Blind Ambition

In the wake of the Paralympics, a new biography celebrates the life of our greatest disabled serviceman: Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson: Our greatest disabled serviceman

There have been many “superheroes”, but only one Horatio Nelson. At the London Paralympics last month, England’s greatest disabled serviceman was not mentioned. However, a worthy tribute just out is Nelson: The Sword of Albion, the second volume of John Sugden’s biography (Bodley Head, £30) — itself a heroic achievement. Though he requires a thousand pages just to cover the last eight years of Nelson’s life, the author draws on the constantly augmented body of evidence with which to build on the work of the late Tom Pocock and other Nelsonian scholars. 

Sugden begins in 1797, with the hero’s return to Bath, where he was awaited by his wife Fanny and his father, the Rev Edmund Nelson, rector of Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk. Shot off at Tenerife, the “unhealed stump” of the rear-admiral’s right arm required copious doses of opium to relieve “excruciating pain”. Fanny’s tender care extended from defending his reputation to cutting up his food. Though she could not compete with the glamour of Emma Hamilton, Fanny emerges from the story as a heroine in her own right. Like many modern celebrities, Nelson wanted a new companion to suit his new life in the public eye, while Emma was ruthless in her determination to supplant Fanny: “I should like to say Emma Nelson,” she wrote, once her husband Sir William Hamilton was dead. “How pretty it sounds.” But divorce required an Act of Parliament; from 1700 to 1850 there were only 317 of them. Fanny was spared that final humiliation. She outlived Nelson by quarter of a century, secure in the knowledge that she, at least, had always done her marital duty. 

But it is Nelson’s other disability — his sightless right eye — that has added most to his enduring fame. At the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, Nelson was at a crucial point in his defeat of the Danish fleet when his commander, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, raised a general signal: “Discontinue the Action!” Nelson’s flamboyant decision to disobey orders by “turning a blind eye” to the signal has enchanted the English and enriched our language ever since. “Recently,” writes Sugden, “there has been a stampede to disavow the tale, and brand it an invention. But that goes much too far.”

Sugden goes back to the earliest sources, starting with three individuals who were standing near Nelson at the time on board his flagship, the Elephant, including Lieutenant-Colonel William Stewart. None of these mentioned the blind eye, but a fourth (unnamed) informant told Lady Malmesbury that Nelson “replied that he could not see [the signal], for he had but one eye and that was directed to the enemy”. Within five years, another eyewitness account emerged, from a Dr William Ferguson, which quotes Nelson thus: “Foley, you know I have lost an eye, and have a right to be blind when I like, and damn me if I’ll see that signal!” Stewart elaborated his 1801 account for Clarke and McArthur’s biography, published in 1809. “With an archness peculiar to his character”, he said, Nelson put a spyglass to his blind eye and exclaimed: “I really do not see the signal.” 

Sceptics claim that Stewart, having originally omitted the story, must have taken it from Ferguson and embroidered it. Sugden rejects this theory, arguing that it is more likely that Ferguson heard the story from Stewart. He concludes that all the witnesses “allude to Nelson’s refusal to see the signal” and that “the blind eye has its claim to history”. Whether the theatrical gesture of placing a telescope to his blind eye actually happened depends on how much credence we give to Stewart, but he was a reliable witness and the story was very much in character for a hero who “never forgot his audience”. Nelson’s last words at Trafalgar, it seems, really were: “Thank God, I have done my duty.”

One thing is for sure: though it was his duty to defeat “the brave Danes”, Nelson hated doing so and offered them a ceasefire at the first opportunity. In 1807, after his death and with Napoleon threatening to occupy Denmark, the Royal Navy returned to Copenhagen. This time the British not only captured the entire Danish fleet, but bombarded the city until it surrendered, killing thousands of Danes.

 It was fear of just such a surprise raid by the British that haunted the Germans a century later. The historian Jonathan Steinberg has coined the term “Copenhagen Complex” for the paranoia that drove the Kaiser and his evil genius Admiral Tirpitz to challenge the naval supremacy established by Nelson. The Germans, like the French before them, were checked by the grand strategy for which Nelson gave his life: that of preventing any great power from dominating the Continent. That Nelsonian strategy is still as valid as ever. The legacy of England’s greatest hero lives on, even if our leaders turn a blind eye to it.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"