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Dedication || 1: Chapter I: 1758-1783



Horatio Nelson is a much-beloved figure in British history, for he defeated the French and Spanish navies at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. Victory over ancestral enemies will always engender national pride, of course. Human egotism guarantees that. Britain had been struggling against  the French, since 1792, first against Revolutionary governments, then against Napoleon. Thirteen years of strife! Although Napoleon would not be defeated finally until 1815, it was clear that the French threat by sea was ended, thanks to Nelson. In fact, Britain would "rule the waves" for another century. 
    Nelson was an ideal candidate for secular canonization. He was a one-eyed, one-armed man who was killed in the midst of his victory. He lost the sight in his right eye while engaging in joint operations with the army in Corsica  at the Battle of Calvi in 1794.  He never let it slow him down. At the unsuccessful Battle of Tenerife in 1797, he was shot in the right elbow while stepping off a boat; the arm was amputated at the elbow. Most men would have retired; Horatio continued being the warrior, now seriously injured in the service of his king. His bravery and his skill as a naval commander earned him the respect of his men, not a common thing in the British navy of his day. The Battle of Trafalgar was his greatest victory and greatest loss. Under his leadership, Britain carried the day. Once again, however, he was personally unlucky in battle. A sniper shot him in the back. He died hours later but not before he uttered that immortal challenge "England expects every officer and man will do their utmost duty."
   Captain Henry Blackwood, in a letter to his wife, wrote on October 22, 1805 about Nelson's final hours:

    The first hour since yesterday morning that I could call my own is now before me, to be devoted to my dearest wife, who, thank God, is not a husband out of pocket. My heart, however, is sad, and penetrated with the deepest anguish. A Victory, such a one as has never been achieved, yesterday took place in the course of five hours; but at such an expense, in the loss of the most gallant of men, and best of friends, as renders it to me a Victory I never wished to have witnessed - at least, on such terms. After performing wonders by his example and coolness, Lord Nelson was wounded by a French Sharpshooter, and died in three hours after, beloved and regretted in a way not to find example.... I never was so shocked or so completely upset as upon my flying to the Victory, even before the action was over, to find Lord Nelson was then at the gasp of death. His unfortunate decorations of innumerable stars, and his uncommon gallantry, was the cause of his death; and such an Admiral has the Country lost, and every officer and man, so kind, so good, so obliging a friend as never was. Thank God, he lived to know that such a Victory never was before gained. Almost all seemed as if inspired by the one common sentiment of conquer or die. The Enemy, to do them justice, were not less so: they fought in a way that must do them honour. Buonaparte, I firmly believe, forced them to sea to try his luck, and what it might procure him in a pitched battle. They had the flower of the Combined Fleet, and I hope it will convince Europe at large that he has not yet learnt enough to cope with the English at sea.
    Lord Nelson has left cause for every man who had a heart never to forget him.... I stayed with him till the Enemy commenced their fire on the Victory, when he sent me off. He told me, at parting, we should meet no more; he made me witness his Will, and away I came, with a heart very sad.... Under Lord N. it seemed like inspiration; the last signal he made was such a one as would immortalize any man, 'England expects every officer and man will do their utmost duty.' The alacrity with which the individual Ships answered it, showed how entirely they entered into his feelings and ideas. Would to God he had lived to see his prizes, and the Admirals he has taken! three in all: amongst them, the French Commander-in-Chief, Villeneuve....

    Robert Southey, in this 1813 book, captures much of the spirit of the hero but omits Nelson's racier side. The book is pithy and straight-forward, much more so than the average Victorian era book. The focus, however, is on Nelson's naval warfare exploits. No one would doubt that Southey admired his subject and what Nelson did for England. The biographer was writing for people who wanted to adore the hero. No blemish marred Southey's account.
    Horatio Nelson, admiral and Lord,  was a womanizer and an adulterer. As a young man, he was the stereotypical sailor who had "a girl in every port." He had gone to sea at age 13, learning his mores from the all-male Royal Navy. Perhaps tiring of the tom cat life or perhaps actually falling in love, he married Frances Nisbet in 1787, in Charlestown, island of Nevis. She was a young widow with a five-year-old son named Josiah. Nelson took his bride back to England, where she was miserable because of the climate.   Besides, she was far from his intellectual equal.  He stayed in Norfolk County, England until 1793 when he was  given a commission to Sicily. There he met British Ambassador to Sicily, Sir William Hamilton, whom he met in Naples and Lady Emma Hamilton, his wife.  Something clicked between them, for, five years later when he returned to Naples, they began an affair which was to last until his death.
    Emma Hamilton was no innocent wife. She was notorious in Neapolitan society for her escapades. She was a passionate woman who had enjoyed many lovers. In 1786, a prominent lover "gave" her to his uncle, Sir William Hamilton. They married a few years later. Then she met Nelson. Their affair was never a secret and, eventually took place with Sir William's knowledge. Frances, Lady Nelson, could do nothing about it, of course. Nelson even lived with the Hamiltons in Surrey. After the death of Sir William, Nelson was finally able to live with Emma. She eventually gave birth to a child(1)   from Nelson while he was at sea. She sent one of the daughters to an orphanage without Nelson’s knowledge. All he knew was that he had a daughter named Horatia.  
   This was a passionate affair. He wrote to Emma:

"Now, my own dear wife, for such you are in my eyes and in the face of heaven, I can give full scope to my feelings. I love, I never did love, anyone else. I never had a dear pledge of love until you gave me one... My longing for you, both person and conversation, you may readily imagine. What must be my sensations at the idea of sleeping with you! It sets me on fire, even the thoughts, much more would be the reality... Would to God I had dined with you tonight. What a dessert we would have had."

He kept a portrait of her and their daughter in his ship's cabin. His last will and testament asked that Emma and Horatia betaken care of by his country were he to die in the forthcoming battle of Trafalgar. She was "his wife in the eyes of God," as he put it.
    His naval exploits, his heroism, and his physical sacrifices for his country gave him some latitude. That, plus the fact that divorce was frowned upon in those days.  Certainly, Southey saw no reason to explain this side of Nelson's character. Unlike today's media, newspapers in those days saw no connection between a man's ability to lead and his sexual activities, which were a private matter. Nelson was so beloved by the Royal Navy that they put his body in a keg of rum and took it back to England. Some say that sailors tapped the keg on the voyage.
    Southey's book is a good start for those interested in Nelson's career or British naval history during these years of the  duel with France, but it is only a start. The current  text is followed by a short bibliography. In the meantime, readers should enjoy this delightful short biography of the British naval history.

Don Mabry

1. Some authors say that she gave birth to twins but gave one away immediately.