- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 4, 2006


By Roger Knight

Basic Books, $35, 912 pages


Pedagogues insist that history is the coalescing of great forces that drive mere Mankind along predictable lines. So to confront a real hero who in real time wrenched the course of history in another direction is a rare and compelling tale indeed.

Now comes this monumental biography of Admiral Horatio Nelson, himself a monument that stands in the London square named after his greatest triumph. Nelson of Trafalgar. Nelson of “kiss me, Hardy.” Nelson, who was such an icon that even fictional naval heroes such as Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Jack Aubrey of the HMS Surprise invoked his memory with awe.

Authors are often praised for producing biographies that are “a quick read.” Please be advised that “The Pursuit of Victory” is a book to be read deliberately and with regular reference to the profuse footnotes, character biographies and timelines in the back. At 912 pages, it is a doorstop of a book, but that is its attraction.

This is a book to be savored for it tells us in detail just how that unparalleled weapon the Royal Navy worked through the fascinating life of the man who used it to greatest effect. For devotees of naval history the joy is in the futtock knees.

The publication of this book in the United States is something of an after-event. It was first released in Britain last year to universal praise in time for the centennial of the Battle of Trafalgar that reversed the history in Europe in a single afternoon.

Author Roger Knight is an unquestioned expert on both the man and his times, having been a long serving curator of the National Maritime Museum in London and now a lecturer on naval history at the Greenwich Maritime Institute. He wields a deft pen that alternates context with detail to set off the dramatic episodes.

If anything, this is an even more extraordinary story than the sweeping dramas of the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic wars confected by O’Brian and that other master, C.S. Forester. The difference is that O’Brian’s pugnacious Jack Aubrey and Forester’s conflicted Horatio Hornblower were limited by their fictional natures. The man Horace Nelson (he adopted his dead brother Horatio’s name when he was 19) was a work in progress all his life. He had to overcome small stature, bad health (including sea sickness), chronic insecurities, bad temper, faithlessness, snobbery, ghastly injuries and questionable taste in women.

Yet even today he remains Britain’s purest knight-errant hero, transcending the other two — the Duke of Wellington and Winston Churchill — who had the poor judgment not to die tragically at the moment of their triumphs.

Horace Nelson was born in 1758, one of 11 children of a diffident Church of England vicar who was financially dependant on his wife’s family for his parish in East Anglia and other support. Seven of the children (including the first Horatio) died due to the rigor of the times, as did Catherine the mother when the boy was nine.

After fitful education in local grammar schools the Rev. Edmund Nelson turned to his wife’s relatives to secure the lad an appointment as a midshipman in the Royal Navy at age 12. This much of the story was one of the commonplaces of 18th century life where second sons of the nobility and middle classes alike were pushed into advancement via the dark midships of frigates and ships of the line.

One rose or sank. For the first years, young Nelson seemed to sink a bit before he gained traction. He was demoted from midshipman to captain’s servant on his first cruise to the Caribbean and then served as an ordinary seaman on voyages to the Arctic and to India. He will not regain the officer-in-training status of midshipman again until he is 17.

A good war was what Horatio wanted. What we know as the American Revolution was a global conflict that ultimately saw Britain fighting desperately throughout its empire. For Nelson now on the Caribbean station the months flew by chasing American merchant prizes and scrapping with the ships of France, Spain and the Netherlands that protected their own sugar colonies.

By 1777, he has become Lieutenant Horatio Nelson and by the winter of 1778 he has his captaincy of the 14-gun brig Badger, still shy of his 20th birthday. The Nelson of the next 23 years leading up to Trafalgar begins to emerge and it is a mix of traits that confused his friends and enraged the enemies he seemed to deliberately seek out.

Mr. Knight’s index gives the best succinct portrait of Nelson for under the heading of “character” are such notations on “aggression, ambition, appearance and dress, confidence, diplomacy, faith, foolhardiness, generosity, insubordination, jealousy, judgment, reaction to criticism, resolve, sense of grievance, temper, thoughtfulness, and vanity.”

But Horatio Nelson could fight. He could lead a charge of marines up a hillside into withering counter fire and he was never happier than pushing his ship into the midst of larger fleet of enemy vessels and pounding them into blazing wreckage before leading the boarding party.

In the process he suffered horrific wounds, the loss of his right arm in one engagement; in another the loss of vision from his right eye and damage to the vision of his left that would grow progressively dimmer. Malarial fevers wracked him constantly while yet another head wound left him prey to debilitating headaches and immobilizing sea sickness.

While Nelson was an insubordinate, complaining vexation to his commanding officers and the Board of Admiralty back in London, he had the sincere affection of his junior officers and the total confidence by the normally prickly captains of other warships under this command.

His sailors adored him even though he flogged them mercilessly. What drew his men to him was that Nelson knew how to win and did it with dash that turned the hellish carnage of sea warfare into something gallant. At Cape St. Vincent in 1797, Nelson took his flagship out the attacking line and went straight for the far larger Spanish flagship. He bottled up Napoleon and his army in Egypt at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 by taking his force into Aboukir Bay at night and destroying the French fleet as it lay at anchor.

His attack on Copenhagen in 1801 (during which he ignored an order to retire from a superior) was so fierce the Danes sued for peace after one day. The pattern was repeated so often it became known as “the Nelson touch” — get as close to the enemy as possible and then rely on superior British gunnery to hurl a horrendous weight of metal at him until he was destroyed.

But before Nelson could enjoy apotheosis at Trafalgar he had to endure the disaster known as Emma Hamilton. From the portrait included in the book, Emma was a stunner to be sure. Knight speculates she may well have begun her career as a prostitute and she had shilled for a mountebank who promoted an electric bed before being passed into marriage with dozy old Sir William Hamilton, the British consul to the Court of Naples.

Emma was one of those women who combine physical attractiveness, colossal ego and an ambitious appetite for power that made her dangerous to everyone around her. One of Emma’s talents was to star in her own tableaus vivant in which she appeared naked under a diaphanous drape in what were called “Attitudes;” this was a popular form of performance art in which she portrayed famous women in classical themes from mythology.

An observer commented she “had the most beautiful body and dirtiest feet of any woman in England.”

Nelson was a goner. He pensioned off his dull, bewildered wife Fanny (who nevertheless remained Lady Nelson) and moved into what can only be called a love nest with Emma and the clueless Sir William. A daughter, unfortunately named Horatia, was one result. Aside from the social uproar the menage caused Nelson dire financial distress.

The scandal ruined Nelson’s hopes of further advancement which were problematical at best anyway because of his feuds with superiors. By 1805 he was only 47 yet Nelson was a wreck physically, that is what was left of him.

Yet back to sea he went, hoping to mend his finances with more French and Spanish prizes. At Trafalgar on October 21, he found himself commanding a squadron of 23 ships that confronted a larger combined fleet of French and Spanish warships trying to break from the blockaded port of Cadiz to challenge the Royal Navy’s control of the Mediterranean.

Nelson’s divide-and-attack tactics at Trafalgar are still taught at naval academies the world over. After it, neither France nor Spain ever tried to challenge Royal Navy for numerical supremacy and Napoleon’s dreams of invading Britain was permanently shelved. It is all in the book. Nelson’s dramatic death, the comic opera national mourning that followed, the ignominious decline into poverty for Emma.

It was a sad life after all, but a ripping sea yarn about one of the most complex characters in history. One can’t like Horatio Nelson, but serving under him would have been an adventure.

James Srodes is a Washington author whose latest book is “Franklin: The Essential Founding Father.”

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide