Nelson in the Caribbean : The Hero Emerges, 1784-1787


Nelson's years in the West Indies as the young captain of the frigate HMS Boreas were an important period of the hero's life that both shaped and predicted his role as a major player on history's stage. Yet even the best Nelson biographies have not significantly explored that formative period. In this new study, by an admiral in the U.S. Navy whose two other books on Nelson have established his reputation in the field, we see critical elements of Nelson's character emerge, elements that carried him through his ...
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Nelson's years in the West Indies as the young captain of the frigate HMS Boreas were an important period of the hero's life that both shaped and predicted his role as a major player on history's stage. Yet even the best Nelson biographies have not significantly explored that formative period. In this new study, by an admiral in the U.S. Navy whose two other books on Nelson have established his reputation in the field, we see critical elements of Nelson's character emerge, elements that carried him through his legendary actions at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.

Joseph Callo gives readers a full understanding of the challenges in leadership Nelson faced in the mid-1780s. It was a time of career-threatening conflict-with local British officials, the local populace, and even his own naval commander-that forced Nelson to decide if he was going to do what he considered the right thing or what almost everyone else wanted him to do. Callo further explains how under these turbulent circumstances Nelson met his future wife, Fanny Nisbet, and how their relationship influenced his behavior throughout his extraordinary career. While the romantic elements of this book add to its "Hornblower" appeal and give much needed balance and perspective to Nisbet's character, Callo's overall analysis of the period will appeal to a broad audience of readers, not just Nelson devotees. A foreword by the well-known Nelson scholar Stephen Howarth and a collection of woodcuts from a rare Nelson book, plus illustrations from the maritime museum in Greenwich, England, enhance the text.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781557502063
  • Publisher: Naval Institute Press
  • Publication date: 10/28/2002
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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Nelson in the Caribbean

The Hero Emerges, 1784-1787
By Joseph F. Callo

Naval Institute Press

Copyright © 2003 Joseph F. Callo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1557502064

Chapter One

Pivot Point of a Career

He will one day astonish the world.


"On last Friday I was commissioned for the Boreas, in Long Reach ... and I am also sorry to say that the same day gave me an ague and fever, which has returned every other day since, and pulled me down most astonishingly."

That matter-of-fact statement about his new command, with its quick and negative association with an ague and fever, was written from London on 23 March 1784 by then-captain Horatio Nelson. The letter was addressed to his former commanding officer and mentor, Captain William Locker. After the decidedly pessimistic beginning of his letter Nelson went on to say that he was going to be assigned to the West Indies; this definitely was not his first choice for his next tour of duty, and the letter lacked any of the enthusiasm that might be expected as a young captain anticipated a new command at sea.


Before his assignment to HMS Boreas, a 28-gun frigate, and the West Indies Station, Nelson had served an active tour as captain of HMS Albemarle. He began that assignment in 1782 with a trans-Atlantic convoyto Quebec, and following the delivery of the convoy he captured several prizes in the waters off the Canadian coast. Unfortunately-and for reasons never clearly established-the captured ships and their prize crews never reached port, denying Nelson the prize money the captures would have yielded. That financial loss would have an indirect bearing on his marriage a few years later on the Caribbean island of Nevis.

Also during Nelson's command of Albemarle he met and fell in love with a young woman in Quebec; the brief romance nearly had a disastrous impact on his naval career. Later in the course of his assignment in Albemarle he had occasion to meet Admiral Lord Hood and Prince William Henry; and each would be a factor in Nelson's West Indies tour of duty, in one case during the tour and in the other case in its immediate aftermath.


When his orders to Boreas and the West Indies materialized, Nelson had been hoping for an assignment to the Jamaica Station, where he believed there was an opportunity for career-enhancing action. And if Jamaica was not to be his next duty assignment, then he hoped it would be the East Indies, where he could serve under his friend, Commodore William Cornwallis.

But Nelson's initial lack of eagerness for the Caribbean assignment belied the importance of events to come in the West Indies. As it turned out, the assignment to Boreas marked the beginning of a unique three-year period in his career, a period far more important than it would appear from the limited attention it generally receives in accounts of his life. A more careful examination of that three-year span in Nelson's career leads to a new and expanded understanding of the naval officer who shaped the course of history from the decks of his ships.

Interestingly Nelson himself underplayed the significance of the period in his autobiographical "Sketch of My Life." That brief account, written in 1799 for the Naval Chronicle, and then revised by the early Nelson biographers, James Stanier Clarke and John M'Arthur, in their 1809 biography, contained only two meager paragraphs about his West Indies assignment of 1784-87. And those two paragraphs touched on only one subject, his controversial enforcement of a series of maritime laws designed to protect British trade.

