The Life of Nelson

Captain Horatio Nelson aged 18, by John Francis Rigaud 1781

Nelson is a monumental subject: he did a lot and wrote a lot, and has been much talked about. So it’s not surprising that this is a weighty book. But the character it describes is so engaging and its author is such a wise and informative guide that the 700-odd pages slip by quite easily. It’s a mighty biography that deserves to be better known.

Nelson has long since gone out of fashion as a public idol. These days people tend to be wary of great national heroes, and the ignorant youth of today only know him in passing as the figure crowning a stupendous column. That’s a shame, because there were very good reasons why they put him up there in 1843, carving his likeness so deeply you can still almost make him out from 150 feet below.

Wind-Powered Warfare

Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was a US naval officer, educator, and according to one historian, “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century.” The son of a noted West Point professor, Mahan’s thinking on nautical tactics influenced navies around the world. Several ships and a hall at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis have been named in his honour.

Nelson wounded

We live more than a hundred years after the age of sail: for most of us the challenges of wind-powered warfare are remote and mysterious. Mahan himself was writing nearly a hundred years distant from Nelson. But as a man steeped in military history and a seaman well versed in the art of sailing, he is an excellent interpreter of those salty old times.

Mahan subtitles his book The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain, and reading it you quickly understand why he was influential in his field. He has a wonderful knack for making the subtleties of strategy seem simple. He shows us just how sea power worked in Nelson’s time: how a few ships patrolling around the Riviera could threaten the whole French adventure in Italy, how a fleet stationed around Sicily could trap a huge army in Egypt, and how ships posted in the Channel could thwart Bonaparte’s elaborate invasion plans.

Engines of War

The book clarifies the impact of the technological conditions of the day. Ships were massively costly engines of war, comparable to the sophisticated jet fighters of today. The Victory took six years to complete at the enormous cost of £63,176. Capturing a ship was lucrative: a quarter of the prize money was awarded to the victorious captain, an eighth to the admiral who signed his orders, and the remainder shared out among his crew. As a result, much of naval warfare was aimed at seizing the enemy’s ships instead of sinking them, and vessels changed hands regularly.

HMS Victory, painted in the yellow stripes on black Nelson favoured

Dependent on visual sightings, and with communication between ships limited to hoisting flags or shouting, navies often had great trouble locating their enemy. When Villeneuve’s ships slipped out of Toulon on 30 March 1805 Nelson was obliged to send frigates scouting out in all directions in an attempt to find them. For more than two weeks his fleet hovered between Sardinia and the Barbary Coast, convinced the French must be headed for Naples, Sicily or Egypt. It was not until 18 April that he heard they had actually been sighted 300 miles to the westward, heading out of the Mediterranean. For days Nelson tried his utmost to follow them, but he was held in place by steady opposing winds. “I cannot get a fair wind, or even a side wind. Dead foul! — dead foul!” he complained. “It has half killed me.” One of his officers described him “almost raving with anger and vexation,” so desperate was he to catch the French.

Not a Moment Should Be Lost

As Mahan makes clear, this eagerness to attack was one of the keys to Nelson’s dazzling success. Like Napoleon, he was always quick to seize a chance as soon as it presented itself, ready to strike hard before the enemy had time to prepare. “My disposition cannot bear tame and slow measures,” he said.

Again and again he expressed this urge to act swiftly and decisively. “You may rest assured that I will make a vigorous attack upon them, the moment their noses are outside the [harbour],” he told his commander when blockading the Spanish in Cadiz in 1797. “Not one moment shall be lost in my attacking the enemy,” he told his captains in 1799. “The more I have reflected, the more I am confirmed in opinion, that not a moment should be lost in attacking the enemy,” he repeated to his superior Sir Hyde Parker before the battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

This readiness was not just raw audacity: it was grounded in thorough preparation. Naval operations involved long stretches of voyaging, watching and waiting, and Nelson always used this time productively. In the eastward chase across the Mediterranean that preceded the battle of the Nile in 1798, he was incessantly thinking through every possible situation his fleet might have to deal with, and how he could best meet it. He sought the opinions of trusted subordinates, and at the same time made sure that every one of his captains was thoroughly acquainted with his strategy. “It was his practice during the whole of his cruize,” wrote his flag captain, Berry, “whenever the weather and circumstances would permit, to have his captains on board [his ship], where he would fully develop to them his own ideas of the different and best modes of attack, in all possible positions.”

