Why a plaque of him in Port Royal?
Widely considered one of Britain’s greatest heroes, thousands of books have been written and numerous films have been made about Nelson. Killed in battle close to two centuries ago, his legend lives on no small feat for a slight man of average height (5’6″), with a narrow chest, spindly legs and sickly constitution (he never recovered after catching malaria as a teen). He never wavered in battle, remaining steadfast in his duty. He was quick on his feet, eager to be in the lead fighting alongside his men, having cleverly planned simple but effective strategies that were easily communicated to those in his command. He respected his men, cared about them and their families, and they, in turn, gave him unswerving loyalty. Yet, for all that, he was human. He had his failings he was said to be vain and to have treated his wife, Frances, unfairly. Nelson had a very public affair with the wife of another man, Emma Hamilton, who bore him a daughter, Horatia. His humanity only propelled his glory, however, and his appeal knew no social boundaries. “There was only one Nelson,” many were said to have remarked on his passing, mourning the man who had become a ‘giant’ in his own lifetime.
THE YOUNG SEAMAN VISITS JAMAICA
Born in England on September 29, 1758, Horatio was the 6th of 11 children born to Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife, Catherine. Raised by his father following his mother’s death when he was 9, young Horatio joined the Royal Navy at age 12. Under his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling of the Raisonable, the earnest young sailor began a serious study of seamanship. He learned how to handle small boats in the Thames and explored the North West Passage, piloting ships through ice. He patrolled the North Sea during the American War of Independence and gained a healthy respect for ordinary seamen. By the age of 20 he was named Lieutenant.
He first came to Jamaica during that same war on either the Badger or the Lowestoft. This was during a tense time in the region Spain, France and the Netherlands, along with the Americans, had declared war on England. When Nelson was in Jamaica, the threat of French invasion from a nearby fleet was very real. It was during this time that he was promoted to Captain in his early 20s in 1779, and put in charge of 500 men and the batteries at Fort Charles. Nelson took his position seriously and was worried that the island was not strong enough to defend itself against a well-organised attack. Soon, the small, slight figure became a regular sight on the fort’s south side raised wooden platform where he paced back and forth for hours on end looking out to sea, his eyes peeled for enemy ships. This platform is now known as Nelson’s quarterdeck and the fort itself boasts a striking but simple plaque honouring the man who would go on to become one of Britain’s greatest heroes.
Jamaica was not attacked and when his frigate, the Hinchinbrooke, arrived
a month or so later, Nelson was sent
to Nicaragua to contend with Spanish settlements there. This was an ill-fated expedition as many of the British
succumbed to yellow fever. A killer of countless British seamen, the dreaded “yellow jack” let only 10 of the Hinchinbrooke’s 100 men survived. Nelson himself fell ill with fever and on his return to Port Royal, he was carried ashore on a cot and taken to the house of a Cubah Cornwallis, a free-black woman who became a self educated nurse known to have saved the lives of numerous British sailors. She carefully nursed him back to health. Nelson recuperated in the country, all the while wishing to be at Port Royal. A favourite visiting spot of Nelson’s while in Jamaica was Flamstead, in the Blue Mountains, where a famous lookout was located. There he would carefully watch the harbour and send signals via mirrors.
In total, Nelson spent close to a year and a half stationed in Jamaica twice at the British Naval headquarters in Port Royal. For most of the 30 months he spent on the island, however, he was sick and begging to be transferred back to England where he felt sure he would regain his health. The tropical climate did not seem to agree with him. In addition to the plaque that proclaims his glory, there is another piece of signage that reflects his impact. Three nondescript notches found on the outside wall of the fort, said to mark the loss of three of Nelson’s mistresses to yellow fever, speak to the flawed side of the hero that which made him human.
NELSON’S RETURN TO THE WEST INDIES
Nelson returned to England and in 1781 was given command of the Albermarle and charged with escorting the young Prince William Henry (who later became King William IV) to the West Indies. It is interesting to note that the free black lady who became a self educated nurse known as Cubah Cornwallis also saved the Prince’s life when, as a midshipman on this journey visiting Jamaica he fell ill. He was the first member of the British Royal family to visit Jamaica. Cubah was later thanked by King William’s wife who sent her a fancy gown. She saved it for her funeral in 1848.
During this trip to the West Indies Nelson became known as a staunch supporter of England’s Navigation Acts. In the 1780s, stationed in English Harbour, Antigua, Nelson kept a keen eye on illegal trading between the English colonies in the Caribbean and traders in the United States. While in the Caribbean, at Montpelier Estate, Nevis, in the late spring of 1785, he met a young widow named Frances (Fanny) Nisbet and her son, Josiah. Horatio and Fanny fell in love and by the time Nelson left for Antigua in August of 1785, the couple were engaged. They were married on March 11, 1787 at Montpelier with the future King of England, Prince William Henry (William IV), giving Fanny away.
A HERO IN THE MAKING
Following the French Revolution in 1789, Nelson returned to European waters, this time commanding hundreds aboard the Agamemnon and engaging in blockades and in 1794, the siege of Toulon. He went to nearby Naples for reinforcements where he first encountered Emma Hamilton, wife of the British Ambassador, who would become his long-time mistress. After the fall of Toulon, Nelson went to Corsica to assist in the capture of Bastia and Calvi, where he lost an eye. Undaunted, he then made for southern Spain and commanded an independent squadron in the Battle of St Vincent in 1797.
