But What Did Nelson Ever Do For Us?

24 Aug

Quite a lot, actually.

Those British schoolchildren unfortunate enough to attend schools where history is glossed over, where it is taught at all, might be forgiven for thinking that Horatio Nelson was just some dude on a pillar in London. This raises the obvious question of what he did to get a permanent memorial of himself in Britain’s capital. What did he do?


Saved Britain from invasion, for starters.

Horatio Nelson was born in 1758, an age of war. He joined the Royal Navy in 1771 and rose rapidly to command, then to flag rank. He commanded the British fleet during the Battle of the Nile in 1798, where he won a major and decisive victory; later, he also commanded the British fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar, falling to enemy fire even as he won his greatest, most famous and most significant victory. And those two battles were merely the most remarkable of his career. Nelson was a larger than life figure in an age dominated by great men: Napoleon, Wellington, Tsar Alexander I and many – many – others. He lived a life so full of adventure that many of us today can barely imagine it.

The Battle of the Nile made it impossible for the French to press on from Egypt and either crush the Ottoman Empire or press east into India. It led, eventually, to the humiliating end of Napoleon’s Egyptian adventure (Napoleon managed to extract himself before the final end and flee back to Paris, where he became dictator and eventually emperor.) But Trafalgar was the crowning masterpiece because it broke, once and for all, Napoleon’s hopes of invading England. Secure behind our wooden walls, we in Britain could continue to fund the war effort against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France and – eventually – land forces to end the war on our terms. The century of the Pax Britannia owes much to British dominance of the sea and dominance of the sea owes much, in turn, to Nelson.

But there was another far more important effect. France, before and after the Revolution, was a command economy, although one far laxer (owing to the limits of contemporary technology) than modern day socialist/communist states. Britain, although far from a libertarian society, was a merchant-dominated nation. A nation of shopkeepers, Napoleon was supposed to have sneered. Yet it was that nation that produced the rule of law and constitutional ideas which would lay the seeds for the west. Many of our modern-day ideas, ones now so ingrained in our society that we don’t think to question their existence, date all the way back to the French Revolutionary period and beyond. There is no question that Britain’s victory – over both Revolutionary and Napoleonic France – was good for everyone.

And we owe much of that to Nelson.

In his day, he was a celebrity. And he deserved every moment of his fame. Did David Beckham save Britain? Did Andy Murray defeat our enemies? I sometimes think that we live in an age of small men … although the modern news media may have something to do with that. Everyone has feet of clay.

Nelson was not perfect, of course. No one is wholly a saint or irredeemably evil. He was an adulterer, with a string of liaisons – most notably with Emma Hamilton, with whom he had a daughter out of wedlock. His treatment of his wife was thoroughly despicable. He was, in many ways, a contemptible social climber who sucked up to his betters … although he didn’t show the scorn and arrogance towards his men shown by too many other naval officers of that era. His death may have saved him from a long slow decline into eventual irrelevance (although other heroes of that era lived brilliant lives until death finally caught up with him.)

And yet he was a hero. We remember him because of what he did for us. He was a flawed man, but a hero nonetheless.

So why am I writing this, you might ask?

There’s a campaign afoot, apparently, to knock down Nelson’s Column in London. Taking their cue from a particularly loony faction in American politics, these people want to remove Nelson – a vital part of British history. This is not the first time campaigners in Britain have wanted to remove historical artefacts, but this one is particularly vile. Nelson is a part of our history that we must not forget, part of an era when Britain stood against chaos and tyranny and saved Europe from a brutal dictatorship.

I’d like to believe that this campaign is a joke. That it is yet another piece of ‘fake news,’ that I will wind up with egg on my face after I post this blog. But something in me thinks otherwise. We have entered an era where the great men of the past are held to standards that meant