Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Formative naval experiences

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Joining the Royal Navy

At home at Christmas 1770, Nelson read in the Norfolk Chronicle that the Royal Navy was commissioning ships for a possible war, caused by a dispute between Britain and Spain over the Falkland Islands. One ship, HMS Raisonnable, was to be captained by Maurice Suckling. Nelson asked his brother William to write to their father in Bath, ‘and tell him I should like to go to sea with my uncle Maurice’ (Hibbert, page 8).

Why Nelson did this remains open to speculation. Burnham Thorpe’s main employment for its traditionally small population - which in 1801 numbered 396 - was farming. This occupation was considered unacceptable for a clergyman’s son from a middle-class background. However, more respectable 18th-century careers, for example, the legal profession or as an army officer, required considerable financial backing, which Nelson’s father did not have. Employment in the Royal Navy was a different proposition. Burnham Thorpe’s proximity to the sea may have stimulated Nelson’s fascination with it, along with stories of his uncle’s exploits.

The Royal Navy was considered a respectable occupation for boys of Nelson’s background. A survey of 1,800 officers who served in the Royal Navy between 1793 and 1815 revealed 899 were from middle-class families and that many were clergymen’s sons (Lewis, 1960). Its prestige and status was growing. At the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century it was mainly deployed to guard home waters. Increasingly throughout the 18th century it protected Britain’s growing empire, mercantile interests and shipping routes. It was also crucial as a military force in the European power struggles of the 18th century. In addition, the Royal Navy offered the possibility of promotion, prize money and, to a young boy, adventure. These possibilities were enhanced by having influential patrons. In this respect, Nelson had a head start, his uncle Maurice being an experienced Royal Navy captain. Bearing this and his family’s situation in mind, Nelson’s father may have been relieved to pass on Nelson’s request to his brother-in law. He could rest safe in the knowledge that a trusted relative could look after and supervise the progress of his son’s career.

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How did Maurice Suckling jumpstart Nelson's naval career before he joined his first ship, HMS Raisonnable?

Suckling agreed to take Nelson but warned ‘what has poor Horatio done, who is so weak, that he should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come, and the first time we go into action a cannon ball may knock off his head and provide for him at once’ (Howarth, page 6). Nelson left Sir William Paston’s School in either March or April 1771, travelling to London with his father to his uncle William Suckling’s home in Kentish Town, London. This was probably the first time Nelson, aged 12, had travelled outside his native Norfolk. Nelson was sent to Sheerness, Kent, where he joined HMS Raisonnable on 24 April 1771.

Britain’s dispute with Spain over the Falkland Islands did not lead to war. HMS Raisonnable was no longer required and her crew was paid off on 21 May 1771. Nelson joined his uncle’s next ship, HMS Triumph, on 22 May 1771 as a captain’s servant. This guardship was moored in Chatham with no likelihood of active service. What Nelson needed was practical experience of serving at sea. Suckling learnt that a former shipmate, John Rathbone, captain of the Mary Ann, a merchant ship owned by Hibbert, Purrier and Horton of London, was sailing to the West Indies. Rathbone offered to take Nelson. Although previously doubting Nelson’s suitability for service at sea because of his weak health, Suckling agreed. This voyage would prove if Suckling was right.

The Mary Ann left Medway, Kent, on 25 July 1771 sailing to Jamaica and Tobago, before eventually returning to Plymouth, England, on 7 July 1772. It was unusual for potential officers of the Royal Navy to serve in the Merchant Navy. Apart from giving Nelson practical seamanship experience it highlighted the differences between the two navies. Pay was usually higher in the Merchant Navy and discipline less harsh. More significant were the differences between officers and men, and the way the former often treated the latter. Nelson remarked about this voyage ‘if I did not improve in my education, I returned a practical seaman, with a horror of the Royal Navy, and with a saying then constant with the [merchant] seamen, "Aft the most honour, forward the better man!" It was many weeks before I got in the least reconciled to a man-of-war [battle ship], so deep was the prejudice rooted’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 4). Nelson was commenting on how officers tended to receive all the glory and reaped the benefits while the hard work was carried out by the men. Perhaps this experience allowed Nelson to empathise with his shipmates and those he was to command, a quality recognised by those who served with him.

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