Horatio Nelson

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Nelson painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott
Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronte, (29 September 1758 – 21 October 1805) was the most renowned British admiral of the Napoleonic Wars. His most famous victory came at the Battle of Trafalgar where his fleet defeated the Combined fleet of France and Spain and during which he lost his life. Nelson was noted for his ability to inspire and bring out the best in his men as Jack Aubrey, who served under him at the Battle of the Nile before the start of the Canon, testifies.


Life of Nelson

Horatio Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 in the rectory of Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He was educated in Norfolk until he was twelve when he joined the Royal Navy under the command of his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling. Suckling became Comptroller to the Navy and was able to advance his nephew's career ensuring his promotion to post captain by the time he was twenty. Nelson proved to be an energetic if not always successful captain taking part in a number of actions in the Caribbean and in 1787 he married Frances Nesbit in Antigua.

In 1793, Britain went to war with Revolutionary France. Nelson was given command of the 64-gun HMS Agamemnon, described as Nelson's favourite ship, in 1793.

He served in the Mediterranean Sea, based out of the Kingdom of Naples. In 1794 he was wounded in the face by stones and debris thrown up by a cannon ball during an attack on Calvi in Corsica. As a result, Nelson lost the sight of his right eye.

Battle of St Vincent

In 1796 Nelson was appointed to the 74-gun HMS Captain by Sir John Jervis. In early 1797, Nelson joined Jervis's fleet off Cape St. Vincent and the British and Spanish fleets met on 14 February. Nelson broke from the line and engaged the Spanish van. Nelson led a boarding party aboard the San Nicolas. He, then took his party from the decks of the San Nicolas onto the San Josef and captured her as well.

Nelson later wrote several letters about his victory, reporting that his action was being referred to amongst the fleet as 'Nelson's Patent Bridge for boarding first rates'. Jervis was made Earl St. Vincent and Nelson was made a Knight of the Bath and later that year promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue according to his seniority.

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

In an attempt to capture the port of Santa Cruz in Tenerife later in July 1797, Nelson was hit in the right arm by a musketball while leading a boat attack. Most of the right arm had to be amputated. Although Nelson returned to direct the battle, the Spanish defence was too strong and the British had to negotiate a withdrawal.

After a short period of recuperation from his wound back in England, Nelson returned to the fleet off Cadiz aboard HMS Vanguard. St. Vincent despatched him into the Mediterranean to seek out the French fleet. After sailing the length of the Mediterranean and back to naples searching for the French, Nelson learned that they had landed in Egypt. He sailed back and arrived off the Egyptian coast in August 1798.

Battle of the Nile

Nelson's fleet came upon the French anchored in Aboukir Bay near Alexandria. He decided on a night attack and some of his ships sailed inshore of the French line allowing them to concentrate fire on the windward ships of the French line. The flagship Orient exploded and the French fleet was effectively destroyed trapping Napoleon Bonaparte and his expeditionary army in Egypt. Nelson suffered a head wound during the battle but soon recovered though some attributed his subsequent behaviour in Naples to the aftereffects.

Nelson returned to Naples where he was made Duke of Bronte in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies and also Baron Nelson of the Nile by George III. It was after the Battle of the Nile that he started his notorious affair with Emma Hamilton, wife of Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador in Naples.

After further service in the Mediterranean including defeating a French backed republic which had exiled the Neapolitan royal family, Nelson returned to England in 1800. Here, abandoning his wife, he set up house with Sir William and Lady Hamilton in Merton south of London.

Battle of Copenhagen

He was sent to sea again in 1801 under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker. The British attacked the Danish fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen. After a fierce exchange of fire during which Hyde Parker hoisted a recall signal which Nelson ignored, putting his telescope to his blind eye so he could not see it, the Danish agreed to a truce and negotiations.

Battle of Trafalgar

After a short period ashore Nelson was sent to the mediterranean aboard HMS Victory in 1803 to blockade Toulon. Rather than keep the French in port, Nelson wanted them to come out so that he could defeat them in battle. However, Nelson's fleet had been dispersed by a storm when Admiral Villeneuve did finally emerge in early 1805. Nelson discovered that they had sailed to the West Indies and so led his fleet across the Atlantic Ocean, an unusually long voyage for large line of battle ships such as Victory. Villeneuve evaded the British fleet and returned to European waters but was deterred by Sir Robert Calder's action from combining with the Brest fleet in an attempt to secure the English Channel for Napoleon's invasion fleet. Villeneuve withdrew to Cadiz. Nelson returned to England for two months but in September 1805 sailed for Spain to command the fleet blockading Cadiz. Eventually in October Villeneuve led a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships out of Cadiz. Despite being outnumbered, Nelson attacked the poorly organized Combined Fleet in two columns so that the superior British rate of fire could be used to destroy the enemy at close quarters. The plan succeeded but Nelson was mortally wounded by a French sharpshooter and died as the battle ended in a decisive victory.

In the Canon

As a lieutenant, Jack Aubrey serves under Nelson at the Battle of the Nile before the opening of Master and Commander. He also served in other battles where Nelson was present and two occasions was addressed by Nelson while dining. On one occasion Nelson asked him to ".. kindly pass the salt" and on the other told him "Never mind manoeuvres...go always got at them." This last advice, however, was specific to its time. Reflecting on it in 1813, Aubrey notes that, "at that time the enemy was not a really eminent seaman: he had been shut up in port for years on end, his crew were not used to working a ship quickly in heavy seas (or in any others, quite often) nor to fighting her guns with bloody resolution; and discipline was poor.... Nelson would never have advised the captain of the Java to go straight at the USS Constitution, entirely neglecting manoeuvers.[1]


  1. O'Brian, Patrick. The Commodore. (c)1994 by Patrick O'Brian. First American Edition, 1995. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, NY: p. 262
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