Mahan puts it very well:

Nelson’s own mind was, by constant preoccupation, familiar beforehand with the bearings of the different conditions of any situation likely to occur, and with the probable inferences to be drawn; his opinions were, so to say, in a constant state of formation and development, ready for instantaneous application to any emergency as it arose.

Another factor was the fitness and confidence of his crews. Mutiny was unheard of under Nelson, such was his reputation for kindly consideration. He always took pains to keep his men healthy and mentally occupied at sea, moving around to give them a change of scene, and making sure they got regular supplies of fresh food and water. The doctor who joined the Victory in January 1805 found that out of its 840 men only one was confined to bed by sickness, and that the other ships in the fleet were in a similarly good condition after twenty months at sea. In the two months’ transatlantic pursuit of Villeneuve that followed, not one death from illness occurred among the seven or eight thousand men of the British fleet. By contrast, the Franco-Spanish fleet landed 1,000 sick men when it reached Martinique, and buried almost as many.

A Note Found on the Quarterdeck

Nelson’s care for his crews seemed to have a marked effect on their fighting spirit. In 1797, on an earlier voyage, he told his wife a note had been quietly dropped one night on the quarterdeck:

Success attend Admiral Nelson! God bless Captain Miller! We thank them for the Officers they have placed over us. We are happy and comfortable, and will shed every drop of blood in our veins to support them, and the name of the Theseus shall be immortalized as high as the Captain’s. SHIP’S COMPANY.

In contrast to the lovable nature which attracted such loyalty, Nelson’s resolve grew out of a frank revulsion for the French which may seem strange to us today. “I hate their country and their manners,” he said. “‘Down, down with the French!’ is my constant prayer.” “‘Down, down with the French!’ ought to be placed in the council-room of every country in the world… down, down with the damned French villains. Excuse my warmth; but my blood boils at the name of a Frenchman. I hate them all — Royalists and Republicans.”

Flattery and Cajolement

Another crucial factor in his career was that he was always ready to take risks and bend rules – no slight thing in an age when insubordination could be harshly punished. One of his most famous triumphs, at Cape St Vincent, came when he broke out of his position in the line of battle to intercept the enemy, helping turn the tide of events against them. Nelson’s commander, admiral Jervis, wisely commended his action. “The test of a man’s courage is responsibility,” he said. The evening after the battle, one of his other captains described Nelson’s action as an unauthorised breach of his orders. “It certainly was so,” Jervis replied, “and if ever you commit such a breach of your orders, I will forgive you also.”

Nelson’s boldness and plain good sense was backed up by on a rich store of artful diplomacy. He was deeply susceptible to praise himself (a fact notoriously grasped by Lady Hamilton), but he also had an acute understanding of the feelings of others. When the Portuguese admiral who had long blockaded Malta in aid of the British was ordered home before the enemy had yielded, Nelson wrote him a letter which is a masterpiece of flattery and cajolement.

You are hereby required and directed, … notwithstanding the orders you may have received from your Court to return to Lisbon, not on any consideration whatsoever to withdraw one man from that island, which may have been landed from the squadron under your Excellency’s command, or detach one ship down the Mediterranean, until further orders from me for that purpose…. If you quit your most important station till I can get [relief for you], depend upon it, your illustrious Prince will disapprove of (in this instance) your punctilious execution of orders…. I am not a little anxious for the honour of Portugal and your Excellency, that you should be present at the surrender. I hold myself responsible…. You was the first at the blockade. Your Excellency’s conduct has gained you the love and esteem of Governor Ball, all the British officers and men, and the whole Maltese people; and give me leave to add the name of Nelson as one of your warmest admirers, as an officer and a friend.