After realising that the Spanish fleet was close to escape, he ordered an attack on the Spanish flagship and sank her. He captured two enemy ships by using one as a bridge to storm the other. This took a heavy toll his ship logged greater casualties than any other British vessel. Yet, the day was won. “I always act as I feel right, without due regard to custom,” Nelson was fond of saying. It was a boldness and a dash that came to be known as the ‘Nelson touch’. Nelson’s actions brought him wide acclaim: a knighting and a promotion to Senior Rear Admiral. A man of extreme pride and ambition, he was said to rarely be seen without all of his medals, and to ensure that his exploits made their way into the papers of his day, heedless of any opposition on the part of his superiors.
Nelson’s first action as Admiral was an assault on Tenerife and, this time, it was his right arm that he lost in battle. It had to be removed to avoid gangrene. In those days amputation was done without anesthetic. Nevertheless, Nelson recovered and returned to fight again. In 1798 he played a pivotal role in the history-altering Battle of the Nile, which denied Napoleon his Eastern Empire and crippled him at sea. By cleverly penetrating the French line, Nelson managed to oversee the explosion of the French Flagship L’Orient, the loss of 1,700 French lives and the taking of 3,000 French prisoners. Nelson himself was again injured in this battle, having been temporarily blinded in his good eye by falling debris. When he was led below, many believed he was dying. Ever the leader, he refused treatment ahead of his men and recovered to witness the end of the battle.
Afterwards Nelson retreated to Naples to repair his ship and met up with Emma Hamilton. He was elevated to Baron Nelson of the Nile and awarded a £10,000 annual pension. The King of Naples bestowed the title of Duke of Bronte (in Sicily) on him and Nelson resigned his commission, returning to England in 1800 where he separated from his wife.
In 1801 one-eyed, one-armed Admiral Lord Nelson, a new father, returned to action once more, sailing for Copenhagen to fight against the Danes. He confidently disregarded orders to disengage, famously putting the telescope to his blind right eye and remarking, “I see no ships” (no such disengagement signal), successfully winning the Battle of Copenhagen.
A HERO’S DEATH
In May 1803, Nelson was moved to the Mediterranean aboard the aptly named Victory. By this time, the model of duty to cause and country, the leader of thousands of men and a picture of steadfast courage itself, was a pale, slight figure, his battered, bruised body symbolic of the country he so loved. He blockaded Toulon again preventing the French from meeting up with the Spanish a combined force could have invaded England. By early 1805, Napoleon, who refused to give up, convened ships for that express purpose and the Battle of Trafalgar began off the Spanish coast. By this time in his career, the very utterance of his name is said to have struck fear in the hearts of his enemies. During the fighting, Nelson was shot through the shoulder and chest, the bullet lodging in his spine. The English did defeat Napoleon’s forces (thereby preventing French and Spanish from effectively invading England). When Nelson was told that 15 enemy ships were taken, his reply was simply to note that he had expected 20. He died three hours after being shot. He was 47 years old.
To preserve his body for the trip home, they had to pickle him in a barrel of alcohol (Jamaican rum, perhaps?). When he was removed it is said that the sailors drank the alcohol in his honour, probably thinking it would bring them strength.
Nelson will forever be remembered for his fierce nationalism and attention to duty the ‘Nelson Touch’ epitomised in the call he gave just as the English fleet was moving into position for battle against the French at Trafalgar: “England expects that every man will do his duty.” His cry was broadcast by signal flags to the fleet and met by cheers from all ships. It has gone on to become a rallying cry for many generations. He is also remembered for having shown respect for his captains, with whom he often shared his battle plans, giving them leave to act independently as the fighting wore on.
Such was the measure of this man who, when he was cold, was known to say “Love of my country will keep me warm.” Women held their babies up for him to kiss as a sign of good luck and many he met felt free to call him friend. His death was an occasion of national mourning in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. From parson’s son to naval hero and peer of the realm, his funeral in St Paul’s Cathedral was attended by thousands, among them royalty, politicians and survivors of the Battle of Trafalgar. Emma Hamilton and his daughter, Horatia, were ignored. Emma died nine years later, destitute.
* The Port Royal Museum which was established in 1977 at the Fort Charles Complex in Port Royal, Kingston exhibits the history of Port Royal and maritime life in Jamaica from the Taino to the contemporary periods. Open – Monday to Thursday and Saturday 9:30 a.m – 4:30 p.m. Visit their website at www.instituteofjamaica.org.jm
* In the late 19th century a Cuban doctor discovered that yellow fever (yellow jack) was caused by the female aedes aegypti mosquito. It invaded the liver, causing jaundice, effectively turning the victim ‘yellow’. There
was no treatment and no cure either the patient lived or died. Survivors of yellow fever would, however, never again succumb to the disease. It was eradicated in the 20th century by destroying the mosquito’s breeding ground.
* The Nelson Museum of Nevis houses the largest collection of Nelson memorabilia in the western hemisphere. It is the Caribbean’s newest museum presenting a story of Nevis and Nelson in a sensitive and professional manner. http://www.nevis-nhcs.org/nelsonmuseum.html