Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Emma Hamilton and Naples

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The conquering hero

Nelson's head wound sustained at the Battle of the Nile was causing him severe headaches and sickness. He decided to sail to Naples to recuperate and to get his ship, HMS Vanguard repaired. His despatches about the victory at the Nile were lost when the ship carrying them, HMS Leander, was captured by the French Genereux. There was already alarm and anxiety in Britain about the French fleet’s whereabouts and this was compounded by the lack of news. The Admiralty was criticised for having chosen such a young officer to command such an operation. However, when news filtered back to Britain about the battle it was met with great jubilation.

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William Hamilton describes Nelson's triumphant reception in Naples

Fanny’s reaction was more contained and cheerless; ‘I trust in God for a continuance of his protection over you and to grant my dear husband a happy return’ (Morris, page 88). Britain’s joy and relief were mirrored more strongly in the Two Sicilies, concerned about the French threat to its kingdom. Representative of this was Emma Hamilton: ‘I am delirious with joy and assure you I have a fever caused by agitation and victory. Good God what a victory! Never, never has there been anything half so glorious…I should feel it a glory to die in such a cause. No, I would not like to die until I see and embrace the victor of the Nile’ (Morriss, page 87). Nelson’s arrival in Naples on 22 September 1798 was met with chaotic scenes of celebration. Sir William Hamilton and Emma went to greet him, and the latter, on seeing Nelson, exclaimed, ‘Oh God is it possible [falling] into his arms ‘more dead than alive’ (Morriss, page 89), whereas King Ferdinand called Nelson ‘Nostro Liberatore’ (Coleman, page 177).

Nelson stayed with the Hamiltons in Naples where he was publicly acclaimed. Writing to Fanny he described Emma as ‘one of the very best women in this world…an honour to her sex’ (Morriss, page 90) and boasted of his birthday celebrations, where ‘40 people dined at Sir Williams, 1,740 came to a ball, 800 supped’ (Nicolas, Volume 2, page 139). Nelson could not remain immune, absent from Fanny and in such an environment, to Emma’s attentions. Writing to St Vincent, Nelson stated ‘I am writing opposite Lady Hamilton, therefore you will not be surprised at the glorious jumble of this letter. Were your Lordship in my place I much doubt if you could write so well; our hearts and hands must be all in a flutter: Naples is a dangerous place and we must keep clear of it’ (Nicolas, Volume 2, pages 144-45). However, Nelson began to tire of this ‘country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels’ (Morriss, page 93). He sailed to Malta on 15 October 1798 to enforce a blockade there as its inhabitants rebelled against the French, only to return to Naples on 5 November 1798.

As reward for his victory at the Nile, Nelson was made a peer. The Sultan of Turkey awarded him a chelengk, a plume of artificial diamonds, which Nelson proudly wore on his hat. Moreover, he was appointed commander of naval operations east of Corsica and Sardinia, made responsible for blockading the French at Malta and Egypt, and tasked with supporting the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the event of war with France (which in early 1798 had captured Rome, ousted the Pope and set up a republic there). Nelson established his command base in Naples and, because of his operational responsibilities, was soon drawn into Neapolitan political affairs by Queen Maria Carolina, King Ferdinand’s wife and considered to be the kingdom’s real leader, and Sir William Hamilton. She wanted to avenge her sister Queen Marie Antoinette’s death by French republicans and used her husband’s kingdom to bring France to war, whilst also drawing Austria into the conflict.

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Nelson's account of the evacuation of the Neapolitan monarchy

General Mack arrived from Austria, in response to a request by Carolina, for someone to inspire and lead a Neapolitan army of 30,000, assembled to overthrow the French in Rome. Nelson was to land 4,600 troops at Leghorn, north of Rome, to intercept a French retreat, while the army under General Mack attacked from the south. Initially all went well. Leghorn surrendered on 28 November 1798, and the next day King Ferdinand led his troops into Rome, which had been evacuated by the French. The Pope was invited to return by King Ferdinand. However, in early December 1798 the French army attacked Rome and reoccupied it. Hamilton advised Britain’s foreign secretary that ‘the fine [Neapolitan] army from treachery and cowardice is fading away…It needs no great penetration to foresee that…the Kingdom is lost…fortunately Lord Nelson is here…which will secure us a retreat’ (Hibbert, page 165). Nelson, helped by a Neapolitan navy admiral, Francesco Caracciolo, evacuated the royal family, the Hamiltons and other dignitaries from Naples on 23 December 1798 to the safety of Palermo, Sicily.

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