An incident at the battle of Copenhagen showed even more clearly his sensitivity to how other people thought. At a critical stage of the battle when the British had seized some of the Danish floating batteries, but were still meeting stiff resistance, he wrote a short message to send ashore under a flag of truce. The letter was threatening and conciliatory at the same time.

Lord Nelson has directions to spare Denmark, when no longer resisting; but if the firing is continued on the part of Denmark, Lord Nelson will be obliged to set on fire all the floating batteries he has taken, without having the power of saving the brave Danes who have defended them.

It was in an apparently minor matter, the sealing of the letter, that Nelson demonstrated his grasp of the significance of subtle appearances. His secretary was about to seal the envelope with a gummed wafer, but Nelson ordered sealing wax and a light to be brought instead. The man sent out to fetch it was killed. When this was reported Nelson’s only reply was “Send another messenger.” He waited patiently till the wax was brought, and saw that the envelope was carefully sealed. One of his officers asked him why he had done this after such a tragic loss. “Had I made use of the wafer,” Nelson replied, “it would still have been wet when presented to the Crown Prince; he would have inferred that the letter was sent off in a hurry, and that we had some very pressing reasons for being in a hurry. The wax told no tales.”

The message was eventually followed by a truce and the end of the conflict with Denmark.

A Broad and Subtle View

It is true that Mahan’s portrait traces to some extent the outlines of the nineteenth-century “great man”. He repeatedly uses the word “genius” for Nelson. But the image he creates is convincing and not at all crude. He does find a streak of weird intuition at the root of Nelson’s incomparable success for which the only explanation he can offer was that it was there.

But what shall be said of those flashes of insight, as at Cape St. Vincent, elicited in a moment, as by the stroke of iron on rock, where all the previous processes of ordered thought and laboured reasoning are condensed into one vivid inspiration, and transmuted without a pause into instant heroic action? Is that we call “genius” purely a mystery, of which our only account is to give it a name?

Yet there is truth in this view; and Mahan also unpicks the many other more readily understandable elements of skill, common sense, intelligence, diligence, bravery and occasional good luck which wove around that unaccountable bright thread of talent.

Unexpected moments of human frailty, for example, throw a different light on the hero. On a Christmas visit to the slave-owning master of Fonthill Abbey, William Beckford, his host drove him round the estate in a phaeton drawn by four horses.

There was not the least danger, the horses being perfectly under my command, long driven by myself. Singular to say, we had not gone far before I observed a peculiar anxiety in his countenance, and presently he said: ‘This is too much for me, you must set me down.’ I assured him that the horses were continually driven by me, and that they were perfectly under command. All would not do. He would descend, and I walked the vehicle back again.

Mahan doesn’t shy away from Nelson’s sometimes large errors, from his moments of weakness or the expressions of petty spite which seem so incongruous in a beloved hero. He doesn’t hesitate to tell us when he thinks Nelson acts amiss. He is a sympathetic but fair and always well informed judge.

To some extent he also echoes the disapproval of Emma Hamilton that was common in Nelson’s time as well as his own. He presents Nelson’s attachment to her as an unfortunate moral failing. But his depiction of this fascinating character shows a marked appreciation for her often precarious position. As a penniless teenager well-to-do men exploited her ruthlessly, shunting her from one to the next like a piece of baggage in the most disgusting way. Mahan has the imagination to understand some of the hardships confronting her, and the fairness to credit her for her undoubted talents. He shows her not as a mere vulgar slut, nor a proto-feminist martyr, but as a fallible human being worthy of some sympathy; and the chapter describing her is one of the finest and most persuasive in the book.

It is for this breadth of view and subtle empathy, as much as for its sheer factual richness and the way it so brilliantly clarifies the geostrategic context of Nelson’s career, that Mahan’s biography still deserves to be studied and enjoyed by modern readers.

The Life of Nelson: the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain
by Captain A. T. Mahan
Sampson Low, Marston & Co, London 1899.
764 pages with plates.
Printed from: .
© Aethaelwaerd Neen 2019.


  1. Frank Warburton says:

    Very interesting, thanks! I’m going to read this book.

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  3. andfinally says:

    Thanks Kelly, very kind!