The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson By Roger Knight Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 873pp, £30.00 ISBN 0 7139 9619 6
The bicentenary year of the battle of Trafalgar is closing with a promise of those autumnal gales that sank the victor's prizes and carried his body home in HMS Victory for a state funeral that would seal his status as a national icon. The hype attending this summer's commemoration would have been very much to Nelson's taste, for he anticipated our own heyday of the celebrity, with headline grabbing, playing to the public and his flaunting of an exotic mistress and decorations.
From the outset of his career, Nelson acted and wrote with an eye to instant fame as well to as his place in history. As Colin White has discovered, he wrote two versions of his famous prayer on the morning of Trafalgar to ensure that it survived that momentous day. This self-promotion, however, poses something of a problem for the biographer who has to try to reconcile hagiography tricked out as an official record, as in the "Life" by the Victory's former purser, John M'Arthur, and the often surprising changes of course indicated by the mass of correspondence to, from and concerning the admiral (augmented by the National Maritime Museum's Nelson Letters Project), which show him in a very different light.
Roger Knight, visiting professor of naval history at the Greenwich Maritime Institute, Greenwich University, and former chief curator at the National Maritime Museum, has reinterpreted the hero for a modern readership that is sceptical yet still fascinated by our great naval tradition. He has steered well clear of the M'Arthur and Robert Southey "tendency", returning to the unexpurgated texts, but introducing, too, the viewpoints of Nelson's contemporaries - fellow seamen, politicians and correspondents shedding light on his complex financial and personal affairs.
As the author points out, so many letters and official papers written by Nelson have survived that if one does not search for the points of view of others in the story, it is very easy to take him on his own terms.
He writes: "It is difficult to penetrate to the inner Nelson. The style of his letters is open and informal, yet only for short periods, usually under intense strain, does he reveal his true feelings. Many letters survive from his marriage, but it isn't clear why and when (he and his wife) drifted apart, or indeed if they had ever been close." It would seem that his irregular private life, which would hardly have caused a stir in the upper classes he both courted and despised, exacted a price in nervous tension and even agonies of guilt. He paid off his wife with the equivalent of half his income and set up a trust fund for her worth £1,000 a year in his will, while naively expecting the country to provide for his mistress and love child (although Sir William Hamilton had himself left Emma as Nelson's financial responsibility).
Nelson destroyed most of Emma's letters to him, which perhaps prevents us from knowing, in Knight's words, "why and how she goaded him into a jealous fury after the birth of their child Horatia." It might have had something to do with party invitations from the Prince of Wales while Nelson was serving with the Channel Fleet in anticipation of a French invasion. (A pathetic attempt to cloak the result of a very public affair that was the talk of royal levees and fashionable drawing rooms has recently come to light with evidence that the identity of a young Royal Navy escapee from French captivity was "borrowed" to explain Horatia's paternity.) Knight has drawn a wonderfully convincing portrait of a fallible, driven man of the Enlightenment, whose inner steel, immediately felt by all those who came into contact with him, was tempered by the professional demands of the great institution he served; the most important single industrial and military machine and employer of its time - the Royal Navy. He never lets us forget that Nelson was moulded by it, and in turn imparted to it the aggressive spirit and encouragement to individual initiative on the part of its captains that was his true bequest to the nation.
The hero was imbued with a tradition summed up by an 18th-century historian thus: "Our trade is the mother and nurse of our seamen; our seamen the life of our fleet and our fleet the security and protection of our trade; and that both together are the wealth, strength and glory of Great Britain."
The manpower requirement to hold our own with the advent of war with a "nation in arms" (that is, Revolutionary and Napoleonic France) rose from 16,613 in 1792 to 100,000 by 1795. As Knight says: "The British Navy could only with difficulty fill its ships to their full complement. Nevertheless, France and Spain were always more disadvantaged in the coming war at sea; in the quality and quantity of their seamen, their guns and their ships.
Nelson was fortunate to reach senior rank at just the right time, on the crest of a wave of British naval superiority."
