Genius in pursuit of power and glory

December 19, 2003

He was hailed throughout society as "the hero" and mobbed in the street, yet was snubbed by the king and ultimately repudiated by his patron, Admiral Jervis, Earl St Vincent - who, while acknowledging his "animal courage", said that his private character was "disgraceful in every way".

With the bicentenary of the battle of Trafalgar looming, authors are queuing at the numerous archives to find something fresh to say about the Nelson legend. Edgar Vincent, a former officer on the carrier Theseus , the namesake of one of Nelson's flagships, and later a "headhunter" for ICI, has attempted to reinterpret the hero from a psychological standpoint. He chooses to explain much of Nelson's motivation in terms of modern business parlance and ethos, so-called mission command.

It is an interesting concept, but it jars when used repeatedly to explain the admiral's inspired handling of his ships and men.

However, Nelson's genius quite simply defies such cold "slide-rule" categorisation. His letters and official dispatches, as gathered together and edited by N. H. Nicolas in seven volumes - and the bedrock of this and every major biography of him - have a human warmth and a candour that all too often reveal the admiral's personality defects. When Vincent drops the business psychology and lets Nelson speak without forced interpretation, his narrative takes off.

Yale University Press has given him plenty of room to develop his theme - the admiral's single-minded quest for personal glory, his eccentric personal life, and the way the two interacted to overshadow his reputation.

The author has returned to the copious original sources on Nelson to portray the man rather than the icon; a vital prerequisite where so many accounts published soon after his death altered or suppressed the record and even painters embellished his image.

We do not need the possibly apocryphal story of Nelson's "conversion" to the role of hero after a near-fatal bout of fever when a midshipman, to accept that he was driven by demonic ambition for which he would accept risks in battle or challenges to his superiors' orders that would make his contemporaries blanch. Either you were repelled by Nelson's egocentricity or you loved him. His boyish enthusiasm and genuine care for his men made a lifelong friend of Commodore Locker, his "sea daddy".

However, the shadow side of his nature, his arrogance and blind obstinacy in political crises, which demanded finesse and patience (always a problem for an isolated naval commander weeks away from the decision-making process in the Admiralty), as well as his penchant for interpreting orders as he saw fit, alienated former friends such as St Vincent (Sir John Jervis).

Jervis, according to the old story, owed his earldom to Nelson's inspired action in cutting off the Spanish fleet's retreat at Cape St Vincent. Here, the latter's self-promoting version of the battle (in which he captured two Spanish 100-gun ships by personally boarding them) is coldly reassessed.

Jervis gave Nelson almost a passing mention in his dispatch but, as their close working relationship developed when he became commander-in-chief, Mediterranean fleet, he realised that Nelson "would apply as much mental energy in getting the credit he deserved as he would put into the event itself". And, he might have added, "getting his share of the prize money".

Commanders could make their fortunes from disposing of captured ships, and Nelson and Jervis went to law to resolve their dispute on this issue.

Jervis recognised his protege's genius while not necessarily liking him.

Vincent's description of the Nile campaign is curiously uninspiring. The British fleet stumbles abruptly on the French in Aboukir Bay - there is none of the tension of its approach under a blood-red sunset, intent on a night action in treacherous shoal water, and not enough made of the dramatic pincer movement and blowing up of the French flagship that followed. The author is more convincing on the seedy epilogue to victory, with the maimed and half-blinded admiral of a detached squadron suddenly elevated to the veritable saviour of Europe, the target of sycophants and the darling of the continent's most corrupt court.

When he comes to one of the most extensively documented love affairs in history, Vincent finds fresh nuances as well as evidence, in the shape of 70 recently identified letters. The sheer amount of time and paper the admiral devoted while on active service to declaring his love to Lady Hamilton, but also badgering the Admiralty to relieve him of his commands so he could spend more time with his paramour at "Paradise Merton", can still genuinely shock, as can his abandonment of his wife. The months in which he held the fate of Britain's only ally, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in his hands give "real cause for doubt about (Nelson's) grip on reality", if not his honesty.

Vincent makes clear that he was responsible for committing the Bourbon troops to a land campaign that backfired, resulting in the setting up of a revolutionary republic in Naples, forcing the royal family to scuttle for their lives in Nelson's flagship. The author is ambivalent about Nelson's role in the terrible vengeance wreaked on the rebels, claiming he was correct in breaking the truce and ordering the court martial and execution of a former comrade-in-arms, Commodore Caracciolo. On the other hand, Vincent admits that Nelson's "Sicilifying of his conscience" might well indicate he had not been "perfectly straight". Throughout his career he had no inhibitions about "going to the top" to get his way, using his connections with Jervis, Lord Spencer, first lord of the Admiralty, or indeed Prince William (later William IV, "Sailor Billy"), with whom he had served in the West Indies but who proved a bitter disappointment when it came to patronage for either Horatio or his family.

Ironically, the earldom that many said should be his for the Nile and Copenhagen was awarded posthumously to his appalling brother William. That was the reward for Trafalgar, a final ferocious double-headed assault on outdated naval doctrine as well as the French, and the swan song of battles under sail. Personally, as well as professionally, Nelson was a man two centuries ahead of his time - the "celeb" incarnate.

John Crossland is a military and naval historian who is working on a TV programme about the voices from Nelson's lower deck.

Nelson: Love and Fame

Author - Edgar Vincent
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 640
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 300 09797 2

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