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Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson - The Early Years

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Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson
The Early Years | The Years of Fame and Glory
A young Lord Nelson by Rosie

Trafalgar Square, at the eastern end of The Mall, is one of the major landmarks of the City of London. This is a brief look at the life of the man who inspired the monument.

Early Life

On 29 September, 1758, a child was born to the Rector of the small village of Burnham Thorpe in the county of Norfolk, near its northern coast. The village is located about 124 miles north-east of Trafalgar Square. He would be named Horatio after his godfather, the first Lord Walpole, a relative of his mother, Catherine Suckling Nelson. He was the 6th of 11 children born before his mother's untimely death only nine years later. Only eight of the children survived until their mother's death. Reverend Edmund Nelson was troubled by his responsibility for the care of the large family that had been thrust upon him. His late wife's brother, Captain Maurice Suckling, Royal Navy, offered to help in any way he could. At the time no one knew what help could be given.

Horatio had been a sickly child, his constitution had been badly undermined by the ague1. While home on holiday, three years after his mother's death, Horatio read in a newspaper that Uncle Maurice had been given the command of the 64-gun Ship Raisonnable. At the age of 12 he decided to commit himself to a career in the Royal Navy. His brother and father both wrote letters in his support. Surprised that it was the sickly son that sought his offer, Captain Suckling agreed to give a berth to his nephew. He added that perhaps a stray cannon ball might soon put an end to the lad's suffering.

First Naval Ship

When Horatio joined the Raisonnable in 1771 she was lying at Chatham on the Medway, a river in central Kent. With the common shyness and lack of understanding of a young boy, it took him a full day to find his proper position on the ship. There were expectations that a new war with Spain was about to erupt over the possession of the Falkland Islands, in the far South Atlantic near Cape Horn. When the conflict was resolved in court the Raisonnable was ordered to have her crew paid-off and her captain was transferred to the guard ship Triumph stationed at a permanent anchorage at the Medway. With no hope of adventure or chance of learning the arts of seamanship at hand, Horatio's uncle found him a berth on a merchant ship bound for the West Indies.

Merchant Voyage to the West Indies

Captain John Rathbone, who had served as Master's Mate under Uncle Maurice, became both Horatio's master and teacher. Living among the crew he soon learned of their contempt for naval officers, 'Aft the most honour, forward the better man.'

In the world of a sailor there is a sharp divide between the naval 'man of war' seaman and the sailor of the merchant service. The size of a naval crew is dictated by the number of men required to work the guns in action. At all the normal routines of working the ship there are dozens of spare men at each station available to add their weight, even if the rope is forced into their hands. On a merchant ship every man added to the crew must be paid and fed, reducing the owner's profit. For this reason alone there is a strong rivalry between the two services. The man-of-war sailor will brag about how quickly they can make and take in sail, the merchant sailor counters with how they can do the same thing with less than 1/10th of the men.

Return to the Navy

As a young boy who had only seen the Navy's unsuccessful efforts to man and supply a small ship-of-the-line before crossing the Atlantic twice on a merchant ship, it is a small wonder that Horatio was swayed by the merchant sailors' opinions. When he was, at last, reunited with his uncle aboard the Triumph in July 1772, Horatio was not shy in revealing his newly-acquired negative opinions about the Navy. Captain Maurice Suckling determined to take young Horatio under his wing and show him the true glory of naval service.

After having been taught the fundamentals of navigation, Horatio was given command of a series of the Triumph's boats, proceeding from a simple trip to shore and back to a voyage from the Nore to the Foreland and back, learning all the hazards of the Thames Estuary. Soon he would be ready for more adventures.

Polar Expedition

Only a few weeks after his return to the Navy Horatio began to hear rumours of a polar expedition. In the 18th Century a trip to the Arctic was considered as exotic as a voyage to the Moon or Mars might be today. The Admiralty recognised the serious nature of this enterprise by ordering that no boys would be allowed to join the expedition.

Two vessels, the Racehorse under Captain Phipps and Carcass under the command of Captain Ludwidge, were designated and refitted for the mission in early 1773. Both ships had been originally built as 'bomb ketches', ships whose main armament were two large mortars mounted near the bow2. These ships were heavily built to support the recoil of these specialised guns, this re-enforcement was also an advantage against the crushing effects of ice. The use of this class of vessel would continue well into future expeditions, including The Franklin Expedition of 1845.

