21 Oct 2019


The dusk falls early on the sea, and the lanterns are spiralling in the great cabin as this aging warship rises and falls on a slow Atlantic swell. She is His Majesty’s Ship Victory, and her admiral sits at his desk writing to his five year-old daughter, my dearest Angel, and to her mother, my dearest Beloved Emma. This last letter will never be finished, and will be found on his desk after his death.

Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy

      He is Horatio Nelson, and he writes an angular script with his left hand, his right forearm having been amputated some years before: the right sleeve of his undress uniform coat is folded and pinned close to the stump.

He has just turned forty-seven, a slight man no more than five feet six inches tall, his face weathered by decades at sea, with deep lines of pain around the mouth. His hair, always powdered in his portraits, is in fact a greying chestnut, and, despite the rakish new style affected by his younger officers, he still wears it in an old-fashioned queue. His eyes are blue: the right eye is blind, irreparably damaged by splinters of stone and steel, although the only visible evidence of injury is its enlarged pupil. His left eye is inflamed, sensitive to light, and often searingly painful. He fears complete blindness will overtake him within a year or two.

He has been described by contemporary detractors as an unremarkable, unheroic, uninspiring figure. Until you feel the charisma of the man. Until he speaks to you by name and holds your gaze, giving you his undivided attention, tells you what he has planned and how he intends to accomplish it, and what he wants you to do to contribute to it, and by then you have given him your heart, and would follow him to the gates of hell.

Of Nelson and Wellington, the two British military geniuses of their time, Captain Pulteney Malcolm of H.M.S. Donegal, who knew them both, said, “Nelson was the man to love.”

And so he is.

Night now, off the coast of Spain in persistent rain and mist, with the long storm swell beneath Victory’s keel. She is old but fast, and, superstitious like all sailors, he has chosen her for his flagship for the luck her name will bring him in what he hopes will be his final confrontation with the enemy. At sea since the age of twelve, he notes, perhaps subconsciously, the heavy rise and fall of her hull, and continues to write.

Emma, Lady Hamilton, the portrait by Johann Heinrich Schmidt which Nelson called his “guardian angel”

      This cabin, not yet cleared for action, is still his sanctuary: he gazes at the portrait of his lover which he calls his “guardian angel”, and recalls her anguish and foreboding on that last, hot September afternoon when they had said good-bye.

I intreat, my dear Emma, that you will cheer up; and we will look forward to many, many happy years together, and be surrounded by our children’s children….

Dawn finds him on Victory’s quarterdeck, wearing the same old undress uniform coat, but with his four orders of knighthood conspicuously displayed on the left breast. His phlegmatic flag captain, Thomas Masterman Hardy, comments diplomatically as they pace the deck that something a little less distinctive might have been preferable, as the admiral is an obvious target for enemy snipers. Nelson, “in good spirits”, says lightly that it is “now too late to be shifting a coat.”

The morning unfolds according to his plan. Off Cape Trafalgar, the cliffs of which are visible through the haze, the combined fleets of France and Spain, superior in numbers and consequently in firepower, are laboriously forming line of battle. Under calm conditions, this manoeuvre takes more than three hours, and even then is not technically complete.

Victory hoists her first general signal at 6:40 a.m. The British fleet will not execute a corresponding manoeuvre but, in a radical departure from custom, form two columns and cut the enemy’s line, and then engage, ship to ship, in close action. Victory, leading one column, and Nelson’s second-in-command Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in Royal Sovereign leading the other, will come under sustained enemy fire, with guns unable to bear and in an excruciatingly slow approach. The prospect of flagship and admiral enduring this prolonged and bloody ordeal drives the fast-sailing H.M.S. Téméraire up to Victory’s quarter in a bid to overhaul her, but Nelson himself reproves her anxious, eager captain, his slightly nasal, Norfolk-accented voice carrying clearly across the intervening water.

“I’ll thank you, Captain Harvey, to keep in your proper station, which is astern of the Victory.”

Chastened, Téméraire resumes station. Victory’s drums beat to quarters, and she clears for action. Nelson leaves the quarterdeck briefly and goes below to his cabin, although there is now no privacy here: with all bulkheads removed from bow to stern, this is only one continuous gundeck.

Along with most of his cabin furniture, his paintings have been carried to the hold. His desk remains, with, on it, the last of his letters.

He sits at the desk, and writes.

Monday, October 21, 1805

May the Great God, whom I worship, grant to my Country, and for the benefit of Europe in general, a great and glorious Victory; and may no misconduct in any one tarnish it; and may humanity after Victory be the predominant feature in the British Fleet. For myself, individually, I commit my life to Him who made me, and may His blessing light upon my endeavours for serving my Country faithfully. To Him I resign myself and the just cause which is entrusted to me to defend. Amen. Amen. Amen.

He kneels briefly in prayer on the deck, where Lieutenant John Pasco, arriving with a signal, finds him, and refrains from disturbing him until he gets to his feet.

By 11:40 a.m. Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign, slightly ahead of Victory, is under fire. Victory, too, is targeted, but the shots fall short. The last of Nelson’s visiting captains, Blackwood, a personal friend, shakes the admiral’s hand and prepares to leave the flagship for his own command, haunted by Nelson’s final words to him:

“God bless you, Blackwood. I shall not speak to you again.”

The range closes. Nelson’s secretary, “poor Scott”, is cut in half by a cannon ball. The fickle wind falls light, Victory crawls forward, every inch of canvas a potential torch, her guns as yet unable to bear, and sustaining such enemy fire as “had scarcely before been directed at a single ship.”

