Sunday, May 10, 2015


Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott.

“Our country will… forgive an officer for attacking an enemy than for leaving him alone.” CAPTAIN HORATIO NELSON, 1794. Admiral Nelson Devotion to duty and individualistic swagger vied for supremacy in Nelson’s style. He became the ultimate British hero for the Romantic age.

Born in Norfolk to a country clergyman, Horatio Nelson grew up to be Britain’s most famous admiral. He was not just admired but extravagantly fêted, attracting such interest and excitement that his status came close to that of a celebrity. While his sense of duty was strong, he showed an audacity that bordered on indiscipline and a dashing courage that kept him in the public eye. His romantic life was equally reckless, with his long-standing affair with Lady Emma Hamilton arousing scandal and admiration in equal measure.

Nelson joined the Royal Navy in 1771, aged only 12. Starting his career as an ordinary seaman, he soon became a midshipman, the lowest officer rank. In 1773, he volunteered to serve on HMS Carcass in a journey in search of the Northwest Passage. It was on this voyage that the 14-yearold encountered a polar bear on an ice floe. His musket misfiring, Nelson had to fight the beast off with the weapon’s butt. His Arctic foray was followed by a venture to the tropics, when Nelson sailed with HMS Seahorse to the East Indies. The late 1770s and the American War of Independence and associated battles with France brought great opportunities for an able officer and Nelson attained several commands.

Hero of Cape St. Vincent
In 1783, now a captain, Nelson married Frances “Fanny” Nisbet, the daughter of a wealthy West Indian planter. Though they appeared to have been happy together, Nelson had more time than he wanted with his wife. Peace had left him bored and it was only after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1792 that the Admiralty finally gave him a new command.

Nelson quickly showed himself worthy—displaying, moreover, a readiness to put his own safety on the line. He lost the sight in one eye in action in Corsica in 1793. Four years later, he disobeyed orders in leading a boarding party at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, off the Portuguese coast. Fortunately, the gamble paid off and, the Spanish fleet defeated, Nelson returned to England a hero, especially after having lost an arm in a later battle at Tenerife. Nelson was idolized as a dashing rule-breaker who led from the front.

Battle of the Nile, Augt 1st 1798, Thomas Whitcombe, 1816. The British fleet bears down on the French line.

Battle of the Nile
Napoleon, the French general, was one of Nelson’s strongest rivals. In May 1798, Napoleon set sail with his fleet from Toulon, France. His plan was to invade Egypt as a first step in a campaign against the British in India. Although Nelson narrowly failed to intercept Napoleon, he found the fleet a few months later at Aboukir Bay, Egypt, completely destroying it in the brief Battle of the Nile that followed. Nelson’s victory influenced the course of the entire war and he was awarded the title “Baron Nelson of the Nile.”

Nelson now broke another rule by embarking on a long affair with Lady Emma Hamilton, who was the wife of the British ambassador to Naples. Yet, however scandalous his conduct, he seemed to have a special license. At Copenhagen in 1801, where the Danish and Norwegian fleets had been defying the British blockade on French trade, Nelson famously put his telescope to his blind eye and “did not see” Admiral Parker’s signal to withdraw. In the battle that ensued, he forced the Danes to ask for a ceasefire and surrender. Victory, it appeared, vindicated any misconduct, and at home Nelson was made a viscount.

Battle of Trafalgar
HMS Victory was to be Nelson’s flagship as a commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet, locked in conflict with the navy of a France now led by Emperor Napoleon. By 1804, the French were trying to destroy the Royal Navy, or at least entice it away from the English Channel to give an invasion force a clear run at Britain. But Admiral Villeneuve’s Franco-Spanish fleet was trapped at Toulon. Breaking out eventually, it was pursued south to Cádiz, in Spain, by Nelson, who finally confronted it near to Cape Trafalgar.

Breaking the rules for the final time, Nelson formed his fleet into smaller squadrons in order to outmaneuvre Villeneuve’s traditional line formation. He had the signal flags spell out the message “England expects every man to do his duty.” He was no exception, walking openly on the deck throughout, an inspirational presence to his men— and an irresistible target for the French sniper who finally felled him with a shot. His hero’s death, in the hour of victory, became emblematic of the British spirit of self-sacrifice. His body, having been taken home, was borne up the River Thames on a barge and he was given a splendid state funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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