Nelson and Sea Stories

Admiral Lord NelsonOn the 21st of October we commemorate Nelson Day. With each year his reputation rightfully grows. As time passes we begin to know more about the officers and sailor who sailed his ships and fought his battles in his time. To illustrate we intermingle the lives of an ordinary Sailor, a son of a Baron and the celebrated Admiral Nelson.

Horatio Nelson was born on the 29th of September of 1758 the son of a rector in Burnham Thorpe Norfolk. He was the sixth of eleven children of the Reverend Edmund and Catherine Nelson. His mother, who died when he was nine.

He was not a healthy or robust child and in adult hood he was relatively small. Nelson suffered from seasickness all his adult life.

He was for a while educated at Paston Grammar School at North Walsham and then attended Norwich School.

Through family connections he was allowed to go to sea at 12 years old on the 1st January 1771. At Chatham he found it difficult to find his ship

John Nicol from CurrieJohn Nicol was born in 1755 at Currie 6 miles to the west of Edinburgh. His father was a cooper and he naturedly followed in his fathers footsteps. But before long a wanderlust overtook him and at 21 years he traveled to Leith to join the Royal Navy.

Nicol fond himself on the way to Canada and the West Indies in HMS Proteus. He was at first offended by the language of those on board due to his strict bible upbringing. At the time of the American War of Independence the Caribbean was awash with American Pirates and their like. The Navy dispersed them mostly by a good broadside enforcing them to strike their colours.

Nelson's uncle Maurice was captain of HMS Raisonnable where he found a berth to begin his chosen career as an ordinary seaman and coxswain. By the age of 20 he made Post Captain in 1779. His first command was a newly captured French frigate HMS Hinchinbroke that became heavily involved in the action against the Spanish at San Juan Nicaragua. Nelson was praised for his efforts but unluckily contracted Malaria and was forced to return home. After deciding against standing for Parliament he sailed to the waters of Antigua to enforce the Navigation Act. American ships were being refused trade with British colonies. Nelson captured four American vessels but was sued for illegal seizure by the American Captains. During the eight months he had to await the court denial of the American case his friends kept his romantic obsessions under control. But Nelson finally succumbing to the charms of Fanny Nisbet. In 1786 he wrote to Fanny from HMS Boreas expressing My heart yearn for you it is with you, my mind dwells on naught else but you. After their marriage in 1887 Nelson was place on half pay ashore and had no command for several years.

In 1774 he was on the coast of Guinea with Cornwallis in the Pallas, and in 1775 was acting lieutenant of the Sphinx on the coast of North America.

Thomas Pakenham was born in September 1757 the 3rd son of the 1st Baron Longford and entered the Royal Navy in 1771.He served under a Captain McBride on the ship Orpheus. In 1774 he was on the coast of Guinea with Cornwallis in the Pallas. By 1775 Thomas was an acting lieutenant on the Sphinx of the coast of America. He was wounded in action in 1776 while serving on the frigate Greyhound. Two years later joined the Courageux commanded by Lord Mulgrave.

Under Admiral Keppel in his flag ship HMS Victory the Courageux engaged the French in the First Battle of Ushant. The battle was inconclusive fought in a heavy rain squall. During the confusion of the foremost British ships were successful while the rear of the fleet suffered.

John Nicol saw the female slaves of the West Indies at St Kitt come aboard his ship. He witnessed the brutal floggings and in one occasion the court marshal of a who was Marine sentenced to be hanged. At the last minute he was reprieved and was so stunned by events he was between live and death. John at 27 arrived in London ready for love. On a coach to Scotland he encountered a girl who seemed interested in his life. Unfortunately the girl left the coach at a wayside Inn. After collecting his pay at Leith he quickly sought out the girl he had met on the coach. Her farmer father was not pleased and the girl unresponsive. On returning to Scotland he found his father had died. In 1785 he sailed on the King George to Hawaii on the route Captain Cook had taken. The men were not allowed ashore as some of the natives carried bayonets from the Cook landing. The captain permitted native women to come aboard in the evening and leave in the following early morning.

Thomas Pakenham in September 1779 was made Captain of the sloop Victor a captured enemy ship. He was then sent to the Jamaica on 2 March 1780 and was posted to the San Carlos. His old wound he received while in the Greyhound bean to effect him and he was forced to return to England in the autumn.

