The French Revolution of 1789 not only overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, and plunged the nation into a sanguinary civil war, but it also inaugurated more than twenty years of European warfare. The monarchies of Europe, notably Prussia and Austria, were appalled by the radicalism and atheism of the new French regime and set out to suppress and contain what they saw as France’s poisonous republicanism. Their failure to do so was largely attributable to the military genius of the young Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, who for more than a generation won battle after battle against France’s enemies. Harnessing the popular energies of the Revolution, Napoleon mobilized and coordinated huge armies, waging warfare on a new scale. Originally a Jacobin revolutionary, he used his successes to establish a new autocracy and a family dynasty that came to occupy several of the thrones of Europe. In the eyes of its enemies, French democracy and the cult of reason had spawned a monster—an aggressive imperial war machine led by an upstart autocrat.
Until he invaded Russia, only one opponent of Napoleon failed to succumb to his military might. The British, France’s foe for more than a hundred years, kept Bonaparte at bay, the island nation seeking refuge behind the “wooden walls” of its navy. British military strategists used the same tactics as in the wars waged against France over the previous hundred years: they paid subsidies to foreign troops to fight the French in continental Europe, and used their navy to protect Britain, expand their commercial empire, and destroy the enemy’s trade. But Bonaparte put this strategy in jeopardy by repeatedly defeating Britain’s European allies—the Prussians, the Austrians, and the Russians—and forcing them to make peace. Twice, in 1797–1798 and again in 1804–1805, the British were isolated and threatened with invasion.
In 1798 the nation was saved when Napoleon switched tactics, dropping his plans to invade Britain as too hazardous, and replacing them with an expedition to Egypt, designed to threaten Britain’s East Indian empire. But the danger in 1805 was far more serious. Napoleon assembled an army of more than 160,000 men, 10,000 horses, and a flotilla of 1,300 vessels at Boulogne, ready to cross the English Channel and conquer Britain. The invasion foundered because of the British navy: it prevented the French battle fleet from providing the naval escort that was needed if the landings were to take place safely, by bottling up enemy fleets in their ports, and when their opponents did put to sea, roundly defeating them. These victories not only eliminated the threat of invasion but had a profound effect on the land war, for they encouraged Napoleon’s defeated Continental opponents to rejoin the struggle against France. Britain’s navy was Bonaparte’s scourge. Its triumphs reinforced the long tradition, dating back to the defeat of the invading Spanish Armada in 1588, that the “senior service” protected Britain from its foreign foes and guaranteed its domestic liberties.
During the struggles against Napoleon, one man came to embody Britain’s resistance to the French. In his lifetime Admiral Horatio Nelson became a public idol, mobbed by admirers in the streets and feted by grateful kings. After his death he became and has remained to this day the exemplary British hero. Indeed, his achievements were formidable. Between 1797 and his death in 1805, Nelson became the most successful naval officer in history, taking a major part in one battle off the coast of Portugal at Cape St. Vincent and decisively winning three major naval victories—at Aboukir Bay on the coast of Egypt, in the Baltic off Copenhagen, and in the Atlantic near the Spanish coast at Cape Trafalgar. His triumphs secured the naval hegemony that Britain was to enjoy for the next century or more. In defending the nation against Napoleon and his allies, Nelson helped lay the foundations for Britain’s nineteenth-century imperial dominance.
Born in 1758, the younger son of a clergyman, Nelson first achieved fame at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, a British victory over a much larger squadron of ships from France’s newly acquired ally Spain, which had been forced by French military success to join the Revolutionary cause. A captain under the command of his patron Admiral John Jervis, Nelson captured two Spanish battleships, both larger than his own vessel, the Captain, boldly leading a boarding party against the San Nicolas and then, when the even bigger San Josef came alongside, capturing her too. The victory was a collective triumph, the result of Jervis’s training and leadership, but Nelson’s heroics (flag officers were not supposed to lead boarding parties) and their timely publicity in the London press made him the hero of the hour. He was given a knighthood and promoted to rear admiral.
