Admiral Lord Nelson, Scumbag

I finished a couple days ago with a (fairly) new biography of Horatio Nelson, The Pursuit of Victory. I’d kind of admired him for some time, not because I really knew much about him, except that he was a pretty successful admiral. He won the Battle of the Nile, the Battle of Copenhagen and, as he’s best remembered, died winning the Battle of Trafalgar. He lost his right arm and an eye earlier in his career and seemed to have a fair degree of physical bravery.

All of that is true, but it’s not the full picture. Indeed, the more one examines one’s heroes, the more that one finds about them that one doesn’t like. After reading a few biographies of Churchill I was much less impressed with the man, and the same is true of Nelson. I knew that he ended up with Emma Hamilton, but had not realised that it wasn’t because his wife died. Turns out he met her while on station in the Mediterranean at Naples where she was the young wife of an elderly diplomat. She was something of a strumpet it seems and Nelson ended up leaving his wife after he got home, gave her an allowance for the rest of her life and never spoke to her again. Nelson also made a fool of himself in other social situations, and made a lot of bad political decisions when he was on his own in the Mediterranean and in the West Indies. In fact, his only claim to greatness was the fact that he was well-nigh unbeatable in combat because he thought quickly and decided correctly when faced with confusing and complicated combat situations. Such aplomb and talent is rare and he is justly honoured for his military accomplishments, but I can think of other military men I admire more than Nelson. It is possible to possess military acumen and be morally upright.

All in all, it was an excellent biography of a great, but flawed, man. Besides being an engaging read, it is also a serious work of scholarship, it is meticulously annotated, there are several wells of reproduced paintings, the maps are clear and helpful and the appendices contain a wealth of information about other significant people, a simplified chronology of Nelson’s life and detailed information about all of Nelson’s ships and the officers that served with him on those ships. Anyone interested in Nelson or simply in the days of “iron men in wooden ships” would profit from reading this book.

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