Hero worthy of warship

Admiral Lord Nelson
September 9, 2005

What was Admiral Nelson really like? asks John Crossland

Two hundred years on from Trafalgar, "the immortal memory" of Horatio Nelson remains evergreen. This is in defiance of cynics who claim that our multicultural society no longer has a need of national heroes, and, indeed, of a recent Ministry of Defence edict that re-enacted battles between Nelson's squadron and its French and Spanish adversaries should feature "Red and Blue fleets" for the sake of political correctness.

A quarter of a million spectators packing Southsea Common this summer to watch tall ships re-enacting the battle provided evidence enough of the hold our nautical tradition still has on national consciousness. But how much did they know about the real Nelson, the many-faceted and flawed genius behind the heroic legend they were celebrating that night?

Here, nine specialists in the naval and social history of the Napoleonic Wars take a fresh look at the icon and attempt "a radical re-appraisal of key aspects of his life and legacy". In his foreword, editor David Cannadine points out that "there is a Nelson to suit almost every taste".

The wickedly incisive Ralph Steadman cartoon on the dust jacket, of a posturing, bloodied automaton, sets a certain tone, and Cannadine, author of The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain reflects this irreverence in his introduction.

He says: "Nelson's legacy was an appropriately complex amalgam of sentiment and spontaneity, deliberation and calculation. In life Nelson carefully cultivated and manipulated his own image and in death his relics were safeguarded, his biography carefully crafted and the rituals of Trafalgar Day self-consciously created."

The ritual of the toast to the immortal memory is little more than a century old and recalls the high noon of empire and the naval race with Germany. The centenary of Trafalgar saw the rise of the greatest military threat since Napoleon, and when war broke out a decade later, the Admiralty and the public alike fully expected a replay. What they got was a bloody draw at Jutland. As contemporary critics said, there had been "too much Nelson", with expectations pitched far too high. But as John B. Hattendorf makes clear, while complacent sea lords toasted the hero on his centenary, his most assiduous pupils, the Japanese, were putting his lessons to stunning effect, sinking the entire Russian Baltic fleet at Tsushima.

A lock of Nelson's hair is preserved in Tokyo, a gift to his great admirer Admiral Togo, the victor of Tsushima. Whether it was part of the pigtail that, with practically his dying breath, he willed to Emma Hamilton, is not clear, but all these essayists make the point that the admiral's cult was gathering pace even before his death, and reached epic proportions after it.

Holger Hoock, research curator for the current (until the end of October) Nelson and Napoleon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, is delightfully informative on the subject of "Nelson Entombed" - the creation of a national pantheon of military glory in St Paul's Cathedral.

Parliament voted £110,000 for 32 statues of heroes of the Napoleonic Wars, with Nelson's image as the centrepiece, and Royal Academicians vied, sometimes acrimoniously, for the commissions. A row broke out over the portrayal of one of the Camperdown heroes, Captain Rundell Burgess, stark naked apart from his periwig. One critic wrote: "An English captain of a man o' war suffering with fortitude and dying at the moment of victory? Not a Briton. We have no naked naval captains!" Sculptors were reticent about showing bodily mutilation, and John Flaxman allowed the marmoreal flow of Nelson's boat cloak to cover his missing arm.

The American Benjamin West had no such qualms, and painted Nelson's "ascent to the Gods without his right arm, forever dismembered and scarred, the first modern, profane hero to enter the pantheon". There was a shadowy side to the hero, however: bereft of a mother at nine, he entered into an ill-advised marriage with a widow whom he treated shabbily and then fell hook, line and sinker for one of the great demi-mondaines of the day. Thackeray had Becky Sharpe say: "Nelson went to the deuce for women", and certainly his affair cost him the high personal regard of his service patron, Admiral Lord St Vincent, as well as the King.

Lady Nelson's confidant during the break-up of her marriage was her husband's prize agent, Alexander Davison, and Martyn Downer, who uncovered her poignant letters to him together with the bloodstained purse stripped from Nelson's corpse, has given a fresh interpretation to the term "band of brothers".

N. A. M. Rodger, writing on "Leadership and originality", explodes the Nelsonian myth, pointing out that his captains had been together for only two months when they won at the Nile and the squadron had been at sea all that time, giving the admiral little opportunity to bond with them.

However, Davison would be instrumental in using the iconography of free-masonry, in the medals he had struck for the captains, to attach a positively Arthurian mythology to the campaign.

Downer proves for the first time the importance of free-masonry in Nelson's career, but shows the extent to which the admiral used and abused the brother mason who controlled his business interests. Kate Williams, biographer of Emma Hamilton (the bane of Davison's life with her extravagance), is informative about the marketing of "Nelsoniana" to meet the demands of female fans who followed Emma's lead in decorating themselves and their salons "a la Nelson". Unfortunately, a string of howlers mar an amusing essay: Bronte was a dukedom not a barony, Emma was born in the Wirral, not Lancashire, the statue of Achilles in Hyde Park is not Wellington but a memorial to the Guards at Waterloo, and Jane Austen's contemporaries certainly were subject to income tax.

Summing up a thought-provoking little bicentenary book, Cannadine points out that "nostalgia for a seaborne hegemony has largely vanished with empire" and that today's generation is likely to empathise more with "the Nelson who seeks fulfilment in his private life and is an inspiration to the disabled". But given the transformation in our national fortunes, "who knows what guise he will reappear in for his third centenary?"

John Crossland is a military and naval historian.

Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy

Editor - David Cannadine
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Pages - 201
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 1 4039 3906 3

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