Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Captain Nelson

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View The National Archives' earliest Nelson letter

Prior to joining HMS Lowestoffe Nelson wrote to the Admiralty for unpaid wages. On 14 April 1777 he notified his brother William of attaining his ‘degree as Master of Arts…(that is passed the Lieutenant’s examination)…[and being] left in [the] world to shift for myself’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 21). This was untrue as Suckling’s influence had secured him a lieutenancy on HMS Lowestoffe under William Locker, reputed to be a tactically aggressive naval commander. HMS Lowestoffe was tasked with blockade duties in the West Indies, preventing illegal trading by American colonies with the French West Indies which Britain thought contravened the Navigation Act. Britain had been at war with rebel American colonies seeking independence since April 1775. It was whilst serving aboard HMS Lowestoffe that Nelson first experienced taking and boarding a prize, an American brig, the Revolution. The capture took place on 20 November 1777 in spite of heavy seas that had prompted some officers to refuse to take part. Nelson recounted ‘This…incident has often occurred to my mind; and I know it is my disposition that difficulties and dangers do but increase my desire of attempting them’ (Morriss, page 24). Locker thought highly of Nelson, placing him in command of the schooner, Little Lucy. It was in this ship between January and April 1778 that Nelson independently captured his first prizes.

On 5 September 1778 Nelson, whilst stationed off Jamaica, transferred from HMS Lowestoffe to HMS Bristol, the flagship of Sir Peter Parker, the West Indies commander-in-chief. This was possibly due to Parker wanting to curry favour with Suckling. In October 1778, Nelson learnt that his uncle Maurice Suckling had died. Nelson now had to advance his career through his own merits. France’s declaration of war against Britain in support of America in February 1778 meant conflict in Europe and America. More ships were required as a result. This gave opportunities to able men like Nelson. He was given command of HMS Badger on 8 December 1778 by Parker in recognition of his ability. Nelson’s main task in HMS Badger was to protect the Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras from American privateers. Nelson in HMS Badger rescued the crew of HMS Glasgow which caught fire in Montego Bay, Jamaica, on 1 June 1779.

On 11 June 1779, at the age of 20, Nelson was promoted to the rank of post captain and put in command of HMS Hinchinbrooke. Although it was not uncommon to reach this rank so young it was indicative of his ‘interest’ that he did. Further promotions to the higher flag officer ranks were now automatic based on seniority. Barring an early death, misconduct or illness Nelson’s future career was secure.

Nelson could not promptly take command of HMS Hinchinbrooke. She was still at sea. Instead he took charge of a shore battery at Port Royal, Jamaica, an important British sugar island, which was expecting an attack by French forces. This attack never materialised. Nelson took command of HMS Hinchinbrooke on 1 September 1779 when she eventually arrived in Jamaica.

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