Nelson was a fearless and enterprising officer who never avoided danger. He had already lost the sight in his right eye during action in the Mediterranean. After the victory over the Spanish, Jervis sent Nelson to capture Santa Cruz, Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, but the assault on the town went wrong; Nelson was seriously wounded and had to have his right arm amputated. He was forced to return to England to recuperate. But by the following year he had a fleet command in the Mediterranean, chasing the French men-of-war that had escorted Napoleon’s army from Toulon in France to the coast of Egypt. Here he achieved what was then his greatest victory, annihilating almost the entire French fleet at Aboukir Bay off the African coast. In an astonishingly bold nighttime attack, marked by seamanship of the highest order, Nelson’s squadron captured or sank eleven French battleships and two frigates, leaving Napoleon and his invading army stranded in Egypt. Nelson was made Baron Nelson of the Nile, lionized in the British press—the Times claimed that “a victory more glorious and more compleat is not recorded in the annals of our Navy”—and feted as a popular hero.
Yet again Nelson had been wounded, hit by a splinter or shrapnel that left a prominent scar on his forehead. The admiral sailed to Naples to recuperate as the guest of the British representative, Sir William Hamilton. There he achieved notoriety, first for beginning an affair with Hamilton’s wife, the famous beauty Emma; and then for his involvement in the brutal suppression of the short-lived pro-French Parthenopean Republic, established by liberal-minded aristocrats in Naples after the French had driven the Neapolitan royal family into exile. His infatuation with Emma ended his marriage; his part in the execution of the Neapolitan Admiral Caracciolo and his apparent complicity in the killing of other pro-Republican Neapolitans have haunted his good reputation ever since. (These bloody events feature prominently in Susan Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover and in Barry Unsworth’s brilliant fictitious account of a demented admirer of the admiral in his Losing Nelson.) Nelson’s public affection for his mistress and news of the Neapolitan atrocities made for a mixed reception when he and the Hamiltons returned to Britain in November 1800.
In 1800 the Danish, Swedish, and Russian League of Armed Neutrality, formed to prevent the British from inspecting their vessels trading with the enemy and impounding “contraband,” threatened to starve the British navy of the supplies from the Baltic—masts and hemp for rope—that were vital to the war effort and to disrupt the Anglo-Baltic grain trade. Nelson was appointed second in command of the Baltic fleet (in part to keep him away from his mistress), assigned the task of breaking the neutral alliance. This he accomplished with his victory over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen in April 1801. Though the battle achieved its objective and was hailed as a triumph for “the champion of England in the north,” as Nelson modestly described himself, it had been a bloody and close-run contest, Nelson’s last major action before Europe enjoyed a brief peace. Two years later, with hostilities renewed and Napoleon making preparations to invade Britain, Nelson was appointed commander of the Mediterranean fleet, with the job of preventing the French and Spanish navies from supporting Napoleon’s proposed landing. Over the next two years he blockaded the enemy, chased its fleet across the Atlantic, and sought at every opportunity to provoke a major battle. The French never achieved their aim of making the Channel safe for the invading flotilla, and Napoleon abandoned his invasion plans in August 1805, marching his army to the Danube.
But finally in October 1805, Nelson got the battle that he and his sailors so fervently wanted. The defense of the realm was no longer at issue, but at Cape Trafalgar, off the Spanish Atlantic coast, Nelson’s fleet of twenty-seven battleships finally was able to attack the combined French and Spanish navies, a force of thirty-three men-of-war. The outcome was decisive: the British captured or destroyed eighteen French and Spanish vessels, killed somewhere in the region of 6,500 men (no exact figures survive), and took 11,000 prisoners. Nelson himself was fatally wounded by a French sharpshooter and died as he learned of his overwhelming victory. In his brief lifetime, Nelson had decisively defeated three navies—the Spanish, the Danish, and the French, routing the last on two separate occasions.
The bicentennial year of Britain’s greatest naval triumph and of the death of its victor has produced many new works on Nelson’s life and the battle that was the climax of his career. There are at least four new books on Trafalgar, three new biographies of Nelson, a volume of previously unpublished letters, and a number of collections of essays. Old books have been reissued, including a new edition of Robert Southey’s brilliant and extraordinarily popular Life of Nelson, published in 1813 and never out of print in England. Many of these works, of which the best is Tim Clayton and Phil Craig’s newly published and clearly recounted Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm, cover familiar ground, albeit with new detail. But a few move beyond the usual and often told story of the admiral’s life and the victory at Trafalgar. Colin White’s painstakingly edited Nelson: The New Letters not only reproduces some of the more than 1,300 letters and other documents written by Nelson that have been newly uncovered by the Nelson letters project, but gives us insight into how the Nelson myth was nurtured and developed by his earlier editors.
