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Biography: Horatio Nelson

ADMIRAL HORATIO NELSON, HERO OF TRAFALGAR

Born 29th September 1758 at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. At the age of 12 Nelson joined HMS Raisonable, as Midshipman, and within a few years he had served in an Arctic expedition, and spent almost three years on the East Indies station. Shortly after he returned to England, he was made acting Lieutenant of HMS Worcester on 26th September 1776, and Lieutenant of HMS Lowestoft on the 10th April 1777. Nelson then undertook active service in North America, during the War of American Independence (1775-82). It was during this period that Nelson was promoted Commander of the brig HMS Badger, thus at the age of twenty, he became a Post-Captain, with an immediate opportunity to distinguish himself on active service. On 11th June 1779 he was appointed Captain of HMS Hitchingbroke, and was sent to Nicaragua as the senior officer in command of a joint expedition to attack the Spanish fort at San Juan, as Spain had joined the French in support of the American colonists. The fort was captured, largely due to the initiative and leadership of Nelson. At the end of this action Nelson was struck down with fever and had to return to England to recover. Once he recovered he sailed for the North American Station in command of HMS Albermarle, in which he served until the end of the war.

In 1784, he undertook his only peacetime commission as a captain. He served in the West Indies in HMS Boreas, and suppressed the illicit trade between the West Indies and the former American colonists. It was here that in 1787 he married Frances Nesbit. He returned home a few months later, but was unable to receive a command of another ship, due to peacetime reductions in the navy. He was then on half pay for five years, living mainly in Norfolk with his wife and stepson, Josiah.

In 1793 with the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars Nelson was given command of HMS Agamemnon, and appointed to Lord Hood’s fleet, which was to serve in the Mediterranean. He undertook service inshore and on blockade duties, mainly off the coast of Italy. He helped the army to secure Corsica from the French, and on the 10th July 1794, during the successful siege of Calvi, (19th June - 10th August 1794), Nelson was blinded in the right eye from enemy shot.

In 1795 Nelson distinguished himself in the actions of 13th-14th March and 13th July against the French fleet. He was promoted Commodore and left the Agamemnon for the larger HMS Captain. On the 14th February 1797 Nelson played a prominent role in the battle of Cape St. Vincent, when Sir Jervis’s fleet fought a larger but operationally inferior Spanish fleet. During the battle, Nelson took his ship out of the line of battle to attack a group of Spanish ships. Four were taken as prizes. Nelson led a boarding party that captured two ships the San Nicholas and San Josef, and personally received the surrender of a number of Spanish officers. Six days after the battle he was promoted Rear Admiral of the Blue; he was also awarded the Knight Commander of the Bath for his courage and skill in battle, and given the honorary rank of Colonel of Marines.

In July 1797 Nelson’s expedition to capture a Spanish treasure ship at Santa Cruz, Tenerife was repulsed, and Nelson was so seriously wounded in his right arm, it had to be amputated, and he was invalided home. Nelson remained home until April 1798. On his recovery, he rejoined Jervis’s fleet off the Portuguese coast, on board HMS Vanguard, and was given command of a detached squadron. The individual captains of this squadron became collectively known as the ‘band of brothers’. They were to search for and destroy the French fleet, known to be about to sail from the French Mediterranean ports under the command of Napoleon, for an unknown destination.

On the way to Toulon to watch the movements of this French fleet, the Vanguard was dismasted in a severe gale off Sardinia. It took four days for the ship to be refitted, and by the time Nelson reached Toulon the French fleet had sailed. Nelson then sailed down the west coast of Italy in search of news of the French fleet, but found none. When Nelson heard of the fall of Malta, he was convinced that the French destination was Egypt, and took his fleet to the eastern Mediterranean, but still found no French fleet. He had, in fact, passed the fleet during the night just before they reached their destination. Nelson then sailed to Sicily to replenish supplies, and once again returned to the eastern Mediterranean, and this time found the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, on the Nile. On the night of 1st August 1798, Nelson annihilated all but four of the French fleet, in what was to be known as the Battle of the Nile. Nelson was slightly wounded in the right temple during this action.

After the battle Nelson took his squadron to Naples, where he was hailed as the saviour of Italy, and taken care of by Sir William Hamilton, the British minister, and his wife Emma. Nelson was awarded many honours for his success during the battle: on the 6th November 1798 he was created Baron of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe, and on the 14th February 1799 he was promoted Rear-Admiral of the Red. Whilst in Italy, Nelson became involved in the affairs of Naples, encouraging King Ferdinand to act against the French. This advice was disastrous. The King was driven from the mainland of Italy and took refuge in Sicily under Nelson’s protection. It is here that the liaison between Nelson and Emma Hamilton began. During this period Nelson was instrumental in the hanging of the republican Commodore Franceso Caracciolo, who had been captured at the surrender of the Neopolitan republican forces, and shortly after this episode Nelson, whose presence in Italy was no longer needed, was recalled to England. He travelled home across Europe, in company with the Hamiltons, and was feted everywhere, due to his decisive victory over the French.

He arrived at Great Yarmouth in November 1800, and was appointed Vice-Admiral of the Blue on 1st January 1801. Almost immediately after his return, he was appointed second-in-command to Admiral Parker, on an expedition to the Baltic, to defeat a coalition of northern powers, under the leadership of Paul I, Tsar of Russia. Against Admiral Parker’s instruction, Nelson led a squadron to attack the Danish fleet at the Battle of Copenhagen, on 2nd April 1801, and arranged the terms of the resultant armistice with Denmark. When the circumstances of the action were known at the Admiralty, Admiral Parker was recalled and Nelson made Commander-in-Chief, on the 5th May 1801, and created Viscount of the Nile and Burnham Thorpe on the 22nd May. As the northern coalition had now ended, there was no further need for Nelson’s services in the Baltic, and he returned to England.

On the 24th July 1801, he was appointed to Commander-in-Chief of the inshore forces designed to protect the country from invasion. On 16th May 1803 Nelson was appointed to the command of the Mediterranean Fleet, with HMS Victory as his flagship. For the next two years, his duty was to keep a permanent blockade on Toulon. This was to prevent the French squadron in that port from escaping to join forces with the rest of the Franco-Spanish fleet. In April 1805, Admiral Villeneuve escaped Toulon and was ordered by Napoleon to the West Indies to take command of a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. The purpose was to secure temporary command of the English Channel that would enable the French army to cross for an assault on Britain.

Nelson was in England when he learnt of the Franco-Spanish fleet’s arrival in Cadiz. Nelson received orders to return to the Mediterranean, and arrived off Cadiz at the end of September 1805, where he immediately began to plan for the inevitable battle. On 21st October 1805, the battle of Trafalgar was fought, between Nelson’s fleet of twenty-seven British ships and the Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three ships. Nelson won a decisive victory, but was fatally injured during the battle, by a French sniper shot, and died later that day at the age of forty-seven. He was buried at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the 9th January 1806. Nelson wrote his last prayer before the battle.

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
The information contained in this information sheet is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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