The National Archives
Search our website
  • Search our website
  • Search our records
   
 

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served

Nelson, Trafalgar, and those who served
 
 

Captain Nelson

Glossary - opens in a new window

San Juan

Thumbnail linking to pop-up window

Read about Nelson's life threatening illnesses

On 16 June 1779 Spain also declared war on Britain. Jamaica’s governor, Major-General Dalling, briefed Nelson about his plan to attack Spanish colonies in Central America, and with a military force go into Nicaragua, up through the San Juan River. Barring the way was the San Juan fort. Nelson was chosen to command the naval element of the operation, which involved transporting troops, owing to his practical experience and knowledge of this coastline. The convoy left Kingston, Jamaica, on 3 February 1780 arriving safely at the mouth of the San Juan River on 10 April 1780. Nelson remarked this was a feat ‘which none but Spaniards since the time of the buccaneers had ever ascended’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 10). The night before Nelson participated in capturing an enemy outpost. The ensuing siege of the fort lasted 18 days. Many British troops died as a result of dysentery or malaria caused by poor living conditions, tropical rainstorms and extreme heat. Nelson also fell seriously ill. In June 1780, near to death, he was sent to recuperate at Parker’s home in Kingston. On 4 September 1780, although still critically ill, he set off on a return voyage to England aboard HMS Lion, arriving in Portsmouth on 1 December. By mid-February 1781 Nelson still had not recovered. He informed Locker ‘I have…use of all my limbs except my left arm, which I can hardly tell what is the matter with it. From the shoulder to my fingers’ ends are if half dead…I most sincerely wish to be employed, and hope it will not be long’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 38).

Nelson remained unemployed until 23 August 1781, when he took command of HMS Albermarle, tasked with convoy duties in the Baltic and North Sea. In April 1782, he sailed to Quebec escorting convoys. Later that year, on 12 July, he captured an American schooner, the Harmony, off the coast of Boston. Two days later, the skipper of this vessel, Nathaniel Carver, helped him evade four French ships of war. Owing to an outbreak of scurvy on his ship Nelson sailed to Quebec. Here Nelson fell in love with Mary Simpson, aged 16, the daughter of Colonel Saunders Simpson, the local garrison’s provost marshal. So passionate were his feelings for her that he was on the brink of proposing marriage, ignoring orders to escort a convoy of troopships to New York. ‘I find it utterly impossible to leave this place without waiting on her whose society has so much added to its charms and laying myself and my fortunes at her feet’ (Pocock, page 57). He was advised not to by his friend Alexander Davison who remarked that ‘your utter ruin, situated as you are present, must inevitably follow’ (Morris, page 36). Nelson initially opposed this advice, but then agreed.

Thumbnail linking to pop-up window

 

Thumbnail linking to pop-up window

Captain Nelson asks for assistance in getting HMS Albermarle underway

 

HMS Albemarle on convoy duty

On 13 November 1782, en route to New York, Nelson met Lord Samuel Hood on HMS Barfleur, which was anchored at Staten Island. On board this ship Nelson met Prince William Henry (later William IV), the third son of George III. The Prince, aged 17, described Nelson as ‘the merest boy of a captain I ever beheld’ (Morriss, page 37). However, on hearing Nelson speak about professional subjects, the Prince was convinced that Nelson ‘was no common being’ (Morriss, page 37). In making such friendships Nelson extended his own influence, becoming more known and making some powerful patrons. Mixing in such circles meant he gained confidence, but also delusions of grandeur. ‘My situation in Lord Hood’s fleet must be…flattering to any young man. He treats me as if I was his son, and will, I am convinced give me everything I can ask of him; nor is my situation with Prince William less flattering’ (Nicolas, Volume 1, page 71). This seemed to affect his judgement both in a professional and personal sense. Sailing to Jamaica in HMS Albermarle and accompanied by three other ships, Nelson, acting without orders, unsuccessfully attacked a French garrison on Turks Island on 8 March 1783. He demanded the garrison’s surrender, which was refused. Nelson withdrew reporting his failure to Lord Hood. News of peace terms being discussed, which eventually led to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on 3 September 1783 and an end to the American War of Independence, meant that HMS Albermarle could return to England. Hood chose Nelson to accompany Prince William for a three-day visit of Havana, Cuba, beginning on 9 May 1783. Arriving back in England in June 1783, HMS Albermarle was paid off. His crew assured him they would be happy to serve under him again, a clear sign of their affection. For looking after the Prince, Hood took Nelson as a reward to meet the King on 11 July 1783 at St James Palace. Later Nelson visited the Prince at Windsor.

Nelson and Prince WilliamGo to next topic