Adam Nicolson’s Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar combines a conventional narrative account of the battle with a protracted reflection on the values of its protagonists. He explores what he sees as a peculiarly English propensity for violence; the bourgeois, aristocratic, and autocratic assumptions behind the conduct of, respectively, the English, Spanish, and French fleets; and the power of sympathy and feeling in explaining how the battle and its outcome were perceived by the world at large. Finally, a collection of essays that began life as a series of public lectures, Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy, examines the nature of Nelson’s friendships with his fellow officers, the way he was viewed by women and the general public, and how his reputation was shaped after his death, both in Britain and around the world. Taken together these new books offer new insight into the power and endurance of what Colin White calls “the Nelson legend.”
Nelson’s reputation, not least among the officers and men who fought with him, was chiefly as a brilliant and inspiring military leader. Of course Nelson’s fearlessness and willingness to expose himself to mortal danger have long been known. Naval warfare in the eighteenth century was a bit like trench warfare during World War I. Casualty rates among officers were higher than among the men. Officers (and the most skilled seamen) had to be on deck to direct operations, exposed not only to cannon and carronade fire, but to sharpshooters and musketeers. The sailors manning the cannons below were much less vulnerable.
Yet Nelson went even further, pushing himself into the forefront of battle. Typically, at Trafalgar he raced his flagship, the Victory, to reach the enemy line before any other vessel in his column. Such actions, as White shows, were not a sign of recklessness, but a calculated act designed to inspire his men, a means by which to secure, in Nicolson’s words, “their love.” Leaders should lead, and be seen to lead. In Nicolson’s phrase, “Heroism for them [the English officers] was violence phlegmatically done,” a point he illustrates with the famous anecdote of Captain Harwood of the Belleisle sharing a bunch of grapes with his captain of marines on the quarterdeck, chatting about the future, while masts and rigging crashed down onto the deck not far from where they were talking.
But leadership, though it involved bravery and risk-taking in battle, was not a matter of chance. White’s selection of letters repeatedly demonstrates that Nelson was an assiduous organizer, solicitous about the food and other supplies provided for his men and attentive to every detail of the ship’s operations, an organizer so busy with written instructions that on one occasion he ran out of paper. As his colleague Admiral Collingwood put it, “He possessed the zeal of an enthusiast directed by talents which Nature had very bountifully bestowed upon him, and everything seemed, as if by enchantment, to prosper under his direction. But it was the effect of system, and nice combination, not of chance.”
Nelson’s letters about naval matters have a clarity, certainty, and urgency that bespeak a total confidence in his own powers. His general order before the Battle of the Nile is typical:
The captains of the Ships will see the necessity of strictly attending to Close Order and should they compel any of the Enemys ships to strike their Colours they are at liberty to judge and Act accordingly…with this special observance, Namely that The destruction of the Enemys Armament is the Sole Object…. The ships of the Enemy are therefore to be taken possession of by an Officer and one Boat’s Crew only in order that the British Ships may be enabled to continue the attack and preserve their stations.
Once Nelson made a decision, he expected it to be executed promptly. But he was not a top-down leader. Instead, he sought to imbue his captains with complete confidence in their own skill and judgment. For a century or more the navy had been struggling with problems of “command and control” in the heat of battle. Some admirals wished to orchestrate naval battles through a system of flag signals; others, like Nelson, recognized that the cannon smoke of war made this virtually impossible once the fighting had begun. Nelson aimed to startle and outwit his foe by unexpected tactics intended to give his own force a temporary advantage. At Trafalgar Nelson got what he wanted, what he called “a pell-mell Battle” brought about by maneuvers designed to “surprise and confound the Enemy.” As a Spanish commentator, Don Domingo Perez de Grandallana, quoted by Nicolson, commented, “An Englishman enters a naval action with the firm conviction that his duty is to hurt his enemies and help his friends and allies without looking out for directions in the midst of the fight.” This he contrasted with the French and Spanish adherence to “formality and strict order.”