Horatio held many positions during his time in the Navy, including Captain's steward, an enlisted position who acts as the captain's servant, midshipman, a boy in training to become an officer, and coxswain, an enlisted man in charge of one of the ship's boats. To avoid his rejection due to his age of only 14 years, Horatio applied to Captain Ludwidge for the position of 'Captain's Coxswain'. In this position he was in command of the row boat used for the captain's own needs, and its maintenance. While there are several interesting stories, such as his effort to kill a polar bear so he could give its pelt to his father, there is little to be said here of interest to this Entry. The ships returned and were paid-off in October of 1773, when Horatio was still only 15.

The East Indies

Soon after his return from the Arctic, Uncle Maurice secured Horatio a position on the 20-gun Seahorse bound for the East Indies under the command of Captain Farmer. By most early reports Horatio was assigned to the fore top, a position filled by a common seaman. On the outward voyage his health improved and the Captain, realising Horatio's potential, appointed him again to the position of midshipman.

After 18 months in the Far East the climate and local infirmities had once again undermined his health. In 1776 he was sent home to England, in a condition described as 'close to death', having been transferred to HMS Dolphin.

In later years Nelson declared that his patriotism, love of King and Country and drive to be heroic came from the period of recuperation on this voyage home.

Lieutenant Nelson

While he had been away Captain Suckling (Uncle Maurice) had been appointed Comptroller of the Navy. Soon after his discharge from the Dolphin, Nelson was appointed to the rank of Acting Lieutenant and assigned as fourth officer of the 64-gun Worcester bound for Gibraltar. Nelson would recall this voyage fondly for the rest of his life as he was trusted with command of the deck, and Captain Robinson told him how much he trusted Nelson with his ship.

Acting Lieutenant Nelson was given his formal examination for the rank of Lieutenant on 9 April, 1777. Captain Maurice Suckling was on the board of examiners, but he did not reveal his relationship with the candidate until the voting was complete and Nelson had passed. When asked by his fellow captains why he had not told them earlier, Maurice replied that he wanted the boy to pass on his own merit. Lieutenant Nelson was still only 18 years old.

Nelson was soon appointed as 2nd Lieutenant of the 32-gun Lowestoffe, a frigate bound for the West Indies under the command of Captain Locker. One of the first recorded noble acts of Nelson was his taking command of a captured American privateer. There was a very heavy sea running, and the 1st Lieutenant failed to accomplish the mission, saying the waves were too high to safely board the prize. The Sailing Master offered to go, but Nelson stood forth and insisted he be given a chance to secure the vessel. Reports state that his boat was physically carried onto the deck of the American ship by the waves. He did, however, secure possession of the prize.

At this time Nelson learned of the death of his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He surely thought himself alone, without the influence in high places that had advanced his career to this stage. It would be up to his own skill and efforts to further advance his career.

Nelson was soon transferred to the Bristol which was the Admiral's flag ship, as 3rd officer. They captured several French prizes. In October Nelson was promoted to the rank of Commander, assigned to command the brig Badger and ordered to cruise off the Gulf of Honduras. His primary opponent in this area were American privateers, which he actively pursued.

On 16 June, 1779, France convinced Spain to enter the war against Britain. Having lost control of both Gibraltar and her colony of Florida to the British, Spain was more interested in recovering her lost territories than in aiding the fledgling Americans. However it did increase Nelson's enemies and potential targets.

Nelson was promoted to the rank of Post Captain and given command of Hinchinbrook, a 28-gun frigate, in September of 1779. A few days later Prince William, the Duke of Clarence3, was entered into the Navy as midshipman, with the hope that it would increase enlistment.

Attack of Fort San Juan, Nicaragua

When an expected attack on Jamaica failed to materialise, the commanding general decided to launch an attack on the Spanish colony of Nicaragua. Nelson was selected to convey the troops to the Spanish Main4. Soon after landing the troops, completing his obligation, Nelson realised that there was no one in the party capable of navigating the river and reaching their goal which was still many miles away. Nelson took command of the expedition and with the aid of a select group of seamen from his crew managed to reach an outpost, the St Bartholomew Battery, which they took. The hazards of the climate were also taking their toll on the invaders. When orders arrived for Nelson to take command of the Janus, a large frigate of 44-guns, duty recalled him from the horrors of the jungle, but not before it had taken its effect on him.

