my friend i would be gladder than i can say, thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity, I Love You
i’ll try to keep this reasonably short so i don’t go overboard (ha ha). lord horatio nelson is one of the most famous figures in british history; he’s probably the most famous person related to the royal navy, and he’s pretty much a household name over here (at least in slightly older generations). you might be familiar with trafalgar square in london, which was named after the naval battle in 1805 which was both orchestrated by nelson and one of england’s greatest naval triumphs ever (it’s certainly the most well-known!). he also has a column called, believe it or not, nelson’s column (which is absolutely MASSIVE) which was erected in 1843 to commemorate trafalgar. (another thing about nelson’s column which i really like is he’s actually surveying his fleet from where he stands because he’s looking down the mall (the street leading off trafalgar square), and each lamp-post has a little sculpture of a ship on it.) i’d say that many people in britain today probably only know nelson’s name because of trafalgar square rather than the history surrounding it, but there’s an awful lot of history and you can’t expect everyone to know all of it!
nelson was an incredibly successful admiral who won a lot of very decisive battles and was essentially the figurehead of the navy for several years until his untimely (yet very fitting) death. he was seen as a bit of a loose cannon (ha ha) who could not be fully controlled by the admiralty, due to his habit of ignoring orders and disregarding naval procedure. sometimes this went very wrong (the battle of santa cruz de tenerife in 1797 could be seen as an example of this, which was the battle in which nelson lost his right arm) but many other times it led to brilliant victories, so the admiralty sort of tolerated him (in a very slightly fond way). it certainly helped that he was, on the whole, adored by the public and revered as a hero, thanks in part to the very highly-coloured reports he would sent back to england describing his gallant deeds (though it’s not like he was really exaggerating them; he did some extremely gallant things). he was an excellent strategist and could judge his enemy well–several of the naval battles fought during the napoleonic wars ended with english victories because of nelson–and he was also ridiculously brave. and i mean ridiculous. verging on stupid. at one point during the battle of cape st vincent, also in 1797, he used a spanish ship as a bridge to jump onto another spanish ship and ensure the surrender of her captain whilst yelling “westminster abbey or glorious victory!”. he was slightly bonkers.
i’d argue one of his most compelling characteristics though was how much faith and trust he put in his men, and how much he clearly loved them and valued them and respected their opinions and decisions (this is the point where i glare at the duke of wellington). he was SO POPULAR it’s almost impossible to exaggerate. he gave so much to his men that they loved him to death and would have probably done absolutely anything for him; they were so proud to serve him and he was kind and approachable to all of them, even the most humble seaman. this can perhaps be most clearly seen in the fact that at the battle of trafalgar, nelson was mortally wounded by a french sniper, and when the news was spread of his death many sailors just sat down in the blood and mess where they’d been fighting brutally for hours and cried. it was such a dramatic departure from the common relationship between sailors and their officers that sailors of different nationalities were alarmed by it and found it unsettling to see fully grown men who had just been suffering hell on earth weeping because their admiral was dead. (nelson also called his crew ‘the children’, which is not exactly relevant but i wanted to mention it anyway.) he was unerringly faithful to his friends, at one point risking complete loss of his ship to rescue thomas hardy, the man who would become the addressee of the famous “kiss me, hardy” statement.
of course it shouldnt be assumed from this that he was marvellous in every way; he certainly had his fair share of flaws, including but not limited to his conventional yet still unfortunate opinions on the slave trade and his neglect of his estranged wife. part of what i like about him though is that he was a very real person, if that makes sense: he had so many human qualities that made him an absolute character if nothing else. things like the fact that he got terribly seasick as soon as any ship he was on left the harbour, or his entertaining vanity, or his habit of standing on deck in the middle of the night during storms whilst he was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the french fleet, or his struggles with depression and mental illness following the loss of his arm–they all make him seem so human and tangible. mostly, though, i think i just like him as a person (or how he appears as a person been through many layers of history; of course i can’t say how he was in real life). he’s just so entertaining as a figure, because he was this little chap in a big hat and ridiculous tights running around winning battles and being overdramatic about minor illnesses at the same time as having his arm and his eye and bits of his head knocked off, being pretty much a cool dad to all his sailors, trying to keep the arm he had amputated and being upset that it was thrown away, and just being in general an eccentric fellow who was almost overpoweringly charismatic and charmed people just by being Nice.
when nelson died his funeral was enormous, and the streets were lined with people paying their respects to him, because he was essentially a celebrity at the time of his death. (it helps that his death was very appropriate: he died in the midst of the action having ensured england’s victory and striking a devastating blow against the french.) he was brought back to england pickled in brandy or rum (depending on which account you read), and the story goes that when the cask containing his body was opened it was found to be empty of alcohol because the sailors had drilled a hole in the bottom and drunk all of it, which is where the phrase ‘tapping the admiral’ comes from. it’s also supposedly the origin of the term ‘nelson’s blood’ to describe brandy or rum, though both those legends have been disputed. in any case, nelson’s fame by no means faded after his death; on the contrary, he ascended to something verging on sainthood, with many paintings being made of him being guided to heaven by various divine figures. these days you’ll come across a Lord Nelson pub in pretty much every town you visit in england–i imagine there’s a couple of Nelson’s Arms too, and hopefully a Nelson’s Eye (or a Nelson’s Piece of Eyebrow).
ultimately (and i realise i said i was going to be brief and yet here i am, i am so terribly sorry, please forgive me) i love nelson because he was just the most fascinating man, and he was also so unrealistic as a person yet he actually existed. like if you describe an over-the-top scene from an action film involving ships and go ‘that would never happen’, nelson probably did it. also if you name a body part nelson probably lost it. he was just so small and frail but full of love and passion, and his exploits make me smile; he was flawed and imperfect but so very human, and i love him a lot. and that’s my nelson crash course! i love a tiny dead admiral!