Mar 25

Salty Talk: "Turning a Blind Eye"

Friday, March 25, 2016 12:01 AM

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It is a rare occasion when the appearance of a word or phrase in a language can be dated with precision, but such is the case with one, which originated nearly 200 years ago.

By the end of the 18th Century, one of England’s main sources of naval stores – mast timbers, pitch, hemp – were the Baltic states. With the resumption of war between Napoleonic France and England following the Peace of Amiens, the French dictator gained control of Denmark and, thereby, one side of the narrow Danish Straits, gateway to the Baltic. Endangering the future of her first line of defense, the Royal Navy, England reacted.

Vice Admiral Sir Hyde Parker was ordered in 1803 to take a fleet into Danish waters and, at the least, neutralize the Danish Navy. Parker was not noted for his audacity, but his second in command was a handicapped little fellow – minus an arm and an eye – who had been gaining fame in the decade of war that had preceded this moment. His name was Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Copenhagen, the Danish capital, is in the midsection of the Jutland Peninsula on the west side of the Danish straits. Off its north-south shoreline is a maze of small islands, sand bars, and twisting channels. When Admiral Parker arrived off the city, he found the Danes had moored the major units of their navy like a line of elephants close to the shore from the city southward, all close enough to land to be supported by the fortresses ashore. Nelson proposed that his superior employ a part of the British force to hold the Danes’ attention at the northern end of the line while he, Nelson, took the rest through the maze and attacked from the south, using a concentration of his force to chew up the Danes’ line sequentially from south to north. Parker agreed.

"Turning a blind eye." Naval Institute Archives.

“Turning a blind eye.” Drawing by Eric Smith. Naval Institute Archive.

At the appointed hour, Nelson headed south, while Parker “demonstrated” in the north. After overcoming a few problems, Nelson began his attack. The Danish defense was fierce and the outcome in doubt. Amidst the smoke and flame, a young midshipman reported to Nelson that a signal was flying in Admiral Parker’s flagship, a signal to break off the action and rejoin him. Nelson, ever alert to a dramatic moment, took a telescope from the young man and put it to his blind eye, saying, “I see no signal.” He pressed on with the attack and won the day. His dramatic gesture quickly became folklore and inspired the phrase “to turn a blind eye,” which means, “to ignore something or pretend it does not exist.” микрозайм

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