Nelson Must Not Fall

If we can't honour the Hero of England, who can we honour?

I can’t ignore Howden Junior School, a primary school in Yorkshire that’s in the news for renaming its houses. Pupils at Howden will no longer see the names of Horatio Nelson, Francis Drake or Walter Raleigh on their school reports, due to those men’s supposed links to the slave trade.

“We didn’t teach them in our curriculum,” says headteacher Lee Hill, who credits a former pupil with drawing his attention to the “despicable deeds” of the three men. “We clearly didn’t know all aspects of their history. None of our pupils knew who they were (beyond sailors).” Howden houses are now named for more “relatable” modern figures including Marcus Rashford and Greta Thunberg.

Let’s leave aside the question of how someone can reach a senior position in the British education system without knowing about Horatio Nelson, nor apparently feeling embarrassed that his pupils don’t know either. Let’s leave aside the question of exactly what type of behaviour might be encouraged by naming a school house after Greta Thunberg. And as always, let’s leave aside that slavery was practiced by every civilisation in history until Europeans - not Ottomans, not Mongols, not Arabs - stamped it out globally, something I imagine isn’t on the Howden curriculum either.

The more immediate problem for Mr. Hill is that by dissociating his school from Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, the main thing he’s teaching his pupils is to believe what they read on the Internet without checking their facts. Nelson never owned nor traded slaves, never financed nor profited from slavery, never took part in slaving activities on land or sea, and his “links to slavery” were tenuous to non-existent. Given the current popularity of hero-bashing and statue-toppling, it’s more important than ever to tell the truth about Nelson’s legacy. And since Hill’s pupils aren’t going to hear it in school, I guess I’d better tell them myself.

Nelson, for the uneducated, was the most influential British seaman of his age, a renowned commander and tactician whose string of decisive victories - most famously the 1805 battle of Trafalgar, at which he died - thwarted Napoleon’s naval ambitions and cemented, for the century that followed, Britannia’s rule of the waves. Brits of an earlier generation would be stunned to see Nelson need an introduction; the Vice-Admiral was a legend in his own time, the “Hero of England”, one of the very few non-royals in English history to be honoured with a state funeral. His greatest achievement used to be celebrated annually on “Trafalgar Day” until 20th-century events dampened public enthusiasm for the glorification of war.1

Yet Nelson’s reputation isn’t what it used to be. I don’t know where Hill’s pupil got the idea that Nelson was “disgusting”, but it might have been from ToppleTheRacists.org, a site which lists six Nelson statues among targets for a Colston-ing. According to them Nelson was “a vocal supporter of the slave trade”, “a known white supremacist”, and (particularly ludicrously) a “slave pioneer”. They cite a 2017 Guardian piece from Afua Hirsch, who claims:

While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it. Britain’s best known naval hero… used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.

Nelson, says Hirsch, should be called a white supremacist “without hesitation”. But she should hesitate. Strong claims require strong evidence, and there’s next to no evidence that Nelson was on the wrong side of history when it comes to slavery - which incidentally is more than can be said for the Guardian, who ran an op-ed in 1861 supporting the Confederate States of America.

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None of Nelson’s many thousands of surviving letters (which you can read in the seven-volume Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, available for free online) show him expressing animus towards any ethnic group (except the French, whom he loathed2), and he had little to say either way about slavery. A few of his actions give some clue though as to his thoughts on the matter, such as in 1799 when he petitioned a Portuguese admiral for the release of the latter’s Turkish slaves (Dispatches Vol 3, p231), or in 1805 when he supported the Haitian anti-slavery militant Joseph Chretian (Vol 6, p412).

So where did Hirsch get the idea that Nelson used “his position of huge influence” to “vigorously defend” and “perpetuate” the tyranny of slavery? Nelson never “used his seat in the House of Lords” for much of anything, making only six unremarkable speeches in the Lords during the seven years he held a peerage, most of which time he was away at sea. The only black mark against Nelson’s name comes from a letter he wrote in 1805 to his slave-owning acquaintance Simon Taylor, in which he allegedly declared his opposition to “the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies”. (For the Howden pupils: William Wilberforce was a prominent abolitionist.) This is the only known primary source in which Nelson expresses anything resembling support for the slave trade - in private, and not very “vigorously” either if you ask me.

The claim that Nelson counted on West Indian slaveowners like Taylor “among his closest friends” is just plain made-up too. Nelson was stationed in the West Indies during his early career, but according to Nelson expert Martyn Downer, Nelson wasn’t close with Simon Taylor, and “most of the other planters in the West Indies hated Nelson for rigorously enforcing the shipping laws they liked to flout.” Nelson’s only true friend in the region was a merchant named Hercules Ross, to whose son he was godfather, a son named “Horatio”. Hercules Ross was an abolitionist.