Before they reached Jamaica Nelson was overcome with dysentery and fatigue. He was carried ashore in his cot and was forced to return to England without ever setting foot on his new command. On 1 September, 1780, he was taken aboard the Lion and returned to England. He spent a year in Bath before he had recovered sufficiently to resume his duties with the Navy.

Back to Sea

On 16 August, 1781, Nelson was ordered to commission the Albemarle, a small 28-gun frigate. He was ordered to cruise to Elsinore, Denmark, in company of two other ships. Although this placed him in overall command of a small squadron, only one step below a commodore, Nelson felt insulted by the small size of the ship he had been given, and the insignificance of the Baltic station. When a Danish midshipman was sent to greet the new arrival and report on their mission and strength, Nelson felt even more slighted and told the boy he could count the guns himself as he departed, adding they would be well served if necessary. No one knew then what would occur later in Copenhagen, not far to the south.

In April of 1782 Nelson was again in the open sea on the Albemarle conveying a group of merchant ships to Canada. While cruising off Boston he was sighted by a far superior squadron of French warships. As they began the chase Nelson carefully studied his charts. He ordered the ship to sail into St George's Bank, a dangerous area of reefs and shoals that is cherished by small fishing boats but avoided by any large ship that wishes to remain afloat. By using his lead-line to track the depth and sample the bottom along with careful bearings taken from the few visual marks available, rocks, breakers and the like, he managed to cross the bank and escape.

Although there were many opportunities to capture prizes and add to his bank account in northern waters, Nelson still believed the true glory lay in the West Indies. While with the fleet in New York he was introduced to Prince William. The prince and later king often remarked about the young captain who had impressed him5. He was at last allowed to sail to the Caribbean, but the war was winding down. A peace treaty with France was signed in January 1783. The Albemarle was ordered home and her crew were paid-off on 3 July, 1783. Few ships were required in times of peace.

A few months after his forced retirement Nelson decided to visit France with an associate, hoping to learn a little of the language. He was apparently smitten by the daughter of an ex-patriot minister. He wrote to another of his mother's family, Uncle William Suckling, asking for funds. He explained to his uncle in a letter that he wished to marry, but with his meagre half pay of £130 a year he felt he could not ask her, so he requested a pledge of an additional hundred pounds from his uncle. Surprisingly his uncle agreed, but it seems that even £230 per year was not enough to win the lass.

In March 1784 Nelson was appointed to command the 28-gun Boreas and was, again, ordered to the Windward Islands of the West Indies. Although the war with the American colonies had ended there was still an embargo on American trade with British ports. Nelson soon observed that a vigorous trade was being conducted between Yankee ships that entered a harbour, claiming some form of distress, and selling or purchasing a cargo before their departure. He began seizing American ships and their cargoes with great zeal. How much corruption and bribes were behind this trade will forever be unknown. However when Nelson arrived at Nevis he confronted four American vessels. He immediately condemned the cargoes and seized them. The American captains retained a lawyer and launched a suit for £40,000. After hiding behind the sanctuary of his cabin in a British ship, Nelson confronted his accusers in open court and won. The cargoes were condemned, but this would not be the end of the controversy.

While delayed by the hearings in Nevis, Nelson learned of the widow Fanny Nisbet, whose husband and father of her son had died only a few months after their wedding. Nelson first played silly games with young Josiah, and won his way into his mother's heart. They were wed on 12 March, 1787. Nelson sailed to England in June 1787 and the ship was paid-off in November.

Delayed in quitting his former ship and with no new command in sight, Nelson once again became embittered with the Navy. He told his superior that he was ready to resign his commission. A few secret letters were sent to Lord Hood, who arranged not only a meeting with himself, but also a meeting with the King at levee. The King asked Nelson about his service in the West Indies, and left him with enough inspiration to last through the next five years of inaction. Nelson and Fanny set up housekeeping with his father in Burnham Thorpe. One day when Nelson was away, two men arrived at the home and presented his wife with a demand for £20,000 for damages claimed by one of the American captains from Nevis. When Nelson read the demand letter he made preparations to flee to France, but the Admiralty assured him that they would protect him and he had nothing to fear. They still did not have a ship for him.