Omitted were a number of other noteworthy events, including a career-threatening controversy over his authority as second in naval command on the station; the courting of his future wife, Frances Nisbet; their marriage; his activities while Prince William Henry was serving as a captain under his command; and a troublesome pardon for a seaman sentenced to hang by a court-martial convened and headed by Nelson himself. Each of those events, and others that occurred during the same three years, was much more than a simple milestone along a career path. Each experience left an imprint on Nelson's character, and his reactions to the various circumstances provide clues to how he would behave as his career developed through more attention-getting phases in the future.

Tom Pocock, respected Nelson biographer, neatly captured how Nelson's tour in the West Indies both shaped and predicted his history-making life: "American waters made Horatio Nelson the man he became." The Americas, according to Pocock, were the place where Nelson learned "to lead men and love women; to gamble for the highest prizes of fame and fortune with his own future as the stake." And although Pocock was referring in that discerning statement to an entire series of Nelson's early assignments in all of the Americas from Canada to the Equator, his observation has particular validity when applied to Nelson's assignment in the West Indies.


The debilitating combination of ague and fever Nelson described to his friend, Captain Locker, was only the first of a series of disquieting events, incidents that set the tone for difficult situations in his approaching assignment. The second of those disagreeable events was, by any naval officer's view, one of a captain's worst nightmares. The ship's log indicates that the date was 11 April-with Nelson just recently abcard his new command, and shortly after they left Woolwich Dockyard in London-when a pilot ran Boreas aground. The embarrassment of the captain and his crew was compounded by the fact that at low tide it was possible for onlookers to actually walk around the stranded ship. A frustrated and angry Nelson referred to the agent of his anguish as "the damned pilot." But of greater importance than the palpable embarrassment of Nelson and his crew, sailors of the Age of Sail were notoriously superstitious, and the grounding surely would have been considered a bad omen by those preparing Boreas for her coming deployment.

Several weeks after that piloting misadventure Nelson wrote to the Admiralty from the Downs about a very different problem, one that occurred when he reached that anchorage on his way to Portsmouth from the Nore anchorage in the Thames estuary. He reported: "[S]ixteen of His Majesty's Subjects were detained by force, on board of a Dutch Indiaman, upon which I demanded and received them on board. The master of the Ship has refused, notwithstanding all arguments that I could make use of ... to give up their chests, upon pretence they are in debt to the Ship."

The situation Nelson described was politically sticky, the kind of unanticipated distraction a youthful and ambitious commanding officer definitely did not need as he readied his ship and crew for a transatlantic voyage to an important operational theater. As evidence of his own awareness of the potential for trouble in the diplomatically sensitive situation, Nelson hastened to add in his report to his seniors at the Admiralty that he was showing "every politeness and attention" to the Dutch captain.

Undeterred by the political sensitivity of the situation, Nelson immediately took firm action by cutting off all entrance to and egress from the Dutch ship. Then, after the fact, he sought official approval with a letter to the Admiralty. His reaction to the problem with the Dutch captain presaged his aggressive approach to immensely more serious political situations to come in the Caribbean, when again he would act first and seek approval afterward. This was a quickly passing but important example of a developing characteristic, one that involved immediately seizing the initiative in a situation, rather than waiting for official direction or further events to determine the course to be taken.

This inclination to snatch the initiative in circumstances ranging from legal matters to issues involving naval precedence was to be tested and then reinforced during the next few years in the Caribbean. And during those years that inclination would harden into an important element of Nelson's personality. Eventually, as Nelson's career developed, that element, combined with other developing traits, emerged as part of a winning battle doctrine. It was his combat doctrine, even more than Nelson's tactics, that carried him through the momentous victories he achieved during the historic final years of his career at the Battles of the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.

On the same day that Nelson wrote to the Admiralty, the Dutch captain relented, and the chests were surrendered to their British owners. Nelson's quick and firm action achieved the desired results: The British seamen had their freedom and their belongings, and the Admiralty was spared a potentially awkward situation with a nation with which it had delicate relations.

Nelson's comment on the confrontation, in another letter to Captain Locker, anticipated some of the difficulties to come in his new assignment, and even of events to follow his command of Boreas. He wrote: "IT]he admiralty fortunately have approved my conduct ... a thing they are not very guilty of where there is a likelihood of a scrape." This critical view of the Admiralty's frequent lack of support for captains willing to make difficult decisions on distant stations was penetratingly accurate. Over the course of Nelson's often-controversial career he found himself in a variety of career-threatening "scrapes." One such difficult situation was only a matter of months away, when he would set himself in rancorous opposition to the civilian officials, plantation owners, merchants, customs agents, and even his own naval commander in the West Indies.


