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Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Formative naval experiences

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Arctic expedition

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Why did Nelson want to forget his arctic expedition?

Returning from the West Indies, Nelson rejoined HMS Triumph on 18 July 1772. Over the next year Nelson, whose ambition ‘was to be a Seaman’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 4), took command of HMS Triumph’s boats sailing ‘from Chatham, to the Tower of London, down the Swin and the North Foreland’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 4), gaining confidence and ‘by degrees becoming a good pilot…amongst the rocks and sands’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 4). This did not hold Nelson’s interest long. He learnt of a naval expedition, led by the Honourable Constantine John Phipps, being prepared to journey to the North Pole to find a long-sought-for passage to India. Nelson, having been officially informed that boys were not allowed, used ‘every interest’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 4) to sail with Captain Skeffington Lutwidge of HMS Carcass, one of the expedition’s ships, ‘and, as I fancied I was to fill a man’s place, I begged I might be his coxswain’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 4). Lutwidge agreed, possibly to remain on good terms with Suckling. The expedition sailed on 4 June 1773 from Little Nore, England, reaching Spitzbergen on 28 June 1773. HMS Carcass and HMS Racehorse became trapped in ice on 30 July 1773. Plans were made to abandon the ships and escape in boats. Nelson thrived on such crises. He volunteered to ‘have the command of a…cutter…which was given me, with twelve men…[as] I prided myself in fancying I could navigate her better than any other boat in the ship’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 5). However, fortunately the ice that had frozen the ships in broke up on 8 August and the ships managed to escape. The expedition was a failure. Nelson had another reason to forget it. The ships returned to Deptford, England and were paid off on 14 October 1773.

Suckling meanwhile had secured Nelson’s next voyage on HMS Seahorse, a frigate - a small, fast ship often used to gather intelligence. Its captain, George Farmer, had served under Suckling. Nelson joined the ship on 28 October 1773, aged 15, and was rated midshipman. The ship’s destination, together with HMS Salisbury, was the East Indies station, the furthest Royal Naval base from Britain at the time. Both ships were to carry out convoy work. Similar voyages to the tropics usually lasted two years. This did not worry Nelson ‘Nothing less than such a distant voyage could…satisfy my desire for maritime knowledge’ (Howarth, page 3).

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Read HMS Seahorse captain's log entry for 19-20 February 1775 describing Nelson's first naval fighting experience

The ships left Spithead, England, on 19 November 1773. During the voyage Nelson received tuition about navigation and seamanship from Thomas Surridge, HMS Seahorse’s master. Surridge, highly esteemed by Nelson, described Nelson as a ‘boy with a florid countenance, rather stout and athletic [with] ardent ambition’ (Sugden, page 87). Whilst serving on HMS Seahorse Nelson witnessed over 80 floggings and two court martials, and visited ‘almost every part of the East Indies, from Bengal to Bussorah’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 5). Moreover, on 19 February 1775 he experienced his first naval action.

Nelson’s voyage was cut short. He contracted malaria, a life-threatening disease. He was discharged from HMS Seahorse on 14 March 1776 to HMS Dolphin, on its way to England. Nelson stated that the kindness of her captain, James Pigot, ‘at that time saved my life’ (Howarth, page14). Nelson suffered recurring fevers resulting from this illness.

Nelson’s return home was harrowing and depressing. He suffered from periodic bouts of depression throughout his life. In poor health, he experienced ‘a feeling that I should never rise in my profession. My mind was staggered with a view of the difficulties I had to surmount and the little interest I possessed. I could discover no means of reaching the object of my ambition. After a long and gloomy reverie, in which I almost wished myself overboard, a sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me and presented my King and Country as my patron. Well then, I will be a hero and, confiding in Providence, I will brave every danger’ (Morriss, pages 21-22). This religious-like experience belied the fact that Nelson did have ‘interest’. This ‘interest’, represented by Maurice Suckling, became more influential when Suckling was appointed Comptroller of the Navy, the Navy Board’s leading official, on 12 April 1775.

HMS Dolphin was paid off at Woolwich on 24 September 1776. Almost immediately Nelson, aged 17, through Suckling’s influence, was appointed acting fourth lieutenant of HMS Worcester on convoy duty in the Channel. He served on this ship from 1 October 1776 until 9 April 1777. Mark Robinson, the ship’s captain, felt confident in putting Nelson in charge of a watch in spite of his youth, since ‘he felt as easy when I was upon deck, as any Officer in the ship’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 6).

On 9 April 1777 and still aged just 18, rather than the officially required 20, Nelson passed his lieutenancy examination which was presided over by Suckling. Three days after, Nelson joined HMS Lowestoffe as a lieutenant, an appointment Suckling had secured him. He had put his foot on the first rung on the ladder of promotion as a commissioned officer.

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View Horatio Nelson's lieutenancy passing certificate


What's in a name? Horace or Horatio? Find out

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