Today marks the 259th birthday of one of Britain’s most famous sailors. Horatio Nelson was born on September 29th 1758 in a rectory in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund Nelson and his wife Catherine Suckling.
On January 1st 1771, he began his naval career by reporting for duty aboard HMS Raisonnable then under command of his maternal uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. He joined the ship’s company as an ordinary sailor but was soon appointed a midshipman and began his officer training. Nelson would serve on a number of ships during his career and would participate in several expeditions including an effort to find the fabled Northwest Passage; a route through the Arctic to India. In 1778, Nelson received his first command namely the 12-gun brig HMS Badger.
During his career he saw action in the American War of Independence and in the Wars of the Second and Third Coalitions against post-revolutionary France. It was during this last conflict that Nelson led a British fleet in the battle that would make him a legend – the Battle of Trafalgar.
On October 21st 1805, the now Vice-Admiral Nelson led twenty-seven British ships of the line from his flagship, HMS Victory and defeated thirty-three French and Spanish warships under the French Admiral Villeneuve in the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Spain, just west of Cape Trafalgar. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being lost. It was the most decisive naval battle of the war and ended French ambitions to invade England but it would cost Nelson his life when he was shot by an enemy sniper.
In 1809, Nelson was commemorated with a large granite pillar capped by a statue of his likeness at the top in the centre of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, Ireland. In 1843, the similar Nelson’s Column was erected in Trafalgar Square, London and has become an important symbol of the city. In 1966, over 40 years after the Republic of Ireland gained independence from the UK, Irish Republicans bombed the pillar in Dublin which sent the statue at the top crashing to the ground. It was never rebuilt.
Earlier this year, in the wake of a wave of protests in the US against statues to Confederate Generals of the American Civil War, Journalist Afua Hirsch wrote in The Guardian newspaper;
It is figures like Nelson who immediately spring to mind when I hear the latest news of confederate statues being pulled down in the US…The colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised.
Her article called for Nelson’s Column and a number of other statues of British Empire figures to be taken down but she has been met with strong opposition.