Nobly, nobly Cape Saint Vincent to the North-West died away;
Sunset ran, one glorious blood-red, reeking into Cadiz Bay;
Bluish ‘mid the burning water, full in face Trafalgar lay;
In the dimmest North-East distance dawned Gibraltar grand and grey;
‘Here and here did England help me: how can I help England?’
Robert Browning - “Home thoughts from the Sea”
Born on September 28th, 1758 in Norfolk into the large family of the Rector of the tiny village of Burnham Thorpe, Horatio was such a frail and sickly child that he was not expected to live to maturity. His uncle however, was a Captain in the Navy and he was persuaded, much against his better judgement to take on the frail little boy at the age of twelve to be his servant. It was hoped that life at sea would make a man out of the delicate, under sized boy, and it did.
He learned his seamanship the hard way. First of all on a Caribbean-bound merchant ship, then in 1773, he joined an expedition to the Arctic to join another unsuccessful search for the fabled North-East passage round the north of Russia. His last trip before being commissioned a Lieutenant in the Navy in 1777 was to India. He was to be brought home an invalid after a near fatal attack of malaria, which left him with recurrent partial paralysis for the rest of his life; in addition he suffered from chronic seasickness.
After only two years he was promoted to Captain and given command of a frigate stationed in the West Indies where he remained for 6 years before returning home, married to Francis Nisbet. For the following five years he was on half-pay waiting for a new appointment which finally came in 1793 as Captain of the 64 gun ship Agamemnon which was stationed in the Mediterranean. It was from this time that Nelson’s blend of tactical genius, sound seamanship and understanding of men of all ranks propelled him to the highest degrees of Naval and Civil status. At the battle of Calvi near Corsica in 1794 he won a major victory over the French but lost his right eye; in the following year in an assault on Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands he lost his right arm. But the great sea victories were still to come. Cape St Vincent in 1797, The Nile in 1798 and the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, after which he retired as an Admiral and Viscount. But he had little time to enjoy his retirement. In 1803 he was called to defend Britain from an impending invasion by Napoleon and was put in command of the entire British Fleet in the Mediterranean. He took command of his flagship, the mighty Victory, which still commands the seafront at Portsmouth and is visited annually by thousands of tourists.
After a long sea chase to the West Indies and back the combined Spanish and French fleets were engaged and destroyed in Battle off Cape Trafalgar in 1805 which removed the invasion threat but ended Nelson’s life, killed by a musket ball from the rigging of the French battleship, Redoubtable.
What made the frail man of 47 the idol of Britain and even now 200 years later, one of the best known and respected of Britain’s military leaders? Apart from his naval skills he never forgot his voyages as a young apprentice seaman on merchant ships to the West Indies and Arctic; conditions among ordinary seaman in the merchant service were bad, but those in the Royal Navy were much worse. Discipline was harsh and maintained by the lash, working condition primitive and advancement all but impossible. But Nelson realised that it was on these terrorised men that victory in battle depended and all his life he strove to curb brutality, encourage morale and reward skill and initiative. And for this he was revered from the lowest cabin boy to the Lords of the Admiralty. Who else could have hoisted a signal to the masthead of the victory as it was about to engage the might of Spain and France at Trafalgar “England expects that every man will do his duty” and know that it would be obeyed?
Perhaps it could all be attributed to the ‘Nelson touch’!
The figurine shows the ‘Little Admiral’ as he is depicted on the top of Nelson’s Column in the centre of Trafalgar Square in London.
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