In December of that year he was appointed to the 28 gun Crescent and along with the ship Flora they made sail for Minorca. On the way back on the 30th of May 1781 they encountered two Dutch frigates. The Castor attacked the Flora and the Brill fell on the Crescent. The crescent was captured after being overpowered. The Flora untangled from the Castor and recaptured the Crescent. Both ships were so damaged that on the way home they fell easy pray for two French Frigates. The Flora escaped while Thomas in the Crescent regarded his previous surrender to the Brill as giving up his commission of the ship that was now a French prize.

The French Revolutionary Government appropriated what is now Belgium in 1793 and in response Britain declared war. Nelson was recalled and given the 64 gun Agamemnon. At Calvi Corsica he received a wound to the face by rocks thrown up from near cannon shot and lost the sight of his right eye. His favorite ship the Agamemnon was now too old and was replaced by HMS Captain. In the Captain Nelson was dispatched to Cape St Vincent to meet a Spanish fleet. On the 14th February 1797 Nelson finds he is far behind the British line and remote from the action. He breaks away and heads straight for the 112 gun San Josef, 80 gun San Nicolas and the 130 gun Santisima. With the help of HMS Culloden they engage the enemy with broadsides. After an hour Nelson is along side the San Nicolas and proceeded to board her crying glorious victory. The San Nicolas is forced to surrender and the San Josef attempts to come to her rescue, but becomes entangled with the San Nicolas. From the San Nicolas Nelson boards the San Josef and captures her. As the Spanish make a run for it they leave four ships behind two of them Nelsons prizes. Any possible case of a reprimand for disobedience was omitted in the official report. Nelson was seen a gallant hero to the British and he promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue.

John Nicol was heavily involved in the St Vincent battle and observes the solemn look on the sailors faces with no fear or doubt. He feels they do not rejoice in fighting but see it a way to return home free to their homes. There was no time for reflections in the violence as they load the guns and repair damage amid roar of battle. After the battle the sailors do not dwell on the horror they have seen and find other things to discuss.

Thomas Pakenham was tried by court marshal for the loss of his ship the Crescent and is acquitted with honour. It was proven resistance was impossible when the ship lost her masts and her guns to damaged for use. He was made Captain of the frigate Minerva and joined Lord Howe in the relief of Gibraltar. Thomas gained promotion to the Invincible and in 1794 took part in The Third Battle of Ushant. Ushant was largest naval conflict in the French Revolutionary Wars.

He was acclaimed for his brilliant conduct in the action and recommended for the Gold Medal.

In the following year Thomas was involved in the capture of the 84 gun Juste and was made her captain. He was for a time master-general of the ordnance in Ireland, and had no further service in the navy. In 1810 he was promoted to full Admiral. Thomas Pakenham was nominated a G.C.B. on 20 May 1820, and died on 2 Feb. 1836.

Nelson was placed in command of the Theseus on the 27th May 1797 and found himself off the coast of Cadiz. He was on the lookout for the Spanish treasure ships from the American Colonies. On the 3rd of July he lead the amphibious attach on the city. His barge had collided with the Spanish commanders barge and hand to hand combat took place. Seaman John Sykes saved Nelson from being cut down and was badly wounded. In the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife the first attempt at landing was unsuccessful in the adverse currents. On the second attempt the surprise was lost and as Nelson stepped ashore to lead a Marine Battalion he was hit by a musket ball in the right arm. He was returned to the Theseus where he complained he still had two arms and an arm. It is said the only thing he complained about was the saw used for amputating was a bit cold. Within half an hour he was giving out commands. On joining the fleet he wrote 'A left-handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve the state...' Nelson returned home once again to a heroes welcome. After recovering for his wounds he was made captain of HMS Vanguard and sailed to the Mediterranean.

The Battle of the Nile 
Painting depicts the Battle of the NileFrom the Mediterranean he chased the French Fleet to Egypt.

While preparing for battle he declared "Before this time tomorrow, I shall have gained a peerage or Westminster Abbey."

The French fire power was much greater than his and on this premise did not expect and attack.

One of Nelsons band of brother captain Thomas Foley on the Goliath found a way over the shoals the French thought impassable. Passing through the shoal gap they engaged the French who were surprised and completely unprepared.

John Nicol was on the Goliath of 47 guns as they fired broadsides into the nearest French ship. There cannon fire brought down the rigging and battered the bulwark of the French vessel. Under the Goliath waterline and working with all his God-fearing might John was stripped to the waist. He worked in the ships Magazine. John handed bags of gunpowder to the powder monkeys some of whom were young boys and women. He heard on another ship the powder monkeys ran who ran like wild creatures at any near shot. Whilst at the magazine station they felt embarrassed at not being nearer to the points of action. A wife of gunner gave John and her husband a drink of wine every now and then to keep up their spirits. During the violence of the engagement a woman from Edinburgh gave birth. At 10pm he heard a mightily explosion as the French Flag ship L'Oreint's magazine erupted lighting up the sky.

