Why Nelson turned a blind eye at Copenhagen

Two centuries ago today, on April 2nd, 1801, there occurred what is perhaps the most celebrated act of disobedience in history…

Two centuries ago today, on April 2nd, 1801, there occurred what is perhaps the most celebrated act of disobedience in history.

Around that time most of Britain's grain was imported from the Baltic. The Tsar of Russia decided to cut off this vital food supply, which he did by inducing the northern powers, including Denmark, to enforce an embargo excluding British vessels from the Baltic ports.

"Peace and more bread, or a king without a head," the people roared in England, whereupon the powers that be, recalling the unfortunate happenings in France some years before, determined something must be done.

The Baltic must be opened up again, and the first step towards this objective must be to destroy the Danish fleet that was based in Copenhagen.


The ideal opportunity for attack would be just after the winter ice had melted in the Kattegat, but before the disappearance of the rest of the Baltic ice allowed the Russian fleet to come to help the Danes.

That particular winter of 1800-1801 was one of the mildest for a generation, so the operation took place earlier than originally planned. The British fleet, with Admiral Sir Hyde Parker in command and Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson as its No 2, arrived off Denmark late in March.

For a successful and surprise attack on the Danish fleet arrayed in defensive positions along the Zealand coast near Copenhagen, the British needed north-westerly winds to bring them quickly down the Danish Sound, followed immediately by a brisk south-easterly to sweep them up to Copenhagen.

Luck was on their side; this was precisely what occurred in the first two days of April 1801. The outcome of the skirmish, therefore, was dictated partly by the weather - but not entirely so.

At first the Danes put up a brave resistance, so much so that Admiral Parker on his flag-ship raised the signal ordering retreat. Some distance away, aboard the Elephant, Nelson muttered to himself and anyone who cared to listen: "Leave off action! Now damn me if I do."

Some years previously, at the siege of Calvi, Nelson had lost the sight of his right eye. At Copenhagen he used this to his advantage. "You know, Foley," he remarked to one of his lieutenants, "I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes." Thus saying, he raised his spy-glass to his right eye and announced: "I declare, I really do not see that signal."

The British fleet was victorious and Nelson, with Copenhagen won, went on to fight another day at Cape Trafalgar.