Nelson, who was he?

A few months ago, when the Americans were having a collective national mental breakdown in denying their own history and wantonly destroying statues of former civil war heroes, the rest of the world looked on in utter disbelief at such childish, spiteful, petulant, downright stupidity and wondered, have the Americans never heard of the words of their very own philosopher, George Santayana, who gave them some good advice in the words, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

American Activists destroy a statue of a Confederate soldier by kicking it to pieces, in Baltimore.

Of course, at the present time, Santayana is being proved absolutely correct as it appears from outside looking in, that the Americans are fighting bitterly amongst themselves and appear determined to not only destroy their Civil War history but are also hell-bent on destroying the formerly successful republic they have spent three centuries building up.

A little later that same week, I watched an American TV news channel, broadcasting from the heart of London, concerning the same subject, which they described as wiping out the memory of Black oppression and slave ownership. The reporter was standing in Trafalgar Square and claimed to be asking British people if there were any statues of famous British people that should also be torn down.

Trafalgar Square and Nelson’s Column, one of the best-known sights in London.

The reporter asked one woman if for example the statue of Admiral Lord Nelson, which was in view behind her, should be taken down. The woman who spoke with what sounded like an English accent, but wasn’t asked and didn’t volunteer what her nationality was, replied: “Yes if he was a slave owner then the statue should be torn down.” At the time I was absolutely gob-smacked, stunned beyond belief, could, I wondered to myself, the ‘good old British public’ have really lost their sense of history, lost the plot to the extent that they could think a famous Admiral could have been a slave owner in a country that never had slaves in the first place. That an English person, standing at the foot of Nelson’s column, in Trafalgar Square would not know who Nelson was and what part he played in the glorious history of modern Britain, was beyond my understanding. Later after analysing what was said I reasoned that the whole thing was in fact, false news, a set up by the American TV crew to try to spread the blame for their insane, out of control Civil War hysteria on to other nations and perhaps spread the disease and the insanity and generate some news that didn’t really exist.

For those of us who regard George Santayana’s words as a good motto to live by, I’d like to say a few words in support of Admiral Lord Nelson, who quite obviously, for anyone of you who isn’t sure, was not a slave owner but was undoubtedly the greatest sailor in British history and in fact, in the whole world.

Horatio Nelson was born in Norfolk on the 27th of September 1758, the son of a country parson with a large family and he was sent to sea at the tender age of twelve, as a cabin boy in a 64 gun warship commanded by his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. Nelson was a small ailing delicate child but survived the rough sea-life and eventually thrived on being at sea despite the oft-told story that on his first day on board ship he was seasick while at anchor at Spithead. By the time he was 18, he had completed two years at sea as a Midshipman and had passed the necessary examinations to become a lieutenant.

Nelson aged 18.

For the following five years he was continuously engaged in the great naval war which followed the American Declaration of Independence when a hard-pressed Britain faced a coalition of European naval powers attempting to take advantage of Britain’s quarrel with her colony. While still aged 18 he was promoted to his first command and by the time that war ended he was 22 and a Post Captain.

At the age of 28, he married a young widow called Fanny Nesbit, but the marriage was never a success and after his ship was paid off in a rare ‘time of peace’, under Prime Minister William Pitt in 1787, he was obliged to retire to the family home in Norfolk. As a half pay Officer, ‘On the beach’ as the expression of that time would have it. For the next five long years, he ate his heart out for the sea and some action, while he assisted on his father’s farm. However, unexpectedly in 1793, the French Revolutionary War broke out under Napoleon Bonaparte, and Nelson was given command of a 64 gunned ship, Agamemnon, a Battleship of its day.

From that moment on Horatio Nelson went on to fight and win sea battle after sea battle for Britain and exhibited great personal courage in sometimes, sword in hand, leading his men to board, to capture enemy ships. He took part in many famous encounters that are part of Royal Navy’s and Britain’s glorious past, battles that are too numerous to mention in this short article, but it has to be said, suffered for his bravery.

Nelson in his regalia.

In one battle he lost the sight from his right eye, during an assault on Corsica, in another encounter he lost his right arm during an attack on Santa Cruz and in another he was hit in the head by shrapnel which concussed him and cut a large flap of skin from his forehead which fell down over his good eye making him think, when he came around, he had been totally blinded. Along with the victories and the wounds came promotion to Commodore and then Admiral and a knighthood from a grateful nation until of course, in his last sea battle he lost his life.

Admiral Lord Nelson, atop his Column in Trafalgar Square.

It is true to say that Admiral Lord Nelson was loved by the officers and men who served under him and his death was a great sorrow not only for the Royal Navy but to the whole British nation who eventually built a memorial column in a central London square which they named after his famous last victory and put his statue right at the top so that Londoners and visitors to that great city, are left in no doubt, why and for whom the memorial was raised.

Although Nelson was dead, his spirit very much remained alive and could be said to have carried on down the centuries into today’s navy, in such little things as remembered sayings. In the navy, there is a well-known saying, “the Nelson Touch” which refers to a bold and imaginative tactic, which today we might describe as thinking outside the box. Although Nelson died his deeds, words and famous flag signals remain legendary in the hearts of British seafarers.

