Why is Nelson a hero? Because he was a captain before he was 21, a man who shaped the course of history from the decks of his ships, hailed as a savior of the nation, a hero killed in action at the moment of his greatest victory at the Battle of Trafalgar and immortalized ever since. What lies beneath the romantic legend? What did he do before he became famous? Why did he fall from grace twice? Did he really put a telescope to his blind eye? What made his leadership special? This book traces Nelson’s spectacular and often controversial career.
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Peter Warwick chairs The 1805 Club, the International Committee for Waterloo 200, The New Waterloo Dispatch, and Thames Alive.
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Horatio Nelson: Pocket Giants
By Peter Warwick
The History PressCopyright © 2015 Peter Warwick
All rights reserved.
A Norfolk Childhood
Let them alone. Little Horace will beat them!
Mrs Catherine Nelson (attributed)
Horatio Nelson was born seven weeks early, on 29 September 1758, in the parsonage house at Burnham Thorpe in north Norfolk. His father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson, was rector of the parish. Although his mother Catherine was proud to be the great-niece of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's first prime minister, his background was by no means grand – he described himself as belonging to a 'middling class of people'. He was christened Horatio after Walpole's son, but to his family he was always known as 'Horace'. There were seven other surviving children in the family and, throughout his life, Nelson appears to have been happiest when surrounded by his siblings. He was at heart a family man and his family was an important source of inner strength.
Life was not easy, especially when his generous, fun-loving and strong-willed mother died on Boxing Day 1767. Her death left the 9-year-old boy emotionally insecure and vulnerable. In middle age he was to say, 'the thought of former days brings all my mother into my heart, which shows itself in my eyes.' Eventually, after three lonely years, he decided he would like to go to sea, possibly seeing the navy as a substitute for the love and domesticity that had died with Catherine. He asked his brother William to write to their maternal uncle, the brave and urbane Captain Maurice Suckling RN, asking him to take the boy aboard with him. Suckling wrote back, 'What has poor little Horace done, who is so weak, that he above all the rest should be sent to rough it at sea? But let him come, and the first time we go into action a cannon ball may knock off his head and provide for him at once.'
There are many tales about 'little Horace', but we have to be very wary of their veracity, since they can frequently be attributed to the vivid imagination of his elder brother William and to his early hagiographers, such as James Stanier Clarke and John McArthur, whose The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson was published four years after his death. It is as if they were compelled to show that from his earliest days there was something special about Nelson. Three of the tales are, however, worth retelling.
Nelson, aged 5, had gone off alone bird's-nesting and failed to return home on time. His anxious family went in search of him. He was found under a hedge, happily admiring his day's collection of eggs. His angry grandmother said she was surprised fear had not driven him home, to which Nelson is supposed to have replied, 'Madam, I never saw fear!'
In January 1770, Nelson, now aged 11, set off with his elder brother, William, to boarding school in North Walsham, some 40 miles away. They were stopped by snowdrifts and came back home. Their father, a strict disciplinarian, admonished them and insisted they try again, this time leaving it to their 'honour' to return only if they found it 'dangerous'. William was all for giving up but Horatio stiffened his resolve with the words, 'Remember, brother. It was left to our honour!'
At Paston School in North Walsham there was a large pear tree close to the schoolhouse. Nelson's classmates lowered him on knotted sheets from the dormitory window into the tree. He picked as many pears as he could and, when safely back inside, handed them to his friends, keeping none for himself. Nelson claimed, 'I took them because every other boy was afraid!'15 In spite of a large reward, none of them informed on him.
Paston School was the second Nelson attended, the first being the Royal Grammar School in Norwich. It was comparatively new and its curriculum was more liberal than was typical at the time. Boys were taught French as well as the Classics. Nelson appears to have enjoyed Shakespeare's plays and often quoted or paraphrased lines from them in his later letters. Henry V was clearly his favourite. Here is the story of a great leader, visionary yet pragmatic, powerful yet responsible. Henry V was Nelson's unwitting guide to the reality of tough decision-making and courageous personal challenge.
