Europe Society and the Life of Nelson
When we talk of the famous naval officers in the annals of Maritime history in Europe; Viscount Nelson immediately takes center stage. His achievements during the Revolutionary Wars. The Napoleonic Wars have filtered down through the ages; and remained in our hearts forever.
Childhood in Europe
1758 saw the birth of one of the greatest admirals Britain has nurtured.
Born to the Reverend Edmund Nelson and Catherine Nelson; the sixth among eleven children, Horatio Nelson, was captured by the sound of the sea. Just a short distance away from his home in Burnham Thorpe.
The small boy would walk the half mile to the seashore; and gaze in fascination at the sea. As well as the cargo ships. There would be added treats in the form of conversations with the merchant seamen.
This is where it all began. Nelson had stars in his eyes. He saw his life unfold on the seas before him. This was for him; the frontier of the wider world.
No doubt, Horatio had great affection for his father. But his mother was dearer to him. More so, I feel the reason was because he lost her at a very early age.
He took her memories with him life long. Especially when he was at sea. “The thought of former days brings all my mother into my heart; which shows itself in my eyes…” were his written words aboard the Victory in Europe in 1804. (Letters of Nelson)
Learning the 4 R’s
Nelson’s academic pursuits were short. During that span, he went through no less than three schools. It was as if his education in Europe was to come through the seas; since he set off at the tender age of twelve.
A humorous incident came to light about Nelson’s school days in Europe; when a schoolfellow opened a little known fact: “it was Nelson’s pleasure to set smaller boys working the pump in the village street; so that he could sail paper-boats in the resulting stream of water.”(School)
The Nelson family struggled with finances in Europe. Perhaps that was the reason why the children all tried to find vocations fairly early in their lives. Grasping at a golden opportunity offered by his uncle, Horatio, embarked on his sea life very early.
“His constant seeking of attention and approval; which underpins many actions in his later personal and public life, may be traced back to his early youth” (National Archives)
Familial ties in Europe
His affection and concern for his youngest sister, Catherine, was laudable. He wrote of her in a letter to his brother: “My small income shall always be at her service; and she shall never want a protector and sincere friend while I exist”. (Letters of Nelson)
The grim reality of naval services in those days was relieved by the presence of officers like Nelson; as the likes of him imbued an aura of romance and flair into the tedium. This not only exemplified his own standing and fame. But also that of the British naval services in Europe.
The 10 year Hiatus and Marriage
Since the end of the American Revolution; naval exercises became limited. Nelson was hard put to find ships on; which to get gainful employment. On a trip to the West Indian island of Nevis, he met Frances Nisbet, and decided to marry her. They were married in 1787. Then they came back to England shortly after.
This was a period of stagnation for Nelson, and in his own words, he was feeling frustrated and often despondent. This was the period which made Nelson unpopular with his superiors, and his non-conforming ways became an embarrassment for both traders and the Admiralty.
As a fallout of this, he was put to shore on half-pay for five years. This period has often been referred to as “his five years on the beach”(“Five years on the beach“).
Frances and England did not take to each other; as well as suffering from the cold climate she soon took to her bed. On the other hand; no employment in the navy seemed to be forthcoming for Nelson. His repeated applications to the Admiralty received no more than mere acknowledgements.
It was only at the beginning of 1793, and the French Revolutionary period in Europe; that Nelson was recalled to active duty.
Here onwards were the most ambitious and successful twelve years of his life and career. Of course, we shall discuss them at length later.
Nelson entered the Royal Navy in Europe at age twelve. By the time he was twenty, he had travelled the distance from midshipman to commander (Rise of Nelson).