Slavery and Revolution


Reflections on ‘Nelson’s Dark Side’

By Christer Petley |

I have been interested in Admiral Lord Nelson for about as long as I can remember. I knew him first as the heroic victor of the Battle of Trafalgar. Famously, Nelson gave his life to help win that battle, against the rival combined fleets of Napoleonic France and Spain. Badly wounded at the height of the fighting, Nelson died aboard his flagship HMS Victory shortly after the last shot was fired. His signal to the British fleet at the start of the battle is as vivid in my memory as any of the lines from Shakespeare that I had to learn at school: ‘England expects every man will do his duty’.

Part of J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of the Battle of Trafalgar

But in later years I have come to know a different Nelson. My research and teaching have focused on the history of the British empire, and my particular focus has been on the British sugar colonies in the Caribbean during the eighteenth century. I learned that Nelson’s first long sea-voyage as an adolescent boy was to the sugar colonies of the West Indies, that he served in the region as a young Naval officer during the War of American Independence, and that he met his wife while stationed in the eastern Caribbean during the 1780s.

The transatlantic slave trade and the wider institution of slavery drove the plantation economies of the British Caribbean. But beginning in the 1780s, a nationwide British campaign, spearheaded by William Wilberforce, helped bring an end first to slave trading between Africa and the Caribbean (in 1807) and then to slavery itself (during the 1830s). The debate over the future of slavery divided Britons. Wilberforce personified one type of British patriotism—arguing for an end to slave-trading on the basis that it was a blot on the reputation of a proud and Christian nation. Slaveholders offered their own patriotic arguments—maintaining that the trade was so instrumental to the imperial economy that Britain could ill-afford to stop it.

Nelson had befriended several slaveholding colonists during his time in the Caribbean. Privately, he came to sympathise with their political outlook. It is clear that, by the time of his death at Trafalgar, he despised Wilberforce and stood in staunch opposition to the British abolitionist campaign.

Horatio Nelson as a young man, in 1781, around that time he was posted in Jamaica

My article in BBC History Magazine, published this month, explores that part of Nelson’s story. It does so in part to try to show that Nelson was a complicated individual. Since his death, he has been elevated to the status of an almost god-like imperial, patriotic hero. But though uniquely gifted in command of a fleet, he was in other ways as fallible and flawed as any human being—shaped by his own experiences, friendships and prejudices.

By looking at those things, the article offers a new slant on the Nelson story. But it also does more than that. It shows how Nelson, the navy, and Trafalgar were all linked to the bigger British political struggle over the future of slavery—a struggle that Nelson’s actions at Trafalgar helped to resolve, albeit in unintended ways.

The article is one product of new research in the History department at the University of Southampton about the Royal Navy and the British Atlantic Empire of the eighteenth century. This has resulted in a book that I co-edited with Dr John McAleer, The Royal Navy and the British Atlantic World.

‘Nelson’s Dark Side’ is a distillation of parts of my chapter in the book, ‘The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.

For the BBC History Magazine article, click here.