Nelson's boyhood experience gave him another crucial attribute. It was one that would guide and influence him for the rest of his life: religious faith. Nelson had an early introduction to religion. He assisted his father at the altar of All Saints' church, Burnham Thorpe, where he even stood as godfather at baptisms. Every night and morning of his life, Nelson knelt in prayer, developing a faith that seldom referred to Jesus Christ or the Trinity. He believed in predestination or providence. It was as if he had a direct line to God.
In his private journal in 1791, he wrote, 'When I lay me down to sleep I recommend myself to the care of Almighty God, and when I awaken I give myself up to His direction amidst all the evils that threaten me.' In one of his letters to Emma Hamilton, composed shortly after the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he wrote, 'I own myself a believer in God, and if I have any merit in not fearing death, it is because I feel that I must fall whenever it is His good pleasure.'
For the thirty-four years of his naval life, his soaring ambition for glory and honour was complemented by a genuine humility before the Almighty.CHAPTER 2
Learning the Ropes
Firstly you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own regarding their propriety. Secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your king; and thirdly you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil.
Horatio Nelson, 1793
The timing was perfect. In 1770, when William Nelson wrote on his brother's behalf to Captain Maurice Suckling, their uncle had recently been appointed to the command of His Majesty's Ship Raisonnable, a 64-gun third-rate battleship of the line recently brought into service because of a threatened war with Spain over the ownership of the Falkland Islands. Suckling invited his 12-year-old nephew to join the ship at the royal dockyard at Chatham. The entry in the Raisonnable's muster book for 24 April 1771 records, 'Horace Nelson, Midshipman'. Nelson's extreme youth was typical for the time. It must, nevertheless, have been a tremendous shock for him to move suddenly from the quiet rural life of a Norfolk coastal village to the cramped, crowded, dark and dangerous world of an eighteenth-century warship, with sights, sounds and smells all unfamiliar to him, and doubly so since his uncle was not there to greet him. Nelson spent his first few days in this strange wooden world alone and homesick.
His stay in Raisonnable was short lived: the Falklands crisis abated. Suckling wisely removed his nephew to a merchantman, the Mary Ann, for sea experience. The episode had one unintended consequence, which Nelson described:
I returned a practical seaman, with a horror of the Royal Navy, and with a saying then constant with the seamen, 'Aft the most honour, forward the better man!' It was many weeks before I got in the least reconciled to a man-of-war, so deep was the prejudice rooted, and what pains were taken to instill this erroneous principle in a young mind.
It was a raw experience but it had a beneficial impact on the evolution of Nelson's leadership style.
He returned to the naval service because, being a structured service, it offered a hierarchy for promotion and, more importantly for Nelson, the opportunity for glory and heroism. The success of his apprenticeship, nevertheless, rested upon 'interest' – and this meant the support of Maurice Suckling. He seems to have planned a variety of experiences for his nephew, including keeping him out of the big ships of the line, so that the young Nelson's independent spirit could have free rein, giving his individuality every opportunity to assert itself.
Nelson's aim, as with all midshipmen, was to complete the six years of sea service which would then allow him to sit for his lieutenant's exam – a critical and essential step in any young officer's naval career. Nelson needed to be a practical seaman if he was to rise to the top of his profession. In the Royal Navy this skill came before social respectability. It meant 'learning the ropes' in order to acquire all-round competence in boat and ship handling; inshore, coastal and ocean navigation; weather and sea conditions; and all the activities of an able seaman. This technical knowledge was the basis for respect when assuming the responsibility of command: Nelson could always claim that he had done whatever he asked others to do.
Nelson's earliest experience of command came at the age of 14 when he was put in charge of a ship's boat near Chatham with a crew of fifteen grown men. The waters of the Thames Estuary became very familiar to him. The experience made him 'confident of myself amongst rocks and sands, which has many times since been of great comfort to me', as the battles of the Nile and Copenhagen, both fought in shoals, were to show. Thorough practice was the key to success, and Suckling's interest ensured that Nelson was placed on voyages to the Arctic, the Indian Ocean and the West Indies.
