The Jewish heroes who fought alongside Nelson at Trafalgar

Last week marked the 217th anniversary of the historic battle


The story of previously unsung Jewish sailors who fought beside Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805 is now emerging — as Britian marks the 217th anniversary of the battle.  

Londoner Moses Benjamin was forcibly recruited to serve on Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, aged just 19. He was “pressed” in the Minories district of the East End, where he had been selling jewellery. 

The admiralty eventually conceded that Benjamin, as a “foreigner”, was not permitted to be pressed on land and he was “discharged from the service per order of Lord Nelson agreeable to orders from the Lords Commissioners of the admiralty being a Jew”. However, the order came too late: the Victory had already sailed, with Benjamin unwillingly on board.

Possibly the youngest fighter at Trafalgar was John Edwards, born Menachem ben Shmuel, who is thought to have been a “powder monkey” — the crew who carried gunpowder — aged only ten on the Victory. Prior to his death in 1893 he was believed to be the last survivor of the historic battle.

In June 1841 his occupation was noted as a slop-seller in London’s Radcliffe Highway. He later moved to Portsmouth where he became synagogue warden and a city councillor. His grandson recalled sitting on his knee and hearing his war stories. While his absence from the “Ayshford Trafalgar Roll”, which contained the named of the 21,000 British participants in the battle, and the list of Naval General Service Medal recipients casts some doubt on his participation, it remains possible that he was present.

Last week marked the 217th anniversary of Trafalgar, when Nelson crushed Napoleon’s fleet off the coast of southern Spain. Nelson himself was killed during the battle. 

While the 1673 Test Act forbade all non-Anglicans from becoming naval officers until 1829, no such barriers existed for lower-deck seamen, and many Jewish men played their part at Trafalgar. The admiralty was known to bend its rules when convenient, and 71 of HMS Victory’s 820 crew were “foreigners”, most of whom were probably “pressed” into joining or received a bounty for volunteering.

Regardless of the impediments to promotion, many Jews volunteered for the Royal Navy. Joseph Manuel, Landsmen Nathan Manuel, Henry Levi, and Benjamin Solomon, all London-based Jews, joined up on the same day, choosing to serve on the HMS Britannia, which lost 10 men at Trafalgar. 

Barnett Asher Simmons, an apprentice in Denmark Court, St. Martins in the Fields, the church that now overlooks the London square commemorating Nelson’s victory, was pressed soon after completing his articles. It was rumoured that he lost a finger at Trafalgar, but letters later confirmed that, while he had fought during the battle, he had lost his finger somewhat less gloriously, during an accident at Penzance Harbour.

Brothers Benjamin and John Israel Hart were also on board the Victory. The pair, who worked as “wandering conjurers”, were forced to join the Navy at Portsmouth. After performing their tricks for the crew, they found themselves pressed into service. James Sanger, father of the famous 19th-century showman “Lord” George Sanger, was jumped by a press gang on London Bridge, serving on the Victory, where he witnessed Nelson’s death and was himself injured. He later put his navy pension towards setting up a show business after visiting Bristol Fair.

Sanger later wrote that his father “was an excellent talker. He could patter in the most approved style, especially about the Battle of Trafalgar, scenes of which formed one of the staple features of his little show.” Two more seamen thought to have been Jewish and on the Victory’s books at Trafalgar were Amsterdam-born William Abrahams and John Jacobs, both discharged in 1806.

After the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, many seamen returned to the merchant navy. 

Only in 1847, when many Trafalgar veterans had died, were their efforts recognised with the new Naval General Service Medal, which was awarded to at least three Jews.

Despite the brutality of life on board which many servicemen, Jewish and otherwise, faced at the time of Trafalgar, its impact endured through the many who had been touched by its events. A Hebrew ode commemorating the death of Nelson, on display at the Jewish Museum in London, speaks to the regard its commander was held in by the many who had fought under him on that perilous day.

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