Not all British admirals under the Hanoverians were improvisers, but it is noticeable that those who were proved the most successful, and that those who failed usually foundered because of a timid but strict adherence to convention. Nelson only believed in rules when it suited him. His correspondence is full of contempt for pettifogging and pedantic obedience—“they [British soldiers] so strictly obey orders that a Kingdom might be lost by obedience,” he wrote to his brother in 1799. As he told his father some years earlier, “I always act as I feel right without regard to custom.” His tactics are epitomized in a letter he wrote to a Norfolk friend: “Much risque must be run to achieve great & Brilliant actions.”
Nelson’s tactics were only possible because his confidence in his captains and his men was well founded. As Nicolson shows in some detail, the British navy was a remarkably efficient killing machine. Far longer at sea than their opponents, better sailors and navigators, and better drilled as gunners—in the two-hour engagement between the British Royal Sovereign and the Spanish Santa Ana at Trafalgar, the former fired about eighty broadsides to the Spaniards’ twenty-five or thirty—they sought out battle because they were sure of their ability to win. In the six major naval battles between the British and their French, Spanish, Dutch, and Danish enemies, they lost 5,749 killed and wounded, of whom 1,483 died in battle. Their enemies lost 38,970 killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, of whom 9,068 were killed in battle. Between 1793 and 1814 the French lost a total of 377 ships of the line; the British lost ten.
As many historians have noted, Britain’s naval superiority depended on the formidable organizing powers of the British state. Even during peacetime the Admiralty Office was open eighteen hours a day. Together with the customs and excise offices, whose tax revenues underscored the system of short- and long-term government borrowing that kept the navy afloat, it was the most efficient branch of government. No European naval power was as skilled in manning, supplying, and victualing its warships. But then, no other country had such a large merchant marine to draw upon, and no other nation, with the possible exception of the Dutch, gave such high priority to the navy, “the senior service.”
But the effectiveness of Nelson’s battle fleet at Trafalgar also depended upon a confidence and morale that extended from his immediate subordinates, the captains whom after the Battle of the Nile he had, drawing on Henry V, dubbed his “band of brothers,” to ordinary seamen who never met him or only viewed him from afar. As his letters to his friends and family attest, Nelson was a man of strong emotions capable of inspiring fierce loyalty and lasting friendship.
Two fine essays in Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy—Kathleen Wilson’s “Nelson and the People” and Kate Williams’s “Nelson and Women”—make clear that Nelson’s reputation as a man of feeling gave a popular edge to his promotion as a military hero. The idea that the ability to express feelings, notably human sympathy, made for a better man had become a commonplace of eighteenth-century medical theory and philosophy (especially in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments). It reached a much larger audience through the novels of Samuel Richardson, Laurence Sterne, and Henry Mackenzie, whose fiction was populated by characters who betrayed their refined sensibility. Though the cult of feeling came under attack after the French Revolution because of its association with such radicals as Rousseau and his English followers, it still flourished in the early nineteenth century. Men could still weep in public, embrace one another without fear of stigma, and delight in intimacy as well as duty.
As Wilson points out, Nelson on the quarterdeck may have epitomized a stoic and fearless masculinity, marked by extraordinary self-control, but he was also a consummate votary of the cult of feeling. The language he used—speaking of “the Nelson touch,” and of “writing from my heart”—and the effulgence of his sentiments in his correspondence are typical of Georgian sentimentalism. Popular novels of sensibility placed a premium on the nonverbal (especially tears) and the corporeal as evidence of authentic and virtuous feeling. As Wilson makes clear, Nelson’s physical afflictions—the blindness in his right eye, the “fin” that remained of his amputated arm, the scarred forehead from the shrapnel wound at the Nile, the thin body wasted with sicknesses contracted in the line of duty—were all seen as definitive proof of his singular devotion to the nation.
There have always been two different emphases in accounts of Nelson’s life—one on his heroic, stoic, military, tragic, and masculine qualities; the other on his intimate, personal, sentimental character, replete with feeling. Sometimes they worked in tandem, as in the famous anecdote, told by Nelson himself, of his recovery from malaria and from a deep depression about his future career in 1776. His account reads like the story of a religious conversion. He is overwhelmed by “a sudden glow of patriotism,” determines to devote his life to king and country, and explains, “I will be a hero, and confiding in Providence I will brave every danger.”
