear from the archeological and historical record that women did travel with the Royal Navy.

Usually they were the wives of the warrant officers who were allowed to take their wives and children to sea.

Aboukir Island, a.k.a. Nelson's Island, view from the south.Credit: The Nelsons Island Excavation

The presence of women onboard was largely hidden in official records, as they were not paid or fed by the British Navy, and therefore were not entered into the ships' logbooks.

Also, as there were no passenger ships at the time, the Royal Navy also routinely took civilians aboard, some of whom were women. Other sneaked onboard disguised as men.

All in all, for every 100 men, there were three women on board ships at the time, which meant that there were at least 360 women in the 18th century Navy. These women played important roles, including those of providing medical treatment and handling ammunition.

Floating concentration camps

Life on board Royal Navy ships in the 18th century was no picnic. It has been painted in miserable terms of sailors living on a floating concentration camp, starved, coerced and subject to brutal arbitrary and discipline by sadistic captains. The 18th century writer Samuel Johnson observed, “Being on a ship is being in jail."

The image of sailors living under hellish conditions has since then been further encapsulated by popular fiction and Hollywood (take, for instance, the 1962 epic “Mutiny on the Bounty,” starring Marlon Brando).

However, in the 18th century, the Royal Navy won all its great battles at sea. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that sailors living under dire straits, beaten and oppressed by bad officers, could deliver the crushing victories achieved at the Battle of the Nile and in 1805, at Trafalgar.