There has been a lot of discussion about Lord Nelson in the media of late, specifically the part he played in slavery. However I think it is important to look at the whole picture and not just tarnish his reputation without viewing all the facts.
Firstly during Nelson's lifetime Britain was a colonial and imperial nation, where the slave trade was an integral part of the economic, political and the social make up of the time. This was not just a British issue it was a global one.
The slave trade had existed before Nelson was born and still continued after his death, so this is the environment he would have grown up in and operated in throughout his life. For him it would seem a normal state of affairs and would not been seen with disgust ,as we rightly do so today.
The Royal Navy helped to protect Britain's interests both at home and abroad especially in the West Indies. Nelson was 12 years old when he joined the navy, so just a boy, try and keep that in mind.
France and Spain were two other colonial powers that also have a place in the slave trade. Napoleon both condemned it and reintroduced it to suit his needs. Like I say these were very different times.
Moving away, for the time being ,from the discussion of slavery, I think it is important to touch on the character of Nelson, his leadership and tactical expertise.
Nelson was quite a celebrity and would be followed around London if he dared venture out. His reputation was massive and the people loved him. However it was not just the civilians that admired him. He was much loved my his comrades in arms, and when he arrived at Trafalgar with Victory, there was great jubilation. A social individual, he made sure all his captains dined with him in the weeks leading up to the battle. He was warm and jovial but made sure that everyman under his command knew what their role was in the coming battle.
He loved caricatures, especially ones of himself, and would instruct his mistress Emma Hamilton to purchase them and display they around their home at Merton Place in South London. He loved his home calling it his paradise.
Nelson was quite the socialite when at home and invited many people to visit him there. However it was rare to see him out of uniform.
Nelson was a great leader of men. Fearless in battle, and always leading from the front, he was always determined to be victorious regardless of the risk.
He suffered many war injuries during his service and catalogued them in a list which he sent to his close friend Admiral Sir Robert Kingsmill.
His Eye at Corsica
His Belly. off Cape St Vincent
His arm at Tenerife
His Head in Egypt
He was always a risk taker even in his youth, yet many thought in his later years he had become quite reckless. Either way he was certainly a brave individual and was both respected and feared by the French and Spanish fleets.
Perhaps the greatest compliment he received was from his enemy Napoleon Bonaparte himself. Who whilst being transported to his final exile on Saint Helena remarked; that it was Admiral Horatio Nelson, above all who had frustrated his dream of global domination.
Nelson's spectacular victories at the battle of the Nile in 1798 and at Trafalgar in 1805, along with blockades of both French and Spanish ports certainly were pivotal in defeating Napoleon.
Along with his injuries, believe it or not, Nelson suffered terribly from sea sickness and never found his sea legs. It is also believed that he may well have been suffering from a condition called Sympathetic Ophthalmia in his only good eye. This is a membrane substance that spreads over the eye eventually causing blindness. It is a painful condition which he could only relieve with opium.
There is a belief that during the battle of Copenhagen he did not see the flag order to retreat. Legend states that he held his telescope to his first damaged eye and said...
"I have only one eye I have the right to be blind sometimes, He then led an offensive and won the battle.
The incident is said to have given birth to the phrase "To turn a blind eye."
Trafalgar is probably the most famous battle in British Naval History and gave the Royal Navy total control of the seas. Nelson wanted to totally destroy the combined fleet so it would never be a threat to Britains superiority again.
His tactics were risky and brave and he called it 'The Nelson Touch,' and although it brought him a great Victory, it cost him his life.
Before the battle he sent a message...
"England expects that everyman will do his duty," He certainly did his.
It is true Nelson send a private a letter to a plantation owner, Simon Taylor, just before Trafalgar in 1805. However the letter was not published until 1807 some eighteen months after his death by abolitionists, and so it can be taken out of context. At the time of its writing Nelson was in pursuit of Villeneuve's fleet and Britain was under serious threat of invasion by Napoleon. Although Nelson does lend support at the time to the plantations and criticises Wilberforce, it has to be remembered that any proposal that might destabilise the national economy at such a critical time would have been a worry not only to him but every commander in the fleet.
The West Indies were a significant contributor to the wealth of the nation at the time and Nelson would no doubt see it as his duty to protect those interests during war.
There are several actions that Nelson took during his live that maybe shows him in a different light.
He was well known for rescuing slaves that escaped plantations taking them onboard his ships signing them up and paying and treating them the same as the rest of the crew. At the end of their service they were all released as free men.
He also secured the release of 30 North African slaves that were being held by Portuguese galleys of Palermo.
In 1802 he supported the idea of free paid Chinese workers replacing the West Indian plantation slaves.
Finally in 1805 he rescued a Haitian General and his servant from the French. They requested to serve under Nelson, who asked the Admiralty if they could be paid until safe passage was sought to Jamaica.
He also had a free Black servant called Price who he said was 'as good a man as ever lived.' He suggested to Emma that Price live with them at Merton Place but the elderly Price declined the offer
To me these are hardly the actions of a racist and like I said at the beginning of this post these were very different times.
To sum up I think Nelson was a remarkable individual whose life was dedicated to the Royal Navy, the country and to the two women in his life Emma and Horatia.
After the abolition of slavery in1807 the navy applied the new law with vigour. they set free over 150,00 slaves and captured over 1600 slave ships. I'm sure that had Nelson lived he would have seen it as his duty to apply this law forcefully.
Admiral Lord Nelson was a sailor whose role it was to defend the country and its interests, not neccesarily because he believed in them but because it was his duty.
It is unfair in my opinion to judge someone who lived so far in the past, in a very different era and when things were so very different.
Slavery of any kind is abhorrent and yet even in this modern world it does still exist, along with restrictions on woman rights, child labour and yes, racism.
It is important that we remember our history and not erase it. We must embrace the good and the bad of it, and make sure that as humans we progress and improve on societies ills. The world today is far from a perfect place, so who are we to judge those who lived before us.
How should we remember Nelson?
Well I will remember him as a hero not a villain. A man who defended his country and paid for it with his life. An intelligent man loved by the people and his comrades, who enjoyed the adoration and the celebrity. A man who suffered injury in battle but never turned away from his duty.
Born: 29th Sept 1758 (Norfolk)
Died: 21 Oct 1805 (Battle of Trafalgar)
Buried" St Pauls Cathedral.