Opinion: On the Prevalence of Nelson

Nelson. He always comes up as the first name, and I don’t think he should. Now, let me say that I am a great admirer of Nelson for the victories he won and for the mindset he carried on (of decisive close combat). ‘Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates’ is a definitive example of a brilliant mind that adapted to situations in a quick and comprehensive manner. Victories at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar are similarly choreographed — any naval lord would have been happy to win them. But it was not anyone who did — it was Horatio Nelson.

And yet that should not blind us to the fact that there were tens of men of similar capacity and capability in the Royal Navy. To name a few Edward Hawke, Richard Howe, John Jervis, George Rodney, James Saurmarez, and Edward Pellew deserve to be ranked in the highest echelons of the serving officers in the late 18th century (and early 19th). If two names were to be picked from the above, then Nelson should be placed in context alongside Richard Howe and John Jervis. Theirs were, after all, the previous victories for Great Britain. Nelson’s victories may have been ‘greater’, but it should also be kept in mind that the Glorious First of June was the greatest victory in nearly a century. Cape St Vincent outdid that in a matter of years. The Nile followed after, and Trafalgar only after that. It was a succession of victories.

It is indeed the type of men that Horatio Nelson served with that allowed his personality to grow into the fighter he became. Thereby, the laurels he won also reflect on the men he served with, and that — if nothing else — is the reason why we should keep those names in mind.

The other angle that the subject is worth looking at is knowing general history. It might be argued that it is best if we know some basics and that Nelson is part of these basics. Though in theory it would be worth agreeing with such an argument, I could also liken it to saying that it is enough to know the Sun exists alongside the Earth. A comparison too extreme? Perhaps. My point is that all knowledge is worthwhile, and to pretend in our daily discourse (which does ever so often touch upon the history of Britain where two names crop up — Nelson and Wellington: and I disagree with both, but the story of Wellington I shall leave for a different time) that they were there alone, giants of men, commanders of legions, is wrong.

Nelson and his achievements are a follow-on to the morale of the sailors from the increased rations & salaries agreed to by Lord Howe, and the victories won in the beginning of the war. Every step builds upon the previous, and we should strain ourselves to realise that it was only a man who died in 1805. He was an admiral and, indeed, a very fine admiral, but his work was carried on as successfully by his colleagues who continued to sail the oceans.

The next time one thinks of Nelson, let that thought be supported by the campaigns and blockades of France enforced by John Jervis, or the Indian Ocean campaigns won by Edward Pellew, or something else entirely. Let us think in systems, for our histories are the product of systems. Nelson is a thought, a single solitary thought. The Royal Navy fighting for twenty years against the French and Spanish is a system. Nelson is a branch in that system, one of many branches. The laurels might well rest on some of the other ones every now and then, for the other heads also deserve them.

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  1. I agree with what you say about Nelson being only a part of the system, but you cannot argue that the man carved out a larger-than-most place within this system, and thus deserves the reverence with which many still speak his name. His successive victories (successive being the operative word) proved that he was a step above the rest, as did the edgy tactics he employed in winning them.

    We need figureheads in times of trouble and all the ingredients of Nelson: his victories, his demeanour, his flaws and, of course, his heroic death, all gave the British people something to cling to in an otherwise dark and dangerous time. Yes, there were many other worthy commanders during this period, but through various devices, Nelson is the one we remember. Let him enjoy it, I say.

    Nice post, thanks.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. It took me some time to think of an appropriate response since what you say is in many ways very reasonable. However, it still resonates with me as the same age-old argument that the others were simply put worse.

    Luck is always a quantity which plays a big role (had Nelson not died at Trafalgar, would we think less of him?) and it is the game of history which decides which of the names remain at the top. Wolfe we know of mostly because he died at Quebec. Was he that good a commander to warrant such a role? Possibly, but maybe not. Very difficult to estimate since we do not know if he was at the top of his generalship there or at the bottom (commentary on his behaviour can lead people to suggest both, I would say).

    Why the tangent on Wolfe? I think that his name has the same prosaic value of death in combat as Nelson does, and yet if a person today knows Wolfe it is likely they also know of John Churchill. Tradition builds on tradition, as you rightly say, and Nelson was very successful. However, what if the goddess of luck only favoured Nelson insofar as granting him the opportunity for such victories?

    As has been mentioned before, in the Revolutionary Wars, all the successive naval victories outdid the previous ones. In such an environment, it is unfortunately natural that the last person is remembered best. That does not mean that it is enough only to know of the ‘last’ commander though, for we must still remember that Nelson was where he was because of St Vincent and others.

    So, in short, I both agree with you and disagree with you. 🙂 I do thank you for the opportunity to rephrase my argument in a more concise manner though.

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