The Battle of The Roadstead 2 April 1801

Among the many myths that have nourished the Danish national sentiment, the one about the heroic defense of Copenhagen in 1801 is special:

On 2 April 1801 an English fleet lead by Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson sailed down the strait of Oresund (between Denmark and Sweden). At the time England was at war with France, and if Denmark joined Napoleon, the mighty Danish fleet might be a decisive element in the war.
   Totally unprovoked the English attacked us without prior notice, however,  Denmark managed to put up an improvised defense line around the harbor of Copenhagen consisting of old battle ships without sail, gunboats and barges which were soon manned with thousands of brave volunteers.
   The Danish resistance was heroic: despite the overwhelming English force of 20 frigates and other line ships and 40 smaller ships which outnumbered the Danish side several times, the volunteers almost managed to fight the English off.
   Losses were great on both sides, and at one point in time Nelson was told by Admiral Parker to withdraw. Nelson ignored the command, however, by putting the telescope to his blind eye (thatís where the expression stems from) and proceeded by playing a trick on the city:
   He sent in a negotiator with a white flag and the message that if Denmark didnít surrender, Nelson would burn all the captured Danish ships including their wounded men. The Danish king couldnít bear the prospect of this and agreed to an armistice.
   England thought the battle of Copenhagen important enough to include it in the inscription on the monument at Nelsonís grave: "Copenhagen, the Nile, Trafalgar".

So the story goes, and a good one it is Ė but not totally true.

In the 1700s the neutral merchant fleets of the united kingdoms of Denmark and Norway took advantage of the wars between England and France and earned great profits by supplying both warring nations. When England put a siege on the French ports, the Danish-Norwegian ships broke the siege claiming that their neutral status gave them the right to free trade. To ensure their free passage the Danish king had warships accompany the freighters with orders to shoot their way through if necessary.
   The Danish King Christian VII was insane at the time, and his son Prince Frederik (later Frederik VI) entered into an alliance with Russia, Sweden and Prussia to spite England. England announced that she would not tolerate this, and in November 1800 the Danish king was asked to moderate his moves, but to no avail.

This was the background for the attack on 2 April 1801. Thus Denmark was not totally unprepared, and the attack was not totally unprovoked.  Furthermore, the alliance with Russia turned out to be a two-edged sword as France and Russia both declared that a Danish giving in to the English demands would mean that they would turn on Denmark, Sweden would be given free hands to conquer Norway, and Prussia would conquer the Duchesses of Schleswig-Holstein.  Instead, France and Russia wanted the Danish fleet to take the first blow while the Russian fleet stayed put.  In this context it is easier to see why Prince Frederik chose to keep the navigable part of the fleet out of the battle; thatís why only ships already out of service were manned.
   The fighting lasted for four hours, and the casualties ran into the thousands Ė heavy on both sides. But the Danish fleet was saved, merchant ships as well as warships.

But in 1807 Nelson returned to capture the remainder of the Danish fleet, and this time he played another trick on the city of Copenhagen: he launched the very first terror attack on civilians by bombarding Copenhagen almost at random. A terrible slaughter.
   After this act of terror he had his way with the Danish fleet, and the former seafaring nation of Vikings and which later had colonies as far away as Greenland, India, and the West Indies was without a proper fleet for almost a hundred years.
   (Incidentally, many of the oak trees in Denmark today were planted right after 1807 to ensure a supply of oak wood for a new fleet.  However, oak trees have to grow to be at least 90 years before they are fit for timber, and by the time that that happened, wooden ships had given way to steel ships.  But Denmark regained some of her earlier status by supplying most of the engines in the new steam ships made by the Danish company Burmeister and Wain in Copenhagen.)

When in 1815 Napoleon fell, Denmark fell with him, and the former very wealthy Danish merchants went bankrupt. Several of them had lent money to the Danish crown (who protected their interests), but when the Danish state went bankrupt in 1815, they had to follow.

Some of the fine houses of these wealthy merchants are still to be seen in Copenhagen, and the beauty of their interiors is still stunning. Most of them have been taken over by modern business establishments, and board meetings are now held in the very rooms that used to be a haven of leisure for the economic elite 200 years ago.

When the Battle of The Roadstead in 1801 was over and a truce had been established, one of the participating Danish captains had lost his right hand on which fact he dryly remarked: "Thatís the charge I had to pay to allow Danish merchants to serve two kinds of champagne at dinner."

When in 1815 the Danish state went bankrupt and the room for expenses was small, a new law regarding schools was put before King Frederik VI.  The law meant to reduce the expenses to mandatory schooling.
   As he signed the law King Frederik remarked sarcastically: "Poor we are, and miserable.  Let us now grow stupid as well - then we might as well cease to be a state."

April 2001
Erik Moldrup