Viscount Nelson of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe
|Born||September 29, 1758|
|Died||October 21, 1805|
Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson was the greatest admiral in British history, and victor in the Battle of Trafalgar which destroyed the French and Spanish fleets in 1805; this was also the battle in which he lost his life. A top British naval commander during the Napoleonic Wars with France, he key roles in the victories at the battles of the Nile (1798) and Copenhagen (1801). He was also known for the scandal concerning his famous love affair with Lady Emma Hamilton.
Horatio Nelson was the sixth of eleven children born to Edmund and Catherine Nelson. His father was a poor Anglican minister but his mother was the sister of the Duke of Oxford, a very wealthy aristicrat who controlled the Royal Navy. When the mother died, the duke took the boy, aged twelve, to sea.
He was a slight boy, not physically strong, and often sick, but at every opportunity he would seize the initiative and learn all he could. He had to learn how ships operate, and as a midshipman, how to lead men. But there were also times for adventure, such as his first voyage to the West Indies and a scientific expedition to the Arctic in 1773, where, on the ice, he stood up to an advancing polar bear; the crew drove it away and Nelson was reprimanded for leaving the ship without authorization.
By age 20, he was promoted to captain, the youngest officer to hold that rank in the Royal Navy, and was given command of a frigate, taking part in operations against the Spanish in what is now Nicaragua. Although the attack on San Juan was successful, it proved to be costly in the weeks afterward, as nearly the entire British force succumbed to yellow fever.
In 1783 he was back in England, and given the command of another frigate the following year. Sailing again for the West Indies, he strictly enforced the Navigation Act, with the unfortunate result of making enemies of British authorities and merchant ship owners stationed in the Caribbean islands who had profited with the American trade that the Act had forbidden. Vulnerable due to the experience there, as well as the lonliness of command, he made a port call on the island of Nevis in March, 1785, and met the widow Francis Nisbet and her young son Josiah. He courted her for two years, and they married in March, 1787 on Nevis.
Nelson returned with his bride to England and found himself without a ship’s appointment and on half pay, which continued for the next five years, possibly the result of prejudice related to his enforcement of the Navigation Act. But by 1793 events in France would determine the Navy’s course of action: the Terror would run rampant, King Louis XVI would face the guillotine, and Nelson was given command of the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon.
In the Mediterranean, he was tasked to fight a losing defense of British allies and interests in the French port of Toulon against revolutionaries who were in the act of changing France from a monarchy to a republic; among them was a young artillery officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite the loss, Nelson was content emotionally during the months spent there. On board his ship was a well-trained crew, and amongst his crew was his son whom he had taken on board; waiting for both was a loving wife. And it was during this time that Nelson changed from an enthusiastic young officer to a genius of a commander. Some of his success in his mission was due to the British minister in Naples, Sir William Hamilton.
Lord Hood had moved his base to Corsica after Toulon fell, and where Nelson and his crew went ashore to help capture Bastia and Calvi; a French shot ricocheted debris into his right eye, nearly losing it and rendering him blind there. An upsurge in French successes caused the British to abandon their bases in the central Mediterranean and consolidate at Gibraltar and the Tagus. Hood had earlier been replaced by two individuals, one of whom, Sir John Jervis, was a very experienced sailor who quickly recognized the command qualities possessed by Nelson.
Battle of Trafalgar
See: Battle of Trafalgar
"Thank God I have done my duty", were his last words.
- Howarth, David, and Howarth, Stephen. Lord Nelson: The Immortal Memory, Viking Penguin, Inc. New York (1988)
- Warner, Oliver. Trafalgar, The MacMillan Company, New York (1959)
- Bennett, Geoffrey. Nelson The Commander, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York (1972)