Historians battle over Nelson's reputation

December 5, 2003

A new battle of Trafalgar has been started by naval historians seeking to defend the honour of Horatio Nelson before the bicentenary of his finest hour.

A host of biographical projects has been launched with an eye to 2005's celebration of the fight that thwarted Napoleon's invasion plans and established British naval dominance. Two new books have already appeared, one of which - Terry Coleman's Nelson: The Man and the Legend - portrays the admiral as a ruthless, self-obsessed flawed hero, who became embroiled in Neapolitan war crimes.

Roger Knight, visiting professor of naval history at Greenwich University, is preparing to return fire in 2005 with a 250,000-word biography for Penguin.

He admitted that Nelson got tangled in deadly Neapolitan politics but observed of his later triumphs: "You cannot deny that he delivered and it's very difficult to knock that."

Professor Knight's work will put Nelson's achievements in context, drawing on a large quantity of new material.

Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King's College London, will champion Nelson as "the greatest practitioner of naval command the world has ever seen" in a volume for Faber out next year. He will also look at how historians have viewed the admiral through the prism of their own times, often subjecting him to fierce criticism.

"The British are very careless with the reputations of their heroes," Professor Lambert noted. "We need to understand why Nelson stands in majesty in Trafalgar Square, not spend time picking over details of his personal arrangement."

Nicholas Rodger, professor of naval history at Exeter University, remarked that Mr Coleman's slants were a century old.

Professor Rodger, who contributed an entry on Nelson to a dictionary of national biography, out next year, said many biographers did not appreciate the admiral's achievements as they did not understand naval conflict.

  • New research has revealed the level of French and Spanish fire withstood by Nelson's fleet before it broke through the enemy's line.

A variety of projectiles was shot at a section of canvas sail from a 32lb cannon. The damage was then compared with rips in the surviving fore topsail of Nelson's flagship HMS Victory .

Robert Prescott, founder of the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at the University of St Andrews, said preliminary analysis showed a vast amount of shot - from chains to musket balls - pounded the British ships.

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