After reaching Portsmouth, there were more irritations. One was Nelson's own brother, Reverend William Nelson, who was convinced that he wanted to be a Navy chaplain and that Nelson should accept him in that billet in Boreas. Nelson had diplomatically but unsuccessfully tried to convince his brother that he was not cut out for life at sea, but he finally relented and signed him on as his ship's chaplain. As it turned out, the realities of a transatlantic voyage did what Nelson had failed to do: they convinced Reverend Nelson that his future lay ashore. As a result, William returned to England shortly after his arrival in the Caribbean, but for the short term, he was yet another nagging distraction for Boreas's commander.

In addition-something else that Nelson had mentioned in his March letter to Locker-the wife of Admiral Sir Richard Hughes, Nelson's new commander-in-chief in the West Indies, along with their daughter and thirty supernumerary midshipmen, were among Boreas's passengers for the month-long transit. On the one hand, Nelson, who always was attentive toward and protective of the midshipmen aboard his ships, probably did not mind having the additional young men underfoot. In fact, later in his letter of 23 March, he asked Locker,"[I]s there any young gentlemen you wish me to take?" On the other hand, he made it clear that he was not looking forward to weeks at sea with what he later referred to as the "eternal clack" of his admiral's wife.

To make matters worse, Lady Hughes was in a search mode to find a suitable husband for her less-than-beautiful daughter. And that latter circumstance was a potentially career-bending situation for Nelson, who perhaps was the most attractive target of opportunity for the solicitous mother during the many weeks of their voyage. Adding to Nelson's irritation at having to carry Lady Hughes and her daughter to the West Indies was the considerable expense that he, as captain, had to bear to transport them to their destination. That it was common practice for a captain to bear such an expense was little consolation to one who lived on his modest Navy pay. As it turned out, however, Nelson's initial contact with the admiral's wife later paid important dividends.

Finally, as Nelson prepared for deployment, there was a somewhat bizarre event in Portsmouth that had nothing to do with seagoing matters. A horse Nelson was riding bolted, and after an uncontrolled gallop through the town and environs, Nelson was forced to leap from the saddle to prevent serious injury to himself or possibly even death. Perhaps the worst aspect of the situation was that he had been riding with a young woman whose horse also bolted and whom another young man rescued. Although visualizing the scene of Nelson aboard his uncontrollable mount has its humorous aspects, no doubt the damage to Nelson's ego was as real as the bruises to his back and leg resulting from his desperate leap to safety from the back of the frenzied horse.

After the foregoing series of events, all of which added up to an inauspicious beginning for Nelson's third frigate assignment, Boreas departed for the West Indies on 17 May 1784. And it is not difficult to imagine how those irksome weeks leading up to his departure for the West Indies could be unsettling to the ambitious young officer with a burgeoning professional reputation.


Without a doubt Nelson was a rising star in his profession; he already had commanded three ships in His Majesty's Navy by the time he was appointed at age twenty-five to the command of Boreas. The previous commands included the brig, HMS Badger; the 28-gun frigate, HMS Hinchinbrooke; and the 28-gun frigate, HMS Albemarle. Hinchinbrooke was his first command as a post captain, a rank that he reached at the age of twenty. Nelson's achievement of post-captain rank at that age was noteworthy for several reasons. First, he was somewhat young for promotion to that rank; second, he had as yet no significant seagoing combat experience, which was usually a prerequisite for promotion to post captain. That Nelson had reached that rank under those circumstances was an indication of his growing reputation for leadership and his high standing at the Admiralty.


Excerpted from Nelson in the Caribbean by Joseph F. Callo Copyright © 2003 by Joseph F. Callo
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Acknowledgments xv
Part 1 The Place
1 Pivot Point of a Career 3
2 World within a World 19
3 Sea of Contention 36
4 Local Perspective 48
Part 2 The Time
5 Geopolitical Factors 63
6 Troubled Waters 76
7 Legal Morass 92
8 The Schomberg Affair 104
9 Fraud and Pardon 115
Part 3 The Woman
10 The Predecessors 127
11 A Young Widow 142
12 Courtship 153
13 Marriage 163
14 Aftermath 176
Conclusion 189
Chronology 197
Notes 209
Bibliography 217
Index 223
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