|"Westminster Abbey or Glorious Victory"
Commodore Nelson - leading the boarding party to the San Joesf
"I always act as I feel right, without due regard to custom"
Horatio Nelson was born in 1758 - the same year in which the government made the decision to place an order for the construction of a new first rate ship of the line, the Victory - and was destined to become one of the most famous military commanders in history. The third son of eight children, Nelson was born at the vicarage in the Norfolk village of Burnham Thorpe. Nelson's mother died when he was nine and the large family was then raised by his father, the Rev. Edmund Nelson. The young Nelson was educated at the Royal Grammar School, Norwich and at Sir William Paston's School, North Walsham before entering the Navy as a midshipman at age 12. Young Nelson was entered on the books of the Raisonable commanded by his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. Suckling was transferred to the Nore guardship and arranged for his nephew to sail to the West Indies in a merchantman, gaining experience of seamanship and life at sea. Nelson came back with a respect for the ordinary seamen and some knowledge of the huge gap between seamen and their officers.
Nelson's seamanship training continued - learning to handle small boats in the confined and shoal waters of the Thames and Medway estuaries. Suckling used his influence to have Nelson appointed to the Carcass, sailing to explore the North West passage. Aged still only 14, Nelson honed his seamanship skills in piloting the ship through the ice.
Uncle Maurice Suckling became Comptroller of the Navy (chairman of the Navy Board) and his influence was able to speed young Nelson's career. After good reports from the Carcass, and with the support of his uncle, Nelson was appointed an Acting-Lieutenant and joined Worcester, a 64 gun ship patrolling the North Sea during the War of American Independence.
Experience followed experience and Nelson became a well regarded and competent sea officer. He passed his examinations for Lieutenant and was appointed Second Lieutenant in Lowestoffe. Suckling's influence continued until his death in 1778 and the following year Nelson was promoted post-Captain and given command of the Hinchingbroke. Admiral Hood now aided Nelson's career and selected the Albemarle under Nelson to take the young Prince William (who later became King William IV) to the West Indies.
The French Revolution in 1789 focused attention back towards mainland Europe. Nelson was sympathetic towards the plight of agricultural workers in his native Norfolk. As the threat of war increased, Nelson was promised command of the Agamemnon, then fitting out at Chatham. The execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793 made war inevitable and by April Nelson was at sea in his new ship.
Agamemnon served in Lord Hood's Mediterranean fleet. Action followed and in 1794 Nelson was engaged in blockade duty and the siege of Toulon. At the siege of Calvi, Corsica, a ball hit the ramparts in front of him, sending a shower of stones and sand into his face. The sand blinded Nelson in his right eye. Lord Hood was replaced by Vice Admiral Hotham. In command of the Agamemnon, Nelson took part in action against the French, capturing the Ca Ira. He was however, rather dissatisfied with Hotham's command and told him so. Hotham ignored the comments and replied, 'we must be contented. We have done very well'. Under Hotham, Nelson carried out blockade duties off the southern coast of France before, in 1795, command of the Mediterranean fleet was passed to Admiral Sir John Jervis.
Jervis was far more dynamic and was prepared to allow his captains to act on their own initiative. Jervis was a strict disciplinarian who was not slow to critiscise and remove officers who did not perform. He took note of Nelson's enthusiasm and use his influence to have him promoted to the rank of Commodore, in which rank he could command a small independent squadron. As Napoleon's armies marched through Italy, Nelson was ordered to cover the evacuation of Leghorn, Corsica and Elba. As he did so, Admiral Jervis retreated to Gibraltar with the intention of blockading the Spanish fleet in its ports and preventing its sailing to join up with the French in the English Channel. Nelson, sailing in Minerve, Captain George Cockburn reached Gibraltar to find that the Spanish fleet had sailed. He pressed on and passed through the fleet in dense fog in the night of 11th February 1797. On the 13th he reached Admiral Jervis and plans were laid to intercept the Spanish - at what became the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.
It was at St Vincent that Nelson showed his determination and his ability to interpret orders to his advantage. "I always act as I feel right, without due regard to custom". In the ensuing battle, Nelson, realising that the Spanish fleet was in danger of escape, ordered Captain Miller in Captain to wear out of the line of battle and turn to head for the Spanish flagship. This was a bold and decisive action - had it failed Nelson would have been in disgrace. It did not, the day was won and Nelson's actions brought him to the notice of a much wider audience - confirmed as Rear Admiral he was knighted and granted the Freedom of the City of London.
St Vincent was the first of the series of great naval actions that culminated in the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar on 21st October 1805.
St Vincent 1797 - main index
Page creation: Peter Milford - St Vincent College, February 1997