Similarly the extraordinarily detailed description of Nelson’s protracted dying, recorded in the Authentic Narrative by William Beatty, the Victory’s surgeon, with its intimate final moments of love, friendship, and commitment to service—“Take care of poor Lady Hamilton. Kiss me, Hardy,” Nelson says to his captain, and then, “Now I am satisfied… Thank God I have done my duty”—blends the public hero and private feeling. As Nicolson says, “There is, in those descriptions, quite clearly an appetite not only for glory but for sympathy.”
But the heroic and sentimental versions of Nelson’s life also came into conflict, especially over his adulterous relationship with Emma Hamilton. Emma was a boisterous woman born into a humble family who had been the mistress of several aristocrats, a highly successful artist’s model—George Romney had been obsessed with her—and was rumored to have worked as a sex therapist in the Temple of Health, an enterprise run by the quack Dr. Graham in London. In 1786 her lover, Charles Greville, sent her to Naples to visit his uncle Sir William Hamilton. Emma made a success of Naples, marrying Hamilton, a famous collector of antiquities, becoming an intimate of the Queen, and acquiring a reputation for her famous acting-out of “attitudes” at official receptions. When Nelson left his wife to live in a ménage à trois with the Hamiltons, neither he nor Emma made any attempt to conceal their feelings for each other, delighting in public displays of their intimacy. No doubt there were many who enjoyed the scandal that surrounded the widely known affair, and, as Kate Williams shows, there were plenty of novels in which a thinly disguised Nelson and Emma were portrayed not as adulterers but as enjoying “the ultimate sentimental romance.” (Emma sewed a framed embroidery, based on a popular print, in which she depicted herself and Nelson as Maria and Yorick from Laurence Sterne’s novel A Sentimental Journey.)
But many looked on the affair in a much less sympathetic light. The ever-priggish George III strongly disapproved, as did many members of polite society. Nelson’s patron and friend Lord St. Vincent described Emma as an “infernal bitch” who “could have made him poison his wife or stab me, his best friend.” Another close associate, Lord Minto, after a visit to the couple’s retreat at Merton Place Surrey, wrote that
the whole establishment and way of life is such as to make me angry, as well as melancholy…nothing shall ever induce me to give the smallest countenance to Lady Hamilton…. The love she makes to him is not only ridiculous, but disgusting.
This was the Nelson that so troubled the Victorians. They could not gainsay his military achievements, but they were appalled by Emma (whom they misogynistically blamed for all of Nelson’s weaknesses), and found it hard to stomach his vanity, concupiscence, shifting moods, and a recklessness that was fine on the battlefield but not appropriate to private life. They wanted a full-blooded hero, not a lovelorn adulterer. After Nelson died, and despite his deathbed attempt to secure the future of Emma and their daughter Horatia by asking that they be publicly provided for, the nation scorned her, and she died in France, a fugitive from her creditors.
Emma Hamilton paid a high price for becoming Nelson’s consort and for placing her private life so conspicuously in the public eye. But Nelson’s public prominence, as Colin White shows in his fine contribution to Admiral Lord Nelson, “Nelson Apotheosised: The Creation of the Nelson Legend,” was in part a matter of self-promotion. Like many figures of the period—including courtesans, politicians, and actors as well as military men—Nelson was not above puffing himself in the newspapers. He was directly responsible for press accounts of his first success at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, offered advice to printmakers and engravers about his portrait and images of his battles, and was careful to preserve materials for posterity. He kept a stock of prints, offprints of a biographical article as well as medals commemorating the Battle of the Nile to give as gifts to friends and those he wished to impress. Both he and Emma (his unflagging publicist) made sure that the admiral was rarely out of the public eye.
Yet Nelson’s elevation in 1797 and 1798 into a public hero had as much to do with the desperate need for good news at a time when the war against France was going badly. (It is one of the weaknesses of Nicolson’s bullish account of the powers of the British navy that he never really places them in the context of this deep and enduring anxiety.) Napoleon was sweeping all before him, the first alliance against the French had collapsed with the defeat of the Austrians, the British navy had been racked by mutinies in May and June of 1797, and less than a year later Ireland was in open rebellion. The parliamentary opposition led by the Whig Charles James Fox, though a clear minority in the nation at large, was pressing for peace. As a newspaper commented after victory at the Nile, the discipline and determination of the officers and men of the navy were
properly adapted to the state and feelings of the public mind rendered in a high degree gloomy and desponding, by the hasty progress of the Republican arms and principles, subversive of all religion, property and every social compact.