The clothes Nelson was wearing when he died.

The 21st of October 1805 was the glorious fatal day that the fleet of the Royal Navy under Admiral Nelson, in his Flagship Victory, with 27 ships met the combined Spanish and French Fleets, under the French Admiral Villeneuve, with 33 ships including the massive three-decker Santissima Trinidad with 130 guns, in the open sea off Cape Trafalgar. As a matter of interest HMS Victory is still in existence, being the oldest commissioned warship in the world and now lies preserved in the Royal Dockyard Portsmouth where there is also a Nelson museum, with amongst other things, the clothes Nelson was wearing when he died and the fore topsail of Victory that she carried during the battle, complete with cannonball holes and it is open to visitors and very well worth a look.

HMS Victory on permanent display at Portsmouth Dockyard

Before battle could be joined, Nelson decided to hoist up signal flags to encourage and amuse the men to fight gallantly and decided on “Nelson confides that every man shall do his duty”. However, the Signal Officer pointed out to the Admiral there was no signal flag code for the word confides so each letter would need to be spelt out, making the message long and difficult to read. Nelson then changed the signal to “England expects every man to do his duty” which became the most famous flag signal ever flown.

The flags flown in Nelson’s famous signal.

Later during the heat of battle, Nelson hoisted his favourite signal “engage the enemy more closely” which remained flying throughout the battle. The battle raged on all day but by the evening the British, due to their superior training and faster rate of cannon fire, were victorious, capturing or sinking eighteen enemy ships without losing a single British vessel and at a stroke ending Bonapart’s dream of invading and conquering England.

At the height of the battle, Lord Nelson, who had insisted on wearing his full regalia so became a target for the French, was fatally wounded by a sharpshooter, firing from the main-top of the French flagship Redoubtable. The musket ball entered through Lord Nelson’s left shoulder passed down through his lung and shattered his spine, causing an injury that soon proved fatal

A painting by Arthur William Devis, of Nelson lying dying in the Orlop, or overlapping deck with Captain Hardy standing, and William Beatty the Surgeon holding Nelson’s wrist

Before he died, Nelson was quite lucid and asked for news of the battle and even spoke of his mistress Lady Hamilton and his young daughter Horatia. It is often reported that Nelson’s last words were “kiss me Hardy”, or alternatively “Kismet Hardy”, implying that to die at the very moment of victory was fate or kismet. However, neither is quite correct. Although the Admiral did say “kiss me Hardy” to the Captain of the Victory, who did kiss the Admiral on the cheek, before going back on deck to control the battle. Nelson actually died repeating the words, “thank God I have done my duty.”

A replica of the ball in the Windsor Museum.

Once the Admiral had passed away, it was realised that his body would have to be preserved in order to take it back to England for a State funeral and it was decided that this could be done by completely immersing the body in spirit and a barrel of captured French Cognac was put aside for the purpose, but first the Surgeon, William Beatty, decided to remove the musket ball from Nelson’s spine, have it mounted in a gold watch case and later presented it to the King who placed it in the little Royal Museum at Windsor Castle, where it still resides to this day.

Once the surgeon was finished with his grisly task, the Admirals body was stripped and trussed up in the foetal position and then placed head first into the Cognac where it remained for the trip back to England. Legend has it that when the body, perfectly preserved, was removed from the cask, the sailors were allowed to drink what was left of the Cognac. Over the years the story has been told and re-told and as happens with such re-tellings, the Cognac, the drink of the hated French, became, rum the favourite drink of British sailors, so that is why old sailors, such as I, refer to rum as Nelson’s blood.

So if you live in Britain, whether you were born there or not, and are in Trafalgar Square under Nelson’s column and you know nothing about Lord Nelson or think he may have been a slave owner, then shame on you and your lack of pride in your British heritage. Nelson and many men and women like them are responsible for the freedoms you enjoy as a matter of everyday life in Britain allowing you to go out and drink a pint of beer and eat some roast beef and Yorkshire puddings and are not compelled to drink wine and eat frog’s legs and snails, as you would be doing if the French had won at Trafalgar.


FOOTNOTE. You may have gathered from this article that I am an admirer of Lord Nelson and his determination to fight for Britain, but I not only admire the famous Admiral but also the countless men, many of whom were ‘pressed’ into service, women and children who served aboard the King’s ships of Nelson’s Navy.

A model of an 1805 cannon in action, with the gun captain (right) a female powder monkey and a young lad, about to hand a paper cartridge containing gunpowder to the loader.

The story of the women and children is seldom told and the Navy virtually ignored them, until the time of battle, when they were required to stand and fight alongside the men, as powder monkeys, carrying gunpowder charges from the magazines to the guns, or if they had strong hearts and even stronger stomachs, they became Surgeon’s assistance, helping with amputations and disposing of the dead over the side. There is a report of a female powder monkey going into labour during the battle and while Nelson lay dying in the orlop deck she gave birth in a magazine. When much later the British Government struck a medal for all those who had taken part in the Battle of Trafalgar, many women applied to receive the medal. In accordance with the Government’s and the Navy’s ambivalent attitude toward women at sea, all were refused.


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