On a November day in 1714, Peter Jansen Wessel was court martialed by the admiralty at the orders of Frederick IV of Denmark. He was only 24 years old but had already served in the navy for 10 years. The charges against him as described in the court records, give a picture of one of the strangest naval encounters in history.
Wessel was born in Trondheim, Norway, and was a difficult and unruly boy – the 14th child of 18 that his pious parents were trying their best to raise. At age 13, he ran away from home, and stowed away on a boat bound for Copenhagen. There he tried, but failed, to enroll as a naval cadet. However, he was able to charm his way onto a merchant ship and spent three years sailing to Guinea and the Caribbean. After three years aboard ship, he was eventually accepted into the navy.
By the age of 20, after several more voyages on the high seas, Wessel was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Royal Danish-Norwegian Navy. In a short while, through a combination of talent and charm, he became captain of the 4-gun sloop Ormen. And less than a year later he was in command of his own 20-gun frigate.
Denmark and Norway, backed by Peter I of Russia and Augustus II the Strong, King of Saxony, Poland and Lithuania, were at the time fighting the Great Northern War against Sweden. The war began in 1700 and would continue until 1721. Wessel made a name for himself with his derring-do raids, fearlessly attacking Swedish ships much larger than his own, and always evading capture. The Swedes eventually put a price on his head, which elevated him to even greater fame.
He was reckless and arrogant and earned rebuke from his superiors, but also became a national hero for his chutzpa.
For example, on 12 August 1713 Wessel wrote a letter to the Swedish governor of Gothenburg, asking that he send a ship so that Wessel could turn himself in and collect the bounty the Swedes had offered for his capture. This did not go down well in Sweden. The complaints through diplomatic channels eventually led to Wessel being reprimanded by King Frederick.
But that wasn’t what led to his court martial.
He was put on trial for an incident that took place on July 26-27, 1714. Wessel was in command of the Lovendals Gallei but was flying a Dutch flag to disguise his identity. He encountered what appeared to be an English ship captained by an English sailor named Bactmann. But the boat was in fact a Swedish frigate called the Olbing Galei.
The two captains soon realized that they were facing an enemy ship, and both raised their true colors and began to attack.
The two boats fired broadsides at each other for over 14 hours. They fought all day, took a break overnight, and started again the next morning. However, by then, Wessel realized he was about to run out of ammunition.
So, he did the craziest and most chutzpadik thing imaginable. He messaged Bactmann, the captain of the enemy ship. He went aboard to thank him for a good fight. Then he explained that he had run out of ammunition and asked if he could borrow some from the Swedish frigate. The shocked English captain politely refused to arm his opponent, but the two ships agreed to cease hostilities and sail away in opposite directions. They crew of both boats then came together for drinks, to toast each other and wish their opponents good luck.
When King Frederick heard about this, he was furious. He had Wessel court martialed for recklessly endangering his command by engaging a ship superior to his own, and for giving away military secrets by telling his opponent he was out of ammunition.
Wessel’s rapid promotion through the ranks of the navy, and his heroism and arrogance, had made him many enemies in the military. Those who felt threatened by him, or who had been overlooked as Wessel rose to ever-greater fame, were hoping the trial would finally put this young upstart in his place.
However, on December 15, 1714, Wessel was acquitted by 10 of the 14 members of the court. Only the four most junior members of the court voted against him.
The court martial had, if anything, made Wessel even more daring. With his letter of acquittal in hand, he went to King Frederick and asked to be promoted to captain. Less than two weeks after facing serious charges, on December 28, Wessel rose to the rank of captain in the Danish navy.
Less than a year later, on October 1715, Frederick knighted Wessel, giving him the title (and name by which he is best known) – Tordenskiold. The title translates as “Thunder Shield,” in recognition of this thundering attacks on the Swedes and his strong defense of Denmark.
His brilliant and daring raids, his skill at commanding his men and his great skill as a strategist eventually earned him the rank of Commodore (Rear Admiral). He became a hero and a legend in Denmark and Norway, similar to what Horatio Nelson would become for the British a few years later.
In 1720, Denmark ended its role in the Great Northern War. Wessel, now Tordenskiold, aged just 30, should have had a great life ahead of him. However, his recklessness and arrogance meant he did not survive long. He got into a fight over a game of cards and was killed in a duel with a Swedish soldier, Colonel Jacob Stael von Holstein.
