Nelson's gewgaws

The Nelson Companion - The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy
July 12, 1996

Last Trafalgar Day, to the accompaniment of cannon salvoes and a positive tide of Pusser's rum, the guardians of Britain's naval heritage launched a Nelson decade, celebrating the 200th anniversaries of his trio of great victories in 1805.

The Nelson Companion, the only tangible result of the "decade" so far, goes beyond mere commemoration. It provides a definitive and many-faceted portrait of the man who, to his contemporaries and ever since, has typified the hero.

Yet as the authors make clear it was a reputation gained in the teeth of considerable establishment prejudice, particularly over his adulterous relationship with Lady Hamilton and abandonment of his wife. Less well known, but a factor which Nelson had constantly to take into account, was the professional obstacle course of naval careerism in the 18th century. His fears on the eve of Trafalgar, as revealed in his letters, might seem paranoid if it were not for what these books reveal of the workings of patronage. Had the French revolutionary wars not given Nelson the chance to display his genius he might not have attained full admiral's rank until his seventies, such was the log jam at the top of the service.

His own self-promotion is a major theme of the Companion. John Jervis, Lord St Vincent, who had been Nelson's patron ever since the young commodore gave his commander-in-chief a crushing victory at Cape St Vincent, wrote: "All agree: there is but one Nelson". Horatio Nelson concurred heartily.

The Companion charts in fascinating detail the growth of the Nelson legend. Even his friend, the Earl of Minto, wrote after seeing the Surrey love-nest which Nelson shared with Emma, "not only the rooms but the whole house are covered with pictures of him and her, an excess of vanity which counteracts its own purpose".

Nelson was quite consciously a glory-seeker and accumulated in his own lifetime the trappings, often gewgaws in bad taste, associated with a national champion - which indeed he was.

Posthumously, the idolisation became semi-deification, as Colin White says, and he quotes Fred Jane, founder of the Jane's Fighting Ships series, writing about the time of the centenary celebrations for Trafalgar: "There is too much Nelson. He cannot aid us against our future enemies."

White justly comments that the spirit of Nelson was completely misunderstood when the first world war broke out a decade later. "With the benefit of hindsight it is clear that, because it had become ossified, and completely out of touch with the original man, the Nelson legend was working against Britain, producing, on the one hand, unrealistically high expectations of what the Royal Navy might achieve, and on the other a fleet that was ill-equipped to meet such expectations. The result, when the long-expected Trafalgar of the North Sea never materialised, was a mood of deep disappointment within the service and in the country."

The superbly illustrated Oxford history sets the Nelson legend in context, pinpointing the comparatively late emergence of a Senior Service with a strong claim on the loyalties and affections of the British people. Samuel Pepys, often seen as the administrative father of the navy, ascribed the rise of a fighting navy in his lifetime to the fact "that it had pleased God to give us a king and a duke [Charles II and his brother James, Duke of York] that understood the sea." Otherwise, he said, "this nation, ere this, had been quite beaten out of it".

But the navy that their successor William III launched to counter-balance Louis XIV's ascendancy on land had more poorly designed ships than the French, was hobbled by restrictive tactics and suffered, later in the 18th century, the ignominy of having admirals court-martialled and dismissed, or in one case shot, for failing to adhere rigidly to the rules.

The "hearts of oak" may not have been quite the peerless sailing ships of legend, but the "jolly tars" who manned them apparently made up for any deficiencies, according to Daniel A. Baugh. By Nelson's time, he says, "seamanship clearly mattered more than hull design. British superiority at sea during the 18th century rested on men more than ships."

What then of the legend, reinforced by Dr Johnson's famous quip about ships and prisons, that they were recruited by force and kept in line by sadistic violence? Baugh points out that the Royal Navy had access to the largest reservoir of seamen of any nation and at the height of the Napoleonic wars it could claim a preponderance of skilled manpower even when it did not possess a preponderance of ships. It certainly resorted to the press gang, but to take skilled merchant seamen and wherrymen - even smugglers - rather than unskilled landlubbers.

As for discipline, often a year passed without a man being flogged on Nelson or Collingwood's flagships and although a bloody mutiny disposed of one tyrannical captain, a more normal course taken by aggrieved seamen was to sign a "round robin" letter of complaint and forward it to the port admiral. Even the Spithead mutiny of 1797 was about pay and conditions and ended with the mutineers winning a 23 per cent increase.

Such were the men who when broadside on to a Frenchman could loose off three shots to the enemy's one and who, from 1793 to 1815, were instrumental in capturing or destroying 139 enemy ships of the line, while losing only 24.

Complacency proves a recurring theme in this story, with the navy constantly being forced to re-establish its credentials with parsimonious governments. As the Falklands war proved, complacency exacts a price.

John Crossland writes on naval history for The Times.

The Nelson Companion

Editor - Colin White
ISBN - 0 7509 0611 1
Publisher - Alan Sutton
Price - £18.99
Pages - 228

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