Of course if Nelson held anti-abolition views in private then that’s not something to sweep under the rug. And, having lived in the West Indies, he can’t have been unaware of the brutal horrors of plantation slavery - Nelson’s wife, born into wealth on Nevis, admittedly owned a slave in her youth. Nelson had his moral failings in any case: he was notoriously cruel to that same wife, cutting off all contact with her after taking a mistress, and his actions in Naples in 1799 have been described by some as a war crime.

But there’s more to that incriminating letter than meets the eye. Nelson was writing in 1805 from his ship, having arrived in the West Indies after chasing a Franco-Spanish fleet across the Atlantic, the same fleet he would catch up with and destroy at Trafalgar a few months later. Nelson wrote to Taylor to seek favour for Alexander Scott, his ship’s chaplain who was hoping to start an ecclesiastical career in Jamaica. West Indian slavery was then under well-deserved threat; the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) had led to massacres, and wealthy plantation owners like Taylor knew that the rising tide of abolitionism threatened their livelihoods and possibly their lives. By making his anti-Wilberforce remarks, Nelson was most likely just telling the powerful Taylor what he wanted to hear, cosying up to him to win the support he needed.

Nelson died, and the letter reappeared in February 1807 in Political Register, a newspaper owned by the anti-abolitionist William Cobbett. Parliament was then on the cusp of passing the Slave Trade Act, bringing an overdue end to British involvement in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and men like Cobbett and Taylor sought to undermine public support for the Act by any means necessary3. Taylor must have sent a copy of the letter to Cobbett, recognising its propaganda value, and recent research reveals that someone - probably Cobbett - altered it before publication, embellishing Nelson’s words to better suit their narrative.4 The anti-abolitionists knew that a national hero like Nelson was a powerful name to have on their side, especially since he couldn’t call them out on their lies from beyond the grave. Nelson didn’t “use his influence” to fight abolition - racists hijacked Nelson’s memory to bolster their wicked cause.

The worst that can be said of Nelson is that he didn’t fight for abolition. Faced with the enormity of chattel slavery, he remained obstinately neutral. That’s a blemish on his record, but it hardly erases his enormous accomplishments in other domains. Nelson’s overriding moral priority was his sense of duty to his country; had he lived a few years longer, that same sense of duty would most likely have seen him take part in the Blockade of Africa, the Royal Navy’s decades-long effort to intercept slave ships and free their captives.

History is messy. Everyone thinks that if they’d been alive back then, they’d have done what’s right, but how can you be so sure? The past is unimaginable. If you’d been born in a time when educated minds were ignorant of facts now taught to children, would you be the same person you are today? I know I wouldn’t.

And who says you’d be better than Nelson? Back then people sat back complacently while millions were enslaved, abused, tortured, and exploited worldwide, but the exact same is true in 2021. There are more slaves alive today than there were in Nelson’s lifetime; what are you doing about it? I’m sure you don’t like slavery; me neither. Maybe we’ll both get a statue in Parliament Square with a plaque that reads “they expressed a mainstream opinion for which they suffered no risk or danger.”

Until then, let’s remember that heroes matter. In a nation of tens of millions, social cohesion can only be achieved through a sense that we belong to something bigger than our immediate circle, that we have something in common with all these strangers: shared culture, shared heritage, shared identity. Statues and monuments are more than a history lesson. They’re a story we tell ourselves about who we are, a common cultural reference point that binds our identities together. We’re tribal animals - without a shared sense of identity, we’re defeated. That’s why ideologues and zealots love to denigrate their enemies’ heritage. They hate your heroes because they hate you. Don’t give them an inch.

And what a hero Nelson was. Nothing that happened in 1805 was inevitable. I try to imagine what it would have felt like to live in Britain knowing that an army of hundreds of thousands was amassing in Calais, poised to do me harm. I try to imagine the relief I would feel to learn that Nelson had smashed Napoleon’s fleet, securing British command of the Channel and vanquishing the threat of an invasion. I try to imagine the gratitude I would feel towards this man I’d never met whose genius and bravery had saved my homeland from the chaos and destruction of a continental conflict that killed millions. If that’s not worthy of a statue, then what is? If we can’t honour Nelson, who can we honour?

So leave Nelson’s Column exactly where it is. The man wasn’t perfect, but if we tore down every statue of an imperfect human, the only thing left in Trafalgar Square would be this montrosity:

And if that’s all we’re going to have left, then I’d rather Napoleon had won.

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Main photo credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

1

I highly recommend a visit to the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, where you can learn about Nelson’s life in a dedicated exhibit, and step on the decks of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar and the world’s oldest naval ship still in commission.

2

Nelson once described the French as “thieves, murderers, oppressors and infidels”, but I suppose if I’d spend my whole adult life dodging Frenchmen’s attempts to kill me, I wouldn’t think highly of them either.

3

William Cobbett’s attitude to slavery improved in later life, and he did good things for the British working classes. This essay from the William Cobbett Society is worth a read.

4

For a side-by-side comparison of the original and doctored letters, and a full history of the letter’s publication and context, see the essay Deceit and Defamation by Chris Brett.