A single cannon shot smashed into the magazine of the Goliath but did not do any serious damage. Any repairers were swiftly attended to by the ships carpenter. Every now and then news was conveyed to them of a French ship sinking or surrendering. The intelligence was received with heartfelt cheers and joy. When eventually the guns fell silent John went on deck to discover the sea around was strewn with dead and wounded bodies. Some of the French sailors from their flag ship were on board the Goliath and were cowering under the forecastle. Captain Foley ordered they be treated well with hot food and dry clothing. The gun crews of the Goliath had taken the full weight of the French broadsides. One of them was a boy about to light the cannon fuse when a cannon ball shot off his right arm. Without hesitation he lit the fuse with his left arm. After firing his gun he went off to have his wound attended.

On board the Lady Julia in1789 John met the woman he truly loved she was one of the women prisoners bound for Australia. The prisoner women were allowed to chose a husband from the crew as the voyage took one year. Johns love was 22 year old Sarah Whitlam and John was smitten from the start and would have married her there and then if a clergyman had been on board. She bore him a son during the voyage but after 6 weeks on landing in Australia they were forced to part. Both made promises of meeting again but John never saw her again. Not much later Sarah married another convict who took her home to England 6 years later.

Nelson was made Baron of the Nile but the victory had been bought at a personal price. He suffered a head wound that caused him some brain damage. It made him irritable and unsettled so he would be less resistant to temptations. In Naples he met the Beautiful Lady Hamilton who with flattery and attentions had him captive.

On returning home he found the Lady Hamilton scandal had proceeded him. He considered it wise to go to sea away till the gossips cooled. On the 1st of January 1801 Nelson was promoted to Vice Admiral of the Blue and a few months later took part in the Battle of Copenhagen to break up the armed neutrality of Denmark, Sweden and Russia.

Under an unimaginative Sir Hyde Parker Nelson raised his flag. During the Battle of Copenhagen Sir Hyde lost he nerve and sent out the signal for a recall of his ships. Nelson knew this was extremely unwise and put up hid telescope to his blind eye and declared he could not see the signal. Nelson helped crush the Danish Fleet earning him a the honour of Viscount. During the Battle of Copenhagen he had said to his companion Captain Foley "You know, Foley, I only have one eye - I have the right to be blind sometimes" and then holding his telescope to his blind eye said "I really do not see the signal!"

Nelson joined Lady Hamilton at Merton where he enjoyed two very happy years of a manner of retirement. They had a daughter named Horatia. The General peace did not last long and Nelson returned to duty. He was appointed commander in chief of the Mediterranean and assigned to HMS Victory in May of 1803. For the nest 2 years Nelson would not set foot on land. He was promoted to Vice Admiral of the White in 1804. Early in 1805 the French slipped out of Toulon and made for the West Indies. Nelson made chase but he became ill. In August of 1805 he applied and received sick leave. This time he spent with his loved Lady Hamilton at Merton until he his leave was cut short. It is know he did not like swift departures but his true sense of duty overtook his reserve. He would not return to see his Lady Hamilton nor receive alive the veneration of the crowds. Trafalgar was his destiny. On the 21st October Nelson sent his last dispatch.

"At daylight saw the Enemy's Combined Fleet from East to E.S.E.; bore away; made the signal for Order of Sailing, and to Prepare for Battle; the Enemy with their heads to the Southward: at seven the Enemy wearing in succession. 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."

John Nicol had spend a great deal of time looking for the woman he loved and had been pressed into the Royal Navy for two celebrated victories of Cape Vincent and the Nile. He later married his cousin Margaret in 1801 and went back to his old trade of Cooper. War came again and the press gangs were everywhere forcing John to hid in Dalkeith and Musselburgh. When he was aged 56 John returned to Edinburgh just before his wife died and leaving him in debt. John was forced to sell all. He traveled to London to apply for a Royal Navy pension, but arrived too late. He went back to Edinburgh and found himself in dyer straights. As luck would have it an eccentric bookbinder was interested in his stories. He became fairly well heeled and in time the Navy relented and paid his well deserved pension. John died at the age of 70 a comfortable man in 1825.

Acknowledgements to Tim Flannery and John Nicol -The Life and adventures of John Nicol, Mariner. A recommended read.

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