Today is the birthday (1758) of Horatio Nelson, aka 1st Viscount Nelson, aka 1st Duke of Bronté, KB, a Royal Navy officer still well known for his inspirational leadership, grasp of strategy, and unconventional tactics, which together resulted in a number of decisive British naval victories, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. He was wounded several times in combat, losing the sight in one eye in Corsica at the age of 36, as well as most of his right arm in the unsuccessful attempt to conquer Santa Cruz de Tenerife when he was 40 years of age. He was shot and killed at the age of 47 during his final victory at the Battle of Trafalgar near the Spanish port city of Cádiz in 1805.
Nelson was born into a moderately prosperous Norfolk family and joined the navy through the influence of his uncle, Maurice Suckling, a high-ranking naval officer himself. Nelson rose rapidly through the ranks and served with leading naval commanders of the period before obtaining his own command at the age of 20 in 1778. He developed a reputation in the service through his personal valor and firm grasp of tactics but suffered periods of illness and unemployment after the end of the American War of Independence. The outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars allowed Nelson to return to service, where he was particularly active in the Mediterranean. He fought in several minor engagements off Toulon and was noteworthy in the capture of Corsica and subsequent diplomatic duties with the Italian states. In 1797, he distinguished himself while in command of HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St Vincent.
Shortly after the battle, Nelson took part in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where the attack was defeated and the loss of his right arm forced him to return to England to recuperate. The following year he won a decisive victory over the French at the Battle of the Nile and remained in the Mediterranean to support the Kingdom of Naples against a French invasion. In 1801 he was dispatched to the Baltic and won another victory, this time over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen (where he legendarily put his telescope to his blind eye and refused to take account of the admiral’s signal to discontinue action – “turning a blind eye”). He subsequently commanded the blockade of the French and Spanish fleets at Toulon and, after their escape, chased them to the West Indies and back but failed to bring them to battle. After a brief return to England he took over the Cádiz blockade in 1805. On 21st October 1805, the Franco-Spanish fleet came out of port, and Nelson’s fleet engaged them at the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle was Britain’s greatest naval victory but during the action Nelson, aboard HMS Victory, was fatally wounded by a French sharpshooter. His body was brought back to England where he was accorded a state funeral.
Nelson’s death at Trafalgar secured his position as one of Britain’s most heroic figures. The significance of the victory and his death during the battle led to his signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, being regularly quoted, paraphrased and referenced up to the modern day. Numerous monuments, including Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, London, and the Nelson Monument in Edinburgh, have been created in his memory and his legacy remains highly influential.
Trafalgar was a major turning point in the Napoleonic Wars because without a fleet, Napoleon could not defend his flotilla of boats packed with soldiers and ready to cross the English Channel to invade England. Britain, by contrast, with its complete control of the seas, could easily dispatch troops and materiel to the continent at will. After Trafalgar, Napoleon had to shift his goals substantially, and, in hindsight, his ultimate doom was cast.
As a teen I was a huge naval buff, with no end of interest in Nelson. It’s rather sad that I could have written full essays on all the naval battles of the Napoleonic Wars, yet not one came up on my O-level or A-level history papers which covered the period. Fictional captains such as Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey who are thinly disguised versions of Nelson in some ways, while they replicate his naval skills, are not at all like him temperamentally. His narcissism was well known to all, and may well have caused his demise in battle. He had several prominent stars on the breast of his uniform, and going into battle he refused to cover them up – making him a clear target on the quarterdeck. Early 19th century muskets were not terribly accurate, but it was only a matter of time before a marksman aloft in an enemy ship picked him off. If he had worn a plain blue coat, he might well have been spared.
His publicly conducted affair with Lady Hamilton while both he and she were married was a notorious scandal which he made no effort to hide. My take on the matter is that his marriage to Fanny, which was childless, was an expedience, and his affair with Lady Hamilton, which produced a daughter, was genuine love. His lack of tact or discretion in regards to the affair were almost certainly an outcome of his self-assured vanity.
Before Trafalgar, Nelson put in a special order for raisins and suet, strongly suggesting that the sailors had spotted dick for dinner before heading into battle. You’ll find the recipe here https://www.bookofdaystales.com/trafalgar-day/ where I celebrate Trafalgar itself. I have also made mention many times of the rum ration in the Royal Navy, so here’s a classic West Indies rum cake.