In 1789 the French citizens rose in revolt and overthrew their king. England was again at war. On 30 January, 1793, Nelson was finally appointed to command the 64-gun Agamemnon, and was ordered to sail for Gibraltar on 27 June as part of a fleet commanded by Lord Hood.

Captain in the Mediterranean

After the fleet had secured the surrender of Toulon, Nelson was ordered to Naples with dispatches for Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador. While he had been presented to the Italian court, more significant would be his introduction to the Ambassador's wife, Emma, Lady Hamilton. She was a beautiful woman who had risen from a lowly position as a serving girl to her high station. Nelson was enchanted by her and she was kind to Josiah, Nelson's step-son who was now serving on his ship. Nelson wrote to Fanny about the fine lady he had met.

Nelson saw a great deal of action in the following years, far more than can be covered here. Only a few of the significant actions and events will be covered.

After the French recaptured Toulon the fleet turned its attention to the Island of Corsica. Nelson led a body of soldiers acting as marines at the siege of Bastia, Corsica. The city fell to his troops on 19 May, 1794. During the battle he received a minor wound, which he described as 'a cut on his back'. Nelson felt slighted in the official reports from Admiral Lord Hood.

The Corsican defences at Calvi were the next positions attacked by the British. About 11 July, Nelson was at a forward battery, observing the action protected by a wall of sandbags, when a shell landed and exploded near the wall. The men all ducked for cover, but when Nelson arose he found he had been struck in the eye by sand or gravel and was having difficulty with his sight. He wrote a letter to his wife on the 18th '...having my right eye nearly deprived of its sight.' He soon lost all sight in his right eye, but his loss was never recognised by the Navy, as the surgeon did not complete the proper paperwork.

After capture of Calvi a false report of the French capture of Agamemnon was published. Nelson wrote to his wife assuring her that they were well, and told her not to believe all she read in the news.

On 1 June, 1795, several officers were promoted to flag rank, Nelson himself was given the honorary title of Colonel of the Marines, Chatham Division. While no real duties were expected, it did include an additional salary.

Sir John Jervis relieved Lord Hood as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Fleet. On 11 June, 1796, Nelson hoisted his Commodore's pennant from the 74-gun Captain and took command of a small squadron. On 19 August, 1796, Spain once again joined forces against Britain, forcing the British to evacuate Corsica.

Nelson briefly transferred his flag to the frigate Minerve to take a quick look at the enemy's harbours. There were no warships at anchor, the fleets were at sea! After leaving the port of Gibraltar, he was chased by two Spanish ships of the line while passing through the Straights trying to rejoin the fleet in the Atlantic. Although he managed to escape, that night he whispered to a colonel who was aboard that he thought they were in the middle of the enemy's fleet, but by morning there was not a sail in sight. By the morning of the second day they reached the fleet and Nelson told Jervis that he was sure the fleet was at sea before rejoining Captain. The fleet was soon formed in two columns and headed for the south-west corner of the Iberian Peninsula.

The Battle Off Cape St Vincent

On the morning of 14 February, 1797, the Spanish fleet was sighted, and Jervis ordered his ships to form a line and sail through the enemy. After most of his ships had passed through the line he ordered the fleet to tack in succession to return to the fight. This meant that each ship was to hold course until it reach the same position where Jarvis had turned, turn into the wind and, completing the turn, sail back down to the enemy.

Nelson's squadron was near the rear of the line. He saw a group of enemy ships trying to re-enforce their line. He realized that Jervis could not possibly arrive in time to stop them, so he ordered his squadron to turn the opposite way and follow him against the enemy ships. He came abeam of the huge 4-deck Santissima Trinidad, the largest ship in the world at the time, and opened fire. Soon his squadron was heavily engaged with several of the Spanish ships. With rigging shot away and unable manoeuvre his ship, Nelson put the Captain alongside the Saint Nicholas and boarded her. After the first prize was secured Nelson led his men across her decks and boarded the San Josef, which soon surrendered.