The Arctic was Nelson's first real taste of adventure. This was the age of exploration and in 1773 an expedition, commanded by Commodore Constantine Phipps, set sail under the joint auspices of the navy and the Royal Society. Two bomb vessels, Racehorse and Carcass, were fitted out in an attempt to reach the North Pole. It would be a risky voyage and Phipps was ordered to recruit only 'effective men'. Such a request would seem to preclude a boy of 14. Nelson's uncle lied, however, about his nephew's age. Also, according to Nelson, 'I fancied I was to fill a man's place. I begged to be his coxswain,' to which, 'finding my ardent desire for going with him', the captain of the Carcass, Skeffington Lutwidge, agreed. Later Nelson was to write that he had been given charge of the Carcass's four-oared cutter and twelve crew, 'and prided myself in fancying I could navigate her better than any other boat in the ship'.
The ice was particularly thick that summer and the ships only managed to get to 80° 48' N, a little to the north-east of Spitzbergen. There they were held fast by the ice and were in real danger. For one moment it looked as if they would have to abandon the ships and take to the small boats, dragging them across the ice. Fortunately, the temperature rose and the ice loosened its grip, allowing the expedition to return to Great Yarmouth. Nelson had enjoyed a rare experience, fed his restless energy and boosted his seamanship skills and growing self-confidence. He had also had a brush with a polar bear!
The story of this encounter, on 4 August 1773, has become part of the Nelson legend. Surprisingly, Nelson makes no reference to it himself, nor does the ship's log record it, other than to say that 'a bear came close to the ship on the ice, but on the people's going towards him he went away'. It was left to others to take the rudimentary facts of the tale, embroidering and exaggerating them as they saw fit, to highlight Nelson's bravery. There are many versions. They are all apocryphal, but the core version must be told. It seems that Nelson and another daring shipmate left the ship so that he could kill an approaching bear and get the skin for his father. Nelson's musket misfired but, ignoring the entreaties of his companion, he attempted to cross the chasm in the ice that separated them from their prey so that he could beat the bear to death with the butt end of his musket. They were spotted from the ship, through a swirling mist, and a signal gun was fired for them to return. The bear was frightened away and a despondent Nelson returned to face an angry Captain Lutwidge.
Within one week of returning from his six months in the Arctic, Nelson had been entered by his uncle Captain Suckling onto the books of the old 24-gun frigate Seahorse, commanded by Captain George Farmer and bound for a voyage to the East Indies via the Cape of Good Hope, the furthest and most exotic station maintained by the Royal Navy. Nelson was delighted. As well as the tales of Hawke and Wolfe, he had been raised on the romance of Clive of India's victories.
At sea for two years, he sailed the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Straits of Hormuz and the Bay of Bengal, becoming familiar with places such as Bombay, Goa, Madras, Muscat and Trincomalee. It must have been an intoxicating experience for the teenage boy. It was also his introduction to the more brutal side of the Royal Navy. The Seahorse was not a happy ship, largely because her first lieutenant was a drunkard who often defied Captain Farmer's authority. He was eventually court-martialled and dismissed, but Nelson saw at first hand how a captain reliant on gratuitous punishment created an atmosphere of disharmony. In less than two years there were nearly a hundred floggings. Brutality was no substitute for strong leadership. Nelson kept out of trouble and was complimented on his sailing abilities. He even saw action for the first time when, on 19 February 1775, the Seahorse intercepted, fired on and eventually boarded two enemy ketches chasing a British East Indiaman.
