Wednesday 23 August 2017

Nelson, Steady Boys Steady

One of web sites of choice and to which I often refer on matters of family histories is the wonderful Ayshford Trafalgar Roll which was compiled by a couple from the muster rolls and other information relating to The Battle of Trafalgar of 1805. This was a crucial naval action in the Napoleonic Wars.

Had Britain lost we might have had another world, a Napoleonic one and the Royal Navy would not have been able to clamp down on the slave trade after the Abolition Act of 1808. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson may have had retrograde views on slavery that were common in his time but did his duty.

Now The Guardian leads the way proposing to remove from the plinth and smash his statue because he held such opinions. A quibble with Nelson is that he referred to Englishmen, perhaps reflecting his views on eugenics. The Roll, however tells us that there were a great many Irishmen, Scots and others on the decks and behind the guns.

The Norfolk seamen in my ancestry were not there, being busy on the vital East Coast Coal and Baltic Trades but the farmers from County Wicklow were. Put to sea when young, Nelson was not expected to rise far being from a family of only middle standing and with few connections. But war created opportunity and created vacancies in the higher ranks.

When, later, the government was tidying up central London and removing the nests of other thieves and slums that were too close for comfort to Whitehall and Parliament, they built a great square and the name Trafalgar seemed to be a good option agreed by most. There was no doubt that we had won that one, whereas many naval actions won had meant heavy losses.

In those days of primitive thinking no square could be without statues which gave rise to the difficult question of who? By the time it  was being finished Nelson was an obvious choice. There was no agreement about which politicians, King George IV was a no-go and Wellington was still alive and kicking, hard. Nelson's convenient death in the battle of 1805 had removed one of the more awkward, noisy and opinionated leaders of the Royal Navy.

Also he was disabled, having lost an eye and an arm and needing care and assistance for the ordinary functions of life. Given his messy private life and financial problems why on earth was he in charge of the fleet? Because he had a very special skill, he was a winner when it came to naval battles, especially the critical ones.

The BBC have recently run a series on The Vikings who were big in the slave trade of their day. Given the numbers they took down to the markets of the Middle East, it is likely that a very large proportion of the populations there have a trace of British or Irish slaves in their DNA. The Vikings morphed into the The Normans among others, and later Plantagenets, who had their own methods of reducing the lower orders to servile status.

It is 500 years now since Martin Luther triggered the Protestant revolution, which later in the UK led to the stripping out of much of the high art of the Middle Ages from churches and other buildings. We can only wonder at what has been lost and at what cost. But on the empty walls later there came the memorials and statues to the major figures at the time.

I suspect that the great majority of these as with others at their times had beliefs and ideas that would not fit well with our modern thinking in many ways. To remove them all may suit us and we might knock down all the churches and buildings because they might remind us.

In fact it might be safer to wipe out all history while we are at it, just to make sure, so torch the records offices and archives. What fun it would be and how good we would feel after it.


  1. Oh I love these potted histories.

  2. "In fact it might be safer to wipe out all history while we are at it"

    Easily done by selective teaching.