The admiral and his flag captain pace the quarterdeck. A bullet ricochets off Hardy’s shoe buckle. Nelson says only, “Warm work, Hardy. Too warm to last for long.”

And then Victory breaks the French line, her bows looming like an apparition through the smoke astern of Villeneuve’s flagship Bucentaure. Like any ship of war, Bucentaure has cleared for action, and Victory’s first, double-shotted broadside shatters her unprotected stern and rips the full length of her gundecks, resulting in carnage. But it was never possible for Victory to engage the enemy so closely without the risk of collision, and her yards become entangled in the rigging of the smaller French Redoutable even as the recoil of her assault on Bucentaure shudders through her timbers.

The two ships drift in deadly embrace, Victory’s powerful starboard battery firing broadside after broadside into Redoutable, and Redoutable’s mizzen mast with its sharpshooters not fifty feet from and directly above Victory’s quarterdeck.

At 1:35 p.m. Captain Thomas Hardy, continuing to pace amidst the smoke and fury of battle, turns when he reaches Victory’s wheel and realizes he is alone. The admiral, who had been beside him, is on his knees, his fingertips pressing the blood-soaked deck where his secretary was killed, and even as Hardy moves toward him Nelson’s arm gives way, and he falls onto his left side. A sergeant of marines and two seamen leap to support him, and as Hardy reaches him he says, “Hardy, I believe they have done for me at last.”

They carry him below to the bloody hell of the orlop deck, rumour running before them. It’s Nelson. They’ve brought Nel. Lord Nelson is here. He has been shot through the left shoulder. The ball has broken two ribs, nicked an artery, punctured his left lung and lodged, with fibres of blue cloth and shards of gilded epaulette, in his spine. He tells the surgeon, William Beatty, “I felt it break my back,” adding that he feels “a gush of blood every minute within my breast.” He becomes fretful, restless and talkative, speaking lucidly and with habitual discretion of his mistress, asking that she be cared for; asking repeatedly for Hardy, who, like any flag captain, is occupied with the urgent business of fighting his ship in close action. “Where is Hardy? Will no one bring Hardy to me? He must be killed.”

At 3 p.m. Hardy leaves the quarterdeck briefly, confident enough now in Victory’s ability to defend herself against the five enemy vessels closing on her to come down to the orlop deck and assure his admiral he has “no doubt of giving them a drubbing”, and to report on friends and enemies, losses, damage, successes, surrenders.

Nelson says, “I hope none of our ships have struck, Hardy.”

“Oh, no, my lord. No fear of that.”

Nelson cuts through this jocularity and Hardy’s forced optimism, the pretense that he will recover.

“I am a dead man, Hardy. I am going fast. Come nearer to me,” and, faintly and painfully, “Pray let dear Lady Hamilton have my hair, and all things belonging to me.”

Some time later he tells the surgeon, Beatty, that “all power of motion and feeling below my breast are gone,” and that the pain is severe, so severe that he wishes he were dead.

As the fury of Victory’s final broadside, directed at the remnants of a fleeing enemy, reverberates here below the waterline, in the humid dimness and stench where he half lies, half sits, supported by willing arms and pillows, he murmurs, “Oh, Victory. Victory, how you distract my poor brain.”

Like her admiral, she is wounded, but not mortally: unlike him she will survive this day, and with him pass into legend. In her bowels the pumps begin, and he is conscious of her sluggishness, the increasing heaviness of the swell, and the shoals of Cape Trafalgar, the lee shore of which all sailors are wary.

Hardy returns. As before, they clasp hands, but this time Hardy, bending his tall frame and then crouching on the deck, does not release the cold fingers. What remains of Nelson’s vision is failing, and he is nearly blind.

“Anchor, Hardy. Anchor.”

“Shall I make the signal, sir?”

“Yes.” And then, “Don’t throw me overboard, Hardy.”

Some time later he murmurs, “Kiss me, Hardy,” and Hardy kisses his cheek and forehead. He speaks little more after that, except to ask, with difficulty, to be turned on his right side, whispering, “I wish I had not left the deck,” and then, “Thank God, I have done my duty.”

At 4:30 p.m. that indomitable spirit flickers, and leaves him.

The sun sets. The smoke and fog of war drift toward the land, stinking of burnt wood, tar, gunpowder; on the black sea drifts the wrack of war, fragments of men and ships, burned, splintered timbers, shredded, scorched canvas. In the darkness, and then the ghastly light as the French 74-gun Achille, fire reaching her powder magazines, explodes at 5 o’clock, it is noticed that no lanterns illuminate the great cabin aboard Victory, and a stormy dawn reveals that she has lowered her admiral’s flag.

For him, a man always conscious of his own destiny, a state funeral and interment in the crypt at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, and a nation in mourning for its hero.

For his widow, a pension and the gratitude of that nation, and celebrity in which to bask in reflections of his glory.

For his mistress, a downward spiral into depression, debt and alcoholism, and an unmarked grave in a foreign country. Her daughter will never acknowledge her, and history, until recently, has been cruel to her, lampooning her devotion to Nelson and her passion for him. Of her life without him, she said, “My heart and head are gone. All seems gone, like a dream.”

But, unlike a dream, he does not fade from memory. And wherever the White Ensign flies, on October 21st he is remembered. The youngest member of the mess, ashore or at sea, proposes the toast. Glasses are raised. And the youthful voice says:

“The Immortal Memory.”

And so his memory lives on. And so, with him, does she.