Nelson was only 18th in seniority below "flag rank" when Sir John Jervis appointed him, without the First Lord's authority, to the independent command that would lead to the Nile - and to a lifelong smouldering resentment on the part of the more senior admiral who was passed over for the role: "The Admiralty has reached down the admiral's list to pick out a talented individual but never this far down" (Sir John Orde).
The irascible old sea dog who had watched Nelson put the finishing touch to his victory off Cape St Vincent, on St Valentine's Day 1797, by personally capturing two 100-gun Spanish men-o'-war, wrote to the rising young star:
"There is nothing within my grasp that I would not be proud to confer on you."
Ironically, though, Jervis thought Thomas Troubridge the better seaman and tactician. He was one of the bright younger commanders who would form "the Band of Brothers" anticipating Nelson's grand plan for annihilating the French invasion fleet in Aboukir Bay.
Knight's descriptions of the raw material (human and mechanical) that Nelson had to work with are as solid and dependable as a man-o'-war's broadside. Not only had ship design improved - particularly with Sir Thomas Slade's Victory class, combining the elegance of French line with British strength and fire power - but so had the quality of gun-founding and the powder to fire them. (Napoleon reckoned the French were ten years behind in development.) In addition, the gunlock mechanism helped British gunners get off three shots to every one by the enemy and, if this was not enough, the 64lb carronades on British fo'c'sles packed a final killer punch at the point-blank range Nelson favoured.
Nelson's empathy with the "lower deck" is vividly illustrated in the way he quelled a mutiny on the frigate HMS Blanche. With discontent building throughout the fleet, which would lead to the Spithead and Nore mutinies, this crew, serving in a detached Mediterranean squadron under the overall command of Captain Nelson, turned a cannon on their "tartar" of a commander and tried to expel him from the ship.
Nelson, who later expressed sympathy with the Spithead men's case for improvements in pay, food and shore-leave, had himself rowed over to the Blanche. He addressed the mutineers from the quarterdeck: "Lads, you have the greatest character, on board the Blanche, of any frigate's crew in the Navy. You have taken (captured) two frigates superior to the frigate you are in - and now to rebel! If Captain Hotham (the "tartar") ill-treats you, give me a letter and I will support you."
Knight writes: "The scene could not have been more dramatic. With timing of almost theatrical accuracy, Nelson delayed coming on board the Blanche for half an hour, leaving time to sow doubt among the tense crew." The author emphasises Nelson's calmness and resolution. "He had to rely on his sense that the personal trust that existed between him and the crew would overcome their collective anger. It was the first sign in his career that he was an officer of extraordinary qualities." Nelson's care for his men extended to meeting their requests for transfer to any new ship or squadron he was appointed to, ensuring care and provision for casualties and their families and insisting on high standards of nutrition and hygiene. He achieved "small miracles in victualling the fleet," and he was short of four ships at Trafalgar because they were on detachment, foraging for fresh provisions. On the eve of battle, he could even write a memo recommending that his sailors be given hot chocolate to fortify them in the cold dawn before the broadsides thundered.
Knight's book is convincing in describing the maturing process at work in Nelson's career. "His political and moral judgment erred at Naples, when he risked his career and reputation for Emma - but he rebuilt his reputation after Copenhagen." There, he held his nerve as one ship after another ran aground under fire from the Danish defences, and although the "telescope to the blind eye" story is apparently myth, he bluffed the Danes into surrender at the most critical juncture. His outbursts of temper earned him, from one elderly admiral, the dismissive "in some respects he was as trivial a man as ever made a name".
It was impossible to be lukewarm about him, and as his success in action and consequent public adulation grew, his personality blossomed. No one summed him up better than his old friend and second in command in his last battle, Cuthbert Collingwood: "He possessed the zeal of an enthusiast directed by talents which nature had very bountifully bestowed on him, and everything seemed, as if by enchantment, to prosper under his direction.
But it was the effect of system, and nice combination, not of chance."
John Crossland is a military and naval historian.
The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson
Author - Roger Knight
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 873
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9619 6