Tordenskiold remains a national hero in both Norway and Denmark to this day, though he is virtually unknown to the English-speaking world. *
The incredible gall and chutzpa of asking an enemy for more ammunition to be used in a battle against him reminded me of an incident that is described at the end of Parshat Emor, this weeks’ Torah reading (Leviticus 24:10-11).
The son of an Israelite woman, who was the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel. And the son of the Israelite woman fought in the camp with an Israelite man.
And the son of the Israelite woman uttered God’s name and he cursed.
The Torah gives us clues as to who this person was, from which the rabbis recreated the whole story.
According to the Talmud, he was the son of the Egyptian man who Moses killed way back when Moses was still an Egyptian prince. Moses killed the Egyptian because he had raped a Jewish woman. And he killed him by uttering God’s name.
So, this orphan, whose Egyptian father was killed by an Egyptian prince, was raised by his mother, and threw his lot in with the Israelite people. It can’t have been easy for him to be the only kid growing up without a Jewish father, to have the other children and their parents making fun of him for being different than everyone else.
Now, imagine this man’s shock when the “Egyptian” who had killed his father returned decades later as the savior of the Jewish people.
Yet, still this nameless man stuck with the Israelites. When Moses led them out of Egypt, he left with them. When the people stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah, he stood with them and accepted the law.
But when Moses set up the camp, allotting each tribe and family their own area to pitch their tents around the Tabernacle, the man became an outcast again. Because tribal affiliations, and so the place in the camp, was determined according to the father.
The man went to the tribe of Dan and pitched his tent there, because that was his mother’s family. But the other Danites were having none of it. They were not going to allow this guy who was only their maternal half-brother, to take their spot.
He went to Moses to ask what to do. He made his claim that he should be entitled to a portion with Dan. But Moses ruled against him. God had clearly told Moses that the tribal affiliation went solely through the father.
But where else could he go? Every time he tried to pitch his tent anywhere in the camp, another tribe would throw him out. This is what the verse means when it says he “went out among the children of Israel.”
Eventually, he returned to the tribe of Dan and explained his predicament. What else could he do? Where else could he go? Having spent his entire life as an outsider, he could take it no longer. So, he “fought in the camp with an Israelite man.” One of his own brothers who would not allow him to be part of the family.
Then he did the only thing he could think of. He tried to kill the man by uttering God’s name. That was how Moses had killed his father, so that was the only way he knew of to defend his rights and end the fight.
For this reason, Moses didn’t know what to do with him and had to ask God. It would have been cruelly ironic for Moses to punish the man for doing an action he had learned from Moses.
But uttering God’s name and cursing God is no less chutzpadik than Wessel asking the English captain for more ammunition.
Clearly, the man believed in God and the power of God’s name. He thought that uttering God’s name could kill his opponent. Yet at the same time, he knew it was God who gave the laws and told everyone where to camp.
So, in effect, the man was asking God to back him up in his fight against what God wanted. He was asking God for the ammo to fight against those who were following God’s word. Which is taking chutzpa to the nth degree.
But there is also a bigger story here, a story of an entire tribe and the whole nation, from the leader down, turning against this individual who was ostracized through no fault of his own. He was an outsider, an orphan, son of an Egyptian father. But for decades he had tried his hardest to fit in with everyone else, even as they shunned him and turned away.
The Torah says he deserved to be put to death for his blasphemy. And if the man had thought about what he was doing he should have realized how bad his actions were.
But the Torah also alludes to the complicity of those who caused him to sin, who rejected him, who continually pushed him outside the camp, who made fun of where he had come from and how much of an outsider he was:
Take the man who cursed outside the camp, and all those who heard him must place their hands on his head. And the entire congregation must stone him to death.
He was taken outside the camp to remind everyone that they had not welcomed the outsider. All those who heard – all those who rejected him and pushed him away – had to place their hands on his head to acknowledge their role in his death. They had turned a human being into a scapegoat to be cast away. And the entire congregation had to watch as the man went to his death. Nobody could pretend they were not involved. Anyone could have welcomed the man, opened their home to him, or even just been on his side.
The entire congregation, from Moses down, was involved in this man’s execution, because every man, woman and child of them had been the cause of his death.
Like Wessel, it was the man’s impetuous nature that eventually led to his death. But in his death, this man pointed the finger of guilt at the entire congregation of Israel.
* In fact, when researching this blog, I found very few articles about him online, and each source contradicted the others. So, please forgive and help me correct any errors.