The battle was viewed as a great victory in England. Admiral Jarvis was admitted to peerage as an Earl, and became Lord St Vincent. Although hardly mentioned in the dispatches, word of Nelson's heroic actions soon spread and he was granted a Knighthood, and entered the Order of the Bath.

Admiral Nelson

Nelson was also promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue. Many people believe that this was an additional acknowledgement of his action during the battle, but promotion to flag rank was strictly by seniority on the 'Captain's List'. It is only a coincidence that he was at the top of the list at this time.

A brief mention should be made of the order of advancement in the upper ranks of the Royal Navy. There were a set number of Admirals at all times, divided into squadrons designated by the colours blue, white and red, in order of seniority. There were also three grades of Admiral, Rear-Admiral, Vice-Admiral and Admiral itself. When there was an opening for a new Admiral, either through death or retirement, the most senior Captain would automatically become Rear-Admiral of the Blue6; as more senior openings occurred he would advance through the squadrons. Eventually the most senior Rear-Admiral of the Blue would become Vice-Admiral of the Blue and then Admiral of the Blue who would then advance to Rear Admiral of the White. The same process would be followed until the rank of Vice-Admiral of the Red was reached. There was no Admiral of the Red, this position was filled by the Admiral of the Fleet, which was more of a political position.

An Unfortunate Attack

After the battle Nelson transferred his flag to the Theseus, as the Captain had been too cut up in battle to continue. He was involved in the bombardment of Cadiz on 3 July, 1797. Soon after the battle he heard rumours that the Spanish treasure ship was at Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands, carrying a cargo worth several million pounds. He took his squadron into the Atlantic and headed south for fame and fortune. They sighted Santa Cruz, unfortunately the defenders also spotted them as they approached. The city had been built above high cliffs. The attack seemed doomed to failure from the start, but Nelson had committed himself and was determined to carry out his plan. As night fell on 24 July Nelson put off with his men in all the ships' boats, accompanied by the 12-gun cutter Fox. He was accompanied in his gig by his step-son Josiah. He had begged to boy to remain with the ship, but Josiah had insisted on aiding his father in the attack.

From the beginning things went badly. The Fox was hit by shot and sunk, drowning many of the men aboard her. Many of the boats became disoriented in the darkness and missed the pier. Just as Nelson reached shore, while drawing his sword he was hit in the elbow of his right arm by a musket ball. His arm hung uselessly at his side. He was caught by Josiah as he fell and the boy pulled off his silk neckerchief and bound the arm above the wound. One of the boat's crew tore his own shirt to fashion a sling. The boat immediately pulled away to get the admiral proper medical attention. The crew wanted to take him to the Seahorse which was the closest ship, but Nelson insisted they take him to the Theseus. Later he would explain that the captain's wife was aboard Seahorse and he did not want her to see his wound while her own husband was still engaged in battle. Nelson insisted on climbing the ship's side himself. As soon as he reached the deck he ordered that the surgeon be told to prepare his instruments as the arm must come off, the sooner the better. The amputation was poorly performed; much of his gruff demeanour in latter years was attributed to the pain it still caused. The attack was a complete failure and the men were fortunate to be allowed to depart with their colours.

Nelson was convinced his career was over and returned to England aboard Seahorse in October. Fanny was puzzled by the strange handwriting in his letter telling her he was coming home, she didn't know he was having to learn to write with his left hand. Nelson knew to get a certificate for the loss of his arm and purchased a cottage called 'Round Wood' in Ipswich from part of the fund provided as compensation. He prepared himself for a long and lonely retirement from service with only his wife as a companion.

In Part Two Nelson will return to sea and become one of the greatest naval heroes of all time.
1A type of fever, usually malaria.2Front of the ship.3Who would later become King William IV.4Usually considered an abbreviation for 'mainland' as opposed to the many islands.5William was a bit eccentric and for many years displayed a section of the mast of Nelson's last ship in his dining room.6Unless he was too old, infirm or incompetent for future employment at sea. He would still be promoted to the rank of Admiral, but not assigned to a squadron. This was informally known as Rear Admiral of the Yellow. The next man on the list was then promoted into the active squadron.

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