One year later, now aged 18, Nelson fell dangerously ill with malaria and had to be invalided back to England. He had lost the use of his limbs, was emaciated and hovered between life and death. It was during the five-month voyage home in the leaking Dolphin that he underwent what can be best described as a quasi-spiritual experience which brought him back from the brink. He claimed to have been visited by a 'radiant orb' which brought a feeling of exultation. In his words:
I felt impressed with an idea that I should never rise in my profession. My mind was staggered with a view of the difficulties I had to surmount and the little 'interest' I possessed. I could discover no means of reaching the object of my ambition. After a long and gloomy reverie, in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me, and presented my king and country as my patron. My mind exulted in the idea. 'Well then,' I exclaimed, 'I will be a hero, and confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger.'
Thereafter he was fearless for his own fate.
The "little 'interest'" was there ready to help him once again. Suckling, who had also advanced in the service and was now Comptroller of the Navy, placed Nelson as acting lieutenant aboard the 64-gun Worcester, so that he could complete his sea time and go on to sit his lieutenant's exam. This he did, successfully, on 5 April 1777. Nelson was now a professional sailor.
Suckling had done a good job. In four years his protégé had sailed 45,000 miles, gained a wide range of experiences in many different ships and locations, seen action and danger, suffered loneliness and the tedium of long sea voyages and had been required to use his initiative on an almost daily basis. The experience had encouraged Nelson's independence, energy and ambition and deepened his awareness of the fundamentals of leadership.
The next step was to make captain. This he achieved just three months short of his twenty-first birthday on 1 September 1779. The intervening two years were formative. Nelson was commissioned initially as second lieutenant of the Lowestoffe, a crack 32-gun frigate on the West Indies station during the War of American Independence. It was commanded by the well-read and knowledgeable William Locker, who bore the injuries of hand-to-hand fighting and had been with Hawke at Quiberon Bay in 1759. Hawke's dash, confidence and aggression had determined Locker's own naval philosophy, which he now passed on to the receptive and impressionable Nelson. They served together for only thirteen months, but remained close friends afterwards. Locker's influence on Nelson as a fighting man was seminal. As Nelson wrote lovingly to him many years later following his stunning victory at the Nile:
You, my old friend, after twenty-seven years acquaintance know that nothing can alter my attachment and gratitude to you. I have been your scholar. It is you who taught me to board a Frenchman, by your conduct ... It is you who always told, 'Lay a Frenchman close, and you will beat him', and my only merit in my profession is being a good scholar. Our friendship will never end but with my life.
Within a year Locker had given Nelson command of the small schooner which acted as the Lowestoffe's tender. Less than a year later he was promoted to master and commander, which entitled him to his first independent command, even if it was only of the tiny, worn-out, armed brig Badger. In it he cruised the Caribbean and at one point oversaw the defence of Kingston, Jamaica, which was threatened by the French fleet under Admiral d'Estaing.
Six months later Nelson was 'made post', achieving the rank of full captain and given command of a sixth-rate ship of the line, the 28-gun frigate Hinchinbroke. A lieutenant held the courtesy title of captain if in command of an unrated ship but, on being given command of a rated ship, he was made post captain. Promotion would now follow automatically and, being young, Nelson could expect eventually to become an admiral by virtue of seniority on the list, irrespective of ability. He had been promoted over the heads of more senior colleagues. Moreover, he had served as lieutenant for less than three years and had not been absorbed into the strict hierarchy of the wardroom. His natural independence still had free rein.
Sadly, Maurice Suckling never witnessed his nephew's achievement, which he had done so much to help bring about. He died in July 1777. Nelson was now without 'interest' and would have to make his own way.
Excerpted from Horatio Nelson: Pocket Giants by Peter Warwick. Copyright © 2015 Peter Warwick. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: In Search of Nelson 7
1 A Norfolk Childhood 19
2 Learning the Ropes 25
3 Frigate Captain 35
4 America and the West Indies 41
5 The Mediterranean 55
6 Cape St Vincent 65
7 The Battle of the Nile 75
8 Naples 83
9 Emma 91
10 Copenhagen 97
11 Trafalgar 103
12 Immortal Memory 113
Further Reading 127
Web Links 128