The Battle That Changed The World
Nelson's brilliant victory at Trafalgar shaped history and enshrined his name among its greatest warriors
Among the questions that continue to circle the naval hero, some loom large: If Nelson hadn't existed, would the Britain of his day have been forced to invent him--or at least find someone very like him to push to the fore and idolize? Was he the embodiment of the qualities that his age admired, or was he so exceptional, so distinctive, that his contemporaries could only partly define his greatness through the categories and ideals of his time? And perhaps most important, if Nelson had not existed and Trafalgar never happened, would Britain have acquired naval supremacy and so decisively influenced the course of modern history?
Born in 1758, the son of an Anglican rector, Nelson spent his first 12 years in the village of Burnham Thorpe, near the coast of eastern England. His mother died when he was 9, perhaps from the burden of bearing 11 children (eight survived infancy). He attended only a few years of grammar school before his maternal uncle, Capt. Maurice Suckling, gave him a midshipman's post on the Royal Navy's Raisonnable. A product of the lesser gentry who secured his first job through family connections, Nelson quickly became an indefatigable striver in an increasingly entrepreneurial and meritocratic nation that was being transformed by the "animal spirits" of capitalism.
If it was not directly through commerce that Nelson made his speedy ascent, it was through service in a navy that made Britain's galloping commercial expansion possible. (Britons paid higher taxes than any other Europeans, but they considered themselves freer than the subjects of other nations--in large part because they knew that hefty naval outlays for building and manning warships ensured the prosperity that they believed was a keystone of freedom.) Some of Nelson's fastest friendships were formed with bold and successful merchants who recognized Nelson as exactly their kind of man--that is, a man of daring and enterprise. And if the officer ranks of the Royal Navy had their share of well-connected aristocrats (not as many as in the Army, though), those ranks were more open to untitled men of talent and ambition than were those of any continental European navy. In Britain, not even peerage ensured success on the examination for lieutenancy. British officers had to master their craft if they hoped to command a ship.
In his early years in the Royal Navy, on voyages to the East and West Indies and elsewhere, Nelson endured tedium, near-fatal diseases, and needlessly harsh discipline, even while learning the ropes of seamanship with a thoroughness that would allow him to pass the lieutenant's qualifying exam at the unusually young age of 18. Three years earlier, brief service on a merchantman--which, in typical fashion, was far more humanely and intelligently run than a Navy ship--left him with an invaluable lesson: Men treated well serve well.
Path to glory. He put the lesson to the test when he became post captain and received his first command, the 28-gun frigate Hinchinbrooke, at age 20. For the next 18 years, Nelson would serve with high competence but without obvious heroic distinction. In 1787, he married Frances ("Fanny") Herbert Nisbet, a widow with a son then living on the island of Nevis. Within months, Nelson had lost his command and was barely subsisting on half pay in England with his new family. Only the onset of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 brought him back to sea, beginning with service in the Mediterranean, and set him back on the path to glory.