“Thank God, I have done my duty,” quoth Lord Nelson moments before expiring in 1805 at the Battle of Trafalgar. In this vivid study, Nicolson (God’s Secretaries, 2003) examines the weight of those words.
Horatio Nelson was a kindly man in a violent time, uncouth and simple; the wife of an admiralty lord thought that his general appearance “was that of an idiot”—and this from an admirer—but his foes knew better than to discount him for his looks, for at the turn of the 19th century he was renowned for his fleet-crushing abilities, his willingness to shed his own men’s blood to gain advantage, and his careful enunciation of the doctrine of annihilation. Nelson saw himself, writes Nicolson, as an agent of apocalypse and divine retribution; he lived at a time when varieties of millennial religion were sweeping across England, particularly among the working class that made up the Royal Navy, and he took his religious ideas seriously while seeing to it that his fleets were confident, aggressive, and, by 1805, “the most effective maritime killing machine in the world.” Against them stood a Spanish navy that, while not useless, was badly served by its officers and crown, and a French navy that was divided along lines of class, region and ideology, so much so that it found it hard to fulfill the functions of a marine force—namely, keeping itself alive and afloat and constantly killing the enemy, as the British were doing to them in a ratio of ten to one. Technology played its role, Nicolson observes, but ideas and beliefs were as central, and though Trafalgar was a tactical mess, British ideology and values kept the fleet moving even after poor Nelson fell to an enemy musket ball. “In other words,” writes Nicolson, “love, honor, zeal, and skill won the day.”
A well-reasoned transoceanic rejoinder to Joanne B. Freeman’s Affairs of Honor (2001), and a pleasure for fans of Aubrey and Hornblower.