The poem ‘Casabianca’ was written by Mrs. Felicia Dorothea Hemans. It starts out with the well known line, “the boy stood on the burning deck”. The story relates to an extraordinary incident of devotion and heroism witnessed during the Battle of the Nile.
It was on the evening of July 28 of 1798 that the English naval squadron under Lord Nelson sailed in. They had caught the French fleet at anchor and unprepared. The French flagship was the L’Orient and it soon found itself flanked by English ships attacking from both sides. A fierce battle was soon raging and the flashes of 2000 guns lit up the ships in the gathering darkness. L’Orient was caught by the English broadsides and was set ablaze.
It was then that the English sailors saw an amazing sight. There on that burning deck they saw a boy standing alone. He was Cassabianca, the 12 year old son of one of the ship’s officers. There he stood, alone at his post. He was surrounded by flames and facing the astonished English foe. Soon afterwards the fire reached the powder magazine deep down in the hold. The boy perished when the whole ship erupted in a massive explosion.
The sound of L’Orient blowing up was heard at Rosetta 20 miles away. And the glow of the fireball was seen in Alexandria. It was an enormous explosion of a magnitude rarely seen back in those times. The English sailors stood in awe at what they had just witnessed. For some twenty minutes the guns were silent. The English officers and men were absolutely horrified at the carnage that had taken place. They sent a ship to rescue the survivors from the water. About 70 French sailors were saved.
The account of that boy who stood on that burning deck was told and retold. Eventually it passed on into legend. The story remains a classic example of devotion and faithful service. And the poem continues to serve as a source of inspiration and wonder for many throughout Christendom. That boy who stayed at his post on that burning deck has not been forgotten. And the story of his heroic stand is remembered right up to the present day.
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood,
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.
The flames rolled on–he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He called aloud–’say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?’
He knew not that the chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.
‘Speak, father!’ once again he cried,
’If I may yet be gone!’
And but the booming shots replied,
And fast the flames rolled on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair.
And shouted but once more aloud,
’My father! must I stay?’
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires made way.
They wrapt the ship in splendour wild,
They caught the flag on high,
And streamed above the gallant child,
Like banners in the sky.
There came a burst of thunder sound–
The boy–oh! where was he?
Ask of the winds that far around
With fragments strewed the sea!
With mast, and helm, and pennon fair,
That well had borne their part–
But the noblest thing which perished there
Was that young faithful heart.