Nelson: A British Colossus

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It is often said that “happy is the land that needs no heroes.” The nations that are successful in the long-term are those that are consistently guided by steady leadership and do not need dashing romantics to fend off calamity. Still, most nations do have their ‘heroes’ – America has Washington, Italy has Garibaldi and Mexico has Pancho Villa. In the vast sweep of British history, however, remarkably few figures emerge who could unambiguously be placed in this category. Most monarchs either died early as failures, or reigned long enough to have their faults exposed. Most politicians lacked the charismatic flair, while most military figures simply escaped popular memory. The great exception to the final rule is the man who Britain chose to honour with a 169 foot column in the heart of London. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson was a man whose disobedience was mythical, whose adultery made him almost a social pariah and whose arrogance often courted calamity. But he was also a man of astonishing courage, of patriotic fervour and unmatched military brilliance, who died at the moment of his greatest triumph – having secured Britain a century of world domination. 

Nelson was born in Norfolk on 29 September 1758. As was common of the time, his naval career started at just twelve years old, when his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, took him aboard his ship, H.M.S. Raisonnable. In 1773, he found out about an expedition to attempt to discover the North-East passage and joined as a coxswain on H.M.S Carcass. During the failed adventure, Nelson had an encounter with a polar bear. Using an old musket, he endeavoured to shoot the Arctic beast, but his dated weapon failed to fire. Nelson, instead of choosing to flee (as most would), decided his best course of action was to club the animal to death with the butt of his musket. In the end, the ship fired a cannon to scare the beleaguered bear away, and Nelson escaped unscathed. 

Nelson continued his service, and in 1778 he was promoted to Commander and given charge of H.M.S. Badger. After a serious bout of malaria, Nelson found himself in the Caribbean, where he had spent much of his naval training. In 1778, commanding H.M.S Boreas, he was sent to Antigua to enforce the Navigation Acts. Whilst he was there, Nelson met Frances Nisbet, the widow of a prominent plantation owner. Fanny (as she was known) and Nelson grew close, and Nisbet’s uncle, John Herbert, pledged a huge dowry to Nelson. However, the supposed wealth of the family was nothing more than a fiction. This was concealed from Nelson until after the two married, as was the fact that Fanny was infertile after suffering a womb infection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, relations between the two were strained.

Nelson’s connection to plantation owners has also raised questions over Nelson’s views on the issue of slavery. The centre of this controversy was a letter dated to 1805, which Nelson wrote to a prominent plantation owner in Jamaica, in which he strongly criticises William Wilberforce (a prominent abolitionist) and the abolitionist movement in general. However, this letter was heavily doctored and used as a tool to gain support for the anti-abolitionist movement in the lead up to the parliamentary votes on the issue, and so should not be seen as a reflection of Nelson’s true beliefs. Indeed, his actions reveal far more liberal tendencies – in 1799, Nelson arranged for the release of twenty-four slaves off the coast of Palermo, on the grounds that they were being mistreated by their Portuguese masters. 

After the brief spell of peace following the American War of Independence, Nelson’s career was resuscitated in 1792, when France annexed the Austrian Netherlands. Nelson was called upon to command the 64-gun H.M.S Agamemnon, with which he sailed to Toulon. The city had fallen under the influence of moderate republicans and royalists, who had grown alarmed at the growing radicalism of the French Revolution. National Convention forces, among whom was a young Napoleon Bonaparte, were attempting to storm the city, and Nelson was tasked with repelling them. To that end, he was sent by Lord Hood to Sardinia and Naples to fetch reinforcements. It was during his trip that Nelson first met the wife of the British ambassador, Lady Emma Hamilton. Nelson was involved in a number of coastal raids on French garrisons at this time, the most prominent of which was the assault on Calvi. It was during this battle, however, that a stray bullet hid a sandbag near Nelson, spraying an assortment of sand and stones. He was hit on the right side of his face by the debris, losing sight in his right eye. He was quickly bandaged up and returned to the thick of the fighting to help lead the final assault. 

