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Horatio Nelson was born in England on September 29, 1758, along the shallow Norfolk shore at Burnham Thorpe. With the loss of his mother, Catherine Suckling Nelson, in 1767, rearing of the eight Nelson children was left to Horatio's father, the Reverend Edmund Nelson. This loss, added to the heavy workload of overseeing the Parish at Burnham Thorpe and farming the surrounding land, made life rather difficult for the family. Three years later, at the ripe old age of twelve, young Horatio enlisted in the Royal Navy.
On the first day of 1771, Nelson reported for duty, joining the 64-gun warship Raissonable, commanded by his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. By the time he was 20, the boy had been in naval and merchant service all over the world and had distinguished himself as both seaman and pilot. In June of 1779 he was made Captain, taking command of the frigate Hitchinbroke at Port Royal, Jamaica. During these years Nelson served extensively in the West Indies, as well as in Canada and the Baltic.
In the spring of 1784, Nelson was given command of the Boreas, a 28-gun frigate, with orders to proceed to the Leeward Islands Station at English Harbour, Antigua. His task was to enforce the Navigation Act, which stipulated that only British vessels could trade with Britain's Caribbean colonies. The Act had become a major problem with the end of the American Revolution, as American vessels, now foreign, continued to dominate trade between the West Indies and the former colonies. Moreover, the West Indian merchants and planters, who were rather interested in maintaining a very profitable part of their trade, had the audacity to quietly encourage such pernicious practices. As a result, the arrival of Captain Nelson was not greeted with exceptional joy.
The situation worsened a few months later when, cruising off Charlestown, Nevis, the zealous young commander seized four American ships illegally laden with Nevisian goods. Although the ships had obviously violated the Navigation Acts, their captains (supported, to Nelson's great chagrin, by the Charlestown merchant community) sued him for illegal seizure in the amount of 40,000 pounds.
In the ensuing trial, the judge eventually upheld the British navy's right to seize the American ships. However, to avoid arrest and imprisonment in the interim, Nelson spent nearly eight straight months aboard his frigate--a situation that he did not find at all amusing. Before sequestering himself in the Boreas, however, Nelson had met Francis Nisbet, a young Nevisian widow, and had called at her Montpelier estate. He was quite taken by her refinement, as well as by her resourcefulness in operating a large house alone. She was, in addition, an accomplished musician and a fluent speaker of French. Nelson and Fanny quickly fell in love, and they married on March 11, 1787, at Montpelier. Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, later to be King William IV of England, and a close friend of Nelson's, gave away the bride.
In 1793, after four frustrating years in England, newly-married but without a commission, Captain Nelson was assigned the 64-gun Agamemnon, inaugurating the period of his greatest triumphs. A tactical genius, Nelson also had a unique ability to command steadfast loyalty and draw out the particular skills and abilities of his fellow soldiers, a style which became known as The Nelson Touch. Unlike most officers of the day, Nelson included his subordinate officers in the tactical planning of engagements, and many who served under him regarded him as a personal friend in addition to a brilliant commander.
On October 21, 1805, a few miles off the coast of Spain, Nelson engaged in his greatest and final battle, Trafalgar. Leading a fleet of 27 ships, his task was to destroy the 33-ship combined French and Spanish fleet based in Cadiz. Gathered for Napoleon Bonaparte's aborted invasion of England, the Cadiz fleet provoked considerable alarm in Britain. Even after it became clear that Napoleon wouldn't invade, the large French and Spanish force could cause enormous trouble in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, and even the Caribbean. To prevent such difficulties, Nelson set up a blockade of the Cadiz harbour, forcing an engagement if the combined fleets left their base--which they did on October 19.
Because of exceptionally light winds, it took more than a full day for the smaller British fleet to close in on its adversaries. As his ships moved towards battle, Nelson ran up a 31-flag signal that would forever after be associated with stalwart naval courage: "England," the flags read, "expects that every man will do his duty." Dividing his force, Nelson broke the Spanish line at two points, forcing the larger enemy fleet into smaller, fragmented engagements. On HMS Victory, his flagship, the commander attacked the French flagship Beaucentaure, crippling it in a single broadside volley.
Shortly after, the Victory ran up against the French Redoutable, whose crew had special training in small arms fire. With their masts locked together, the two vessels were entangled long enough for Redoutable's crew to take advantage of its skills--and one notable casualty was Nelson himself. The shot entered his shoulder, pierced his lung, and lodged in the base of his spine. It was a fatal wound, but Nelson lived long enough to learn that Trafalgar was a decisive victory.
At the end of the day, the British had captured 20 French ships while losing none. The damaged Victory, with Nelson's body aboard, was towed to Gibraltar, its arrival marking the beginning of more than a century of unchallenged British naval dominance of the world.
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