Nelson became the symbol, not just in Britain but throughout Europe, of loyalism and legitimism. Prints showing him capturing French crocodiles at the Nile depicted the reptiles as Charles James Fox and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, the leaders of the parliamentary opposition. Similarly the victory at Trafalgar and the imposing ceremony of Nelson’s state funeral took place just after Napoleon’s overwhelming victories against the Austrians and Prussians at the battles of Ulm and Austerlitz. Nelson and the navy were used to help shore up national unity and to project the enduring image of a pious, hierarchical, and liberty-loving but loyalist nation. They served to distract attention away from Napoleon’s successes throughout much of Europe and to occlude the political divisions that rent British society.
In many respects Nelson was the perfect leader to represent a conservative English political tradition. He was a devout Christian who believed in supplying his sailors with Bibles and prayer books. He combined a gentlemanly respect for his enemies with an implacable hostility to Jacobinism. As he wrote in an undated draft letter to the Tsar of Russia, probably in 1798 or early 1799, “This is a war of religion Justice and humanity agt: Atheism, Oppression & Assassination.” Throughout his life he was preposterously impressed by royalty, aristocracy, and titles. But he was also highly independent and nonconformist. As Nicolson remarks, in a brilliant comparison—he is fond of drawing connections between Nelson and the Romantic poets—the admiral was like Coleridge: “For both, the method is radical, the purpose deeply conservative, concerned for ‘old & venerable Truths’ in a world threatened with change and destruction.” And though the suggestion, sometimes made, that he was a democrat—as opposed to having what the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1801 called “popularity of manners”—is well wide of the mark, he was naturally paternalistic toward his men, caring for and loving them. He was seen to exemplify those values for which he came to sacrifice his life.
There has long been, of course, the general sense that Nelson and his sailors had saved Britain from a European tyrant—that the “band of brothers” who commanded the battleships of 1805 were like “the few” who defeated Goering in the Battle of Britain in 1940—even though we know that Napoleon had canceled his proposed invasion of England before Trafalgar took place. But the more general claim—that the fleets of admirals like Nelson were the wooden walls protecting the British way of life—is one that the navy and its admirers have always been determined to keep in the public eye. The annual ceremonies and rituals surrounding Nelson and Trafalgar, held on board Nelson’s surviving flagship the Victory, preserved in dry dock in Portsmouth harbor, or conducted in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London, have always served a particular purpose. They express the collective sense that the Royal Navy has of itself—superior both to the army and to other navies throughout the world, marked by dedication and duty, and indispensable to the national interest—and that it reenacts in the hope that it is shared by the powers that be and the nation as a whole.
In 1905 the Navy League, an association that advocated naval rearmament and was led by an admiral of the fleet, was the leading proponent of the Nelson centennial. It was both a celebration of the power of the empire and a plea to rearm the navy to secure its continuance. The 2005 celebrations—the huge international review of the fleet that took place in June at Portsmouth, the reenactment of Trafalgar, the blockbuster show “Nelson and Napoleon” at the National Maritime Museum, and a host of activities organized by the official Nelson Commemorations Committee—have taken place in a very different setting. Britain is far from being a major imperial power, and the navy is the “senior service” only in name. A great many Britons, especially among the young, know little or nothing of Trafalgar and its victor. In an age preoccupied by identity and memory, the admirers of Nelson and the navy see these commemorations as educational, as an exercise in reconnecting the nation to a past and its traditions, which are in danger of being forgotten because they seem so distant.
This has proved a tricky task. The decision to reenact a battle between the reds and the blues, rather than between the British and the French/ Spanish fleets—lambasted by Nelson’s closest living relative, Anna Tribe, as “pretty stupid”—revealed tensions between a modern, pro-European squeamishness about patriotic militarism and a nationalist enthusiasm for Britain’s great days of yore.
There is an element of post-imperial nostalgia here: a slight hankering for an age when Britannia ruled the waves, when there were abundant opportunities for military heroism, and friend and foe were easy to identify. How well Nelson’s heroism and the achievements of the Royal Navy will play in contemporary Britain—multicultural, celebrity obsessed, with a public opposed to neoimperial adventures and now fearful of the enemy within—is not at all clear. But Colin White, Adam Nicolson, and the contributors to Admiral Lord Nelson: Context and Legacy have all successfully reminded us of why the memory of Nelson and his achievements has endured.
November 3, 2005