For the next year, Nelson was further engaged in the Mediterranean theatre, decisively defeating the French at the Battle of Genoa. By October 1796, however, the situation in the Mediterranean had grown dire. Genoa itself was now aligned with France, and it became clear that the British fleet could no longer be supplied. The order was given to evacuate, and Nelson only narrowly evaded the Spanish roaming the seas. After slipping out through Gibraltar, Nelozj joined Admiral Parker’s fleet off the coast of Portugal. Parker decided to engage the Spanish fleet on the 14 February 1797, at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Nelson, commanding H.M.S. Captain, found himself towards the back of the British line. Rather than continuing to follow the British ships line-a-stern, Nelson decided to break off, turning hard to port, and engage the Spanish vanguard. Nelson had manoeuvred himself into a three-on-one-fight with much larger Spanish ships: the 80-gun San Nicolas, the 112-gun San Josef, and the enormous 130-gun Santisima Trinidad. After an hour of fierce fighting, Nelson found himself alongside San Nicolas. Crying “Westminster Abbey or glorious victory!” Nelson led a boarding party onto the Spanish ship. San Josef attempted to support the beleaguered San Nicholas, but became entangled in her rigging. Nelson sensed a second opportunity, and stormed San Nicholas also. Nelson’s gamble had paid off and, after the Battle, he was made a Knight of the Bath and promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue. Jervis decided not to mention Nelson’s heroics in the official report of the battle, as they were the consequence of his disobeying direct orders, but nevertheless Nelson’s account, conveyed in multiple letters, was well received by the British public. 

Three months later, Nelson was operating off the coast of Spain, attempting to take Cadiz. Aboard the H.M.S. Theseus, he was informed that the Principe de Asturias (a Spanish treasure ship) had just arrived in Santa Cruz de Tenerife. Nelson accordingly diverted his attacks to Tenerife, believing the island would be an easier target than Cadiz. He was wrong. The raid was a complete disaster, both for Nelson personally and for the British fleet. Bad weather had forced the first landing to be delayed, giving the Spanish the time they needed to prepare their defences. Twice the British advanced, and twice they were repelled. As Nelson stepped ashore on the third and final attempt, he was immediately hit in the right arm by a musket ball which smashed his humerus bone into multiple pieces. He was rowed back to the H.M.S. Theseus where the surgeon, Thomas Eshelby, was forced to amputate the limb at the elbow. Nelson was demoralised by his injury, writing to Jervis that “a left-handed Admiral will never be considered as useful.” But when he returned to Britain on H.M.S. Seahorse, his spirits were lifting by the adulation of the public – who still idolised the hero of Cape St Vincent. By March 1798, he was again sailing to join Jervis (now Earl St Vincent) aboard his new ship, H.M.S. Vanguard.

Nelson was again sent to Toulon, this time to watch the French fleet. After a storm forced Nelson to sail south and allowed the French to escape, he began a wild chase for Napoleon, who was sailing to Egypt. Nelson scoured the Italian coast, and then went on to Malta, where he discovered that the French forces had already left. Nelson hurried to Alexandria, arriving on the 28 June 1798. Unfortunately for Nelson, Napoleon’s invasion fleet would not reach the city until 1 July, by which point Nelson had crossed the Mediterranean again. When this too proved futile, Nelson again set course for Egypt, and on arrival discovered the French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay.

Upon sighting the French, Nelson immediately began to prepare for the assault. On the afternoon of 1 August 1798, the Battle of the Nile began. The French fleet had anchored itself just off the shoals in Aboukir Bay, and so believed that the battle would be simply be the customary two lines of ships converging on one another. Nelson, however, had other plans. H.M.S Goliath led a daring assault, and found a gap in the shoals. The French fleet was being fired upon from both the main body of Nelson’s fleet and from their rear. Only two French frigates escaped, and Napoleon’s forces were stranded in Egypt. For his stunning victory, the British admiral was made Baron Nelson of the Nile, received a gift from Tsar Paul I of Russia and was inducted into the Order of the Turkish Crescent by Sultan Selim III. 

After this, Nelson returned to Naples, where he helped take the city from the revolutionaries who had gained power in it, and restored King Ferdinand to power. However, Nelson was now faced with the question of what to do with the Neapolitan rebels who had collaborated with the French. These rebels had made a treaty which guaranteed safe passage back to France but Nelson, backed by King Ferdinand, refused to allow this. He seized the rebels’ transports, tried most of them and had many, including the former Neapolitan Admiral Francesco Caracciolo, executed. When the transports were permitted to leave for France, less than one third of the rebels still lived.

After a dispute with his commanding officers, Nelson grudgingly decided to depart for England. In Naples, Nelson had begun a passionate affair with the famed (and married) beauty, Lady Emma Hamilton. When they returned to Britain together, Nelson’s affair with Lady Hamilton became the topic of much public speculation. Emma’s husband, William, seemed to be both aware of and content with his wife’s infidelity, and for some time the three lived together. Nelson’s spouse, Fanny, was less compliant and delivered an ultimatum to her husband around Christmas of 1800 – demanding he choose between her or Lady Hamilton. Nelson would never live with Fanny again. 

During Nelson’s stay in England, Emma gave birth to a daughter, Horatia. Nelson was shortly after promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue in January 1801 and was soon called back by the Admiralty to command H.M.S. St George and sail with Admiral Parker to the Baltic. The British had been interfering with French trade with other European nations and in an attempt to end this, Russia, Prussia, Denmark and Sweden signed the Second League of Armed Neutrality. This aimed to protect neutral shipping from Britain’s wartime policies, but Britain had no intention of allowing its efforts to strangle the French economy to be stymied. On reaching Copenhagen, Parker suggested they blockade the port, but Nelson had a more offensive strategy in mind. On the morning of the 2 April 1801, he sailed into Copenhagen harbour, while Parker remained at a distance to cover Nelson in case the Swedish or Russian fleets arrived. The Battle of Copenhagen began badly, with several ships (including Nelson’s old ship H.M.S. Agamemnon) running aground in the shallow waters, and the rest of the fleet coming under much heavier Danish resistance than had been anticipated. Seeing this, Parker gave the signal for Nelson to withdraw. On being informed of this by his Flag Captain, Thomas Foley, Nelson responded “You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes,” he then raised his telescope to his blind eye and said “I really do not see the signal.” However, what is often left out of this infamous story is that Parker did not give the order because he actually wanted Nelson to withdraw. Instead, Parker sent the signal so that Nelson had an excuse to fall back if the situation was poor, assuming that Nelson would simply ignore the order if circumstances were favourable.

As Nelson elected to do just that, the battle continued in a devastating fashion for three hours, leaving both fleets badly damaged. However, Nelson’s navy would prove victorious. Eventually, Nelson agreed a ceasefire with Crown Prince Fredrick, the Danish Commander. At the end of the battle, fifteen Danish ships had been destroyed, at the loss of no British vessels.

After Britain and France agreed to a truce at the Peace of Amiens in October 1801, Nelson spent a period of time in Britain, lapping up the adulation of the public for two years. With the return of hostilities in 1803, he received his final command as Chief of the Mediterranean fleet. His first act was to blockade the French fleet off Toulon in July. In April, Villeneuve (the French admiral) finally slipped through Nelson’s net, first heading to the Atlantic and then sailing for the West Indies. Nelson pursued him, and spent June scouring the Caribbean in vain; Villeneuve had sailed back to Europe. Nelson returned to England for one final time.

Upon news reaching him that the French and Spanish fleets had coalesced at Cadiz, Nelson hurried to London. Here, he briefly met with a young Arthur Wellesley for the first time, then boarded his flagship, H.M.S Victory, and joined the fleet off Cadiz on the 27 September. Immediately, he began to plan the ensuing battle. On 20 October, Villeneuve and his fleet were sighted and the next day, Nelson ordered H.M.S Victory and the fleet to turn towards the enemy. Nelson then sent up the famed message: England expects that every man will do his duty. The Battle of Trafalgar had begun. 

Nelson planned for the fighting to be as chaotic as possible. The French were stunned by the strength of the British fleet, and were caught trying to retreat. Typically, sea battles of this age saw two fleets form parallel lines, and bombard each other from a distance, These battles were often indecisive, with neither side sustaining serious casualties. Nelson, however, wanted total victory. He split his fleet into two columns, which would advance forwards and slice through the French line. The initial fighting would be fierce, but once all the British ships were in position, the French would be crushed.  At the head of the northern column was Victory – the Admiral would lead the daring assault himself. The early stages of the battle were indeed brutal for the British, and Victory was engaged by multiple ships, including Redoubtable and Santísima Trinidad. Then, at 13:00, a sharpshooter aboard Redoubtable sighted Nelson’s flashing medals and shot him through his spinal chord. The wound was fatal. Even without the Admiral, the superiority of Nelson’s tactics meant the battle was now swinging in Britain’s favour. French miscommunication crippled any effective response, while more and more British ships joined the fray, smashing through the French lines. By the end of the battle, twenty-two French and Spanish ships had been destoyed, ensuring it was impossible for any nation to threaten Britain’s rule of the seas. Upon hearing of his victory, Nelson said “God and my country” and passed away at the age of 47.

His body was placed in a casket of brandy and was transported back to Britain one final time. His arrival was met by mourning. King George III is alleged to have said in tears, “we have lost more than we have gained.” For perspective, Britain had just gained a naval supremacy which would gauantee it safety from Napoleon, and would ultimately allow Britain to become the wealthiest state on the planet and construct history’s largest empire. The scale of Nelson’s achievements can best be seen by the fact his title was 102 words long and included honours he had won serving in Spain, Italy, Sicily, the Atlantic and the Nile. Nelson’s funeral took place on 9 January 1806 in St Paul’a Cathedral, where his body still lies in the crypt today, next to Wren, the man who virtually rebuilt London, and Wellesley, the final victor of the Napoleonic Wars.

Knight, R., 2006. The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson. Penguin

Sugden, J., 2014. Nelson: The Sword of Albion. Bodley Head