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Horatio Nelson

(1758—1805) naval officer


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First Viscount (1758–1805),

British vice admiral and Sicilian duke, born at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk, the third surviving son of the local vicar. After local schooling he joined the Royal Navy through the patronage of his maternal uncle Captain Maurice Suckling, who provided him with a first-class education, extensive practical experience, and a succession of personal contacts who pushed his career quickly to the rank of post-captain in 1779. Not yet 21, Nelson was serving in the West Indies, but had also seen the Arctic and the Indian Ocean. With the War of American Independence (1776–83) raging his first mission was to escort troops attacking Spanish possessions in Nicaragua. Seeing the troops in difficulties he acted on his own initiative, with considerable success. However he nearly died of disease. After recuperating in England he took command of the frigate HMS Albemarle and by the end of war had joined the naval ‘family’ of the brilliant Admiral Lord Hood (1724–1816) a friend of his now deceased uncle. From Hood he learnt the art of an admiral.

Between 1784 and 1787 Nelson commanded the frigate HMS Boreas on the Leeward Islands station, where he demonstrated remarkable tenacity in suppressing illegal trade, and outmanoeuvring his naval and political superiors. He also married Frances Nisbet, a widow with a young son. He came close to ruining his career by backing Prince William (later King William IV, 1830–7), then a naval captain, in a petty dispute. He spent the next five years living quietly in Norfolk with his father, wife, and stepson. The French Revolutionary War (1793–1802) saw him recalled to service, commanding the battleship HMS Agamemnon (see also shipwrecks) in Hood's Mediterranean Fleet. His active, intelligent service at sea and ashore on Corsica earned him the respect of his admiral, at the cost of the sight of his right eye, blinded at the siege of Calvi.

In 1795 Nelson demonstrated brilliant tactical judgement, and contempt for his pedestrian commander Admiral Hotham, in a battle near Toulon. He was then given an independent command on the Italian Riviera, blocking the French advance. When Admiral Sir John Jervis, later Earl St Vincent (1735–1823), took command of the fleet Nelson won his admiration, an emotion he reciprocated, finding in Jervis a role model for fleet command. Jervis appointed him commodore with an independent command. At the battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797 Nelson anticipated Jervis's orders, abandoning the rigid linear formation to break up a Spanish counter-attack, and then captured two Spanish ships of the line by boarding, a unique, heroic achievement that, once he had written it up for the newspapers, made him a national celebrity. Six days later he reached the rank of rear admiral of the Blue (see squadronal colours), and was made a Knight of the Bath for his conduct in battle.

On the night of 24–25 April Nelson led a daring attack on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, but was wounded in the right arm, which had to be amputated, and his force was defeated. Invalided home to recuperate he began to harvest the acclaim that he had earned since 1793. He was now a public figure, and once recovered was ordered back to the Mediterranean, for a detached mission to find and destroy General Bonaparte's expedition to Egypt. Jervis, ennobled as Earl St Vincent after his victory, sent a dozen of his best officers, all in 74-gun ships of the line, to serve under Nelson, who referred to them with a Shakespearian flourish as his ‘band of brothers’. On 1 August 1798 Nelson found the French fleet anchored in Aboukir Bay, the French Army having already landed in Egypt. Although night was falling, and the French were anchored in a strong position, Nelson immediately ordered his fleet to attack. In what came to be called the battle of the Nile all but two of the thirteen French battleships were taken or destroyed. Nelson's battle of annihilation had secured British domination of the Mediterranean, and transformed the art of war at sea. At the height of the battle he was badly cut on the forehead by shrapnel, and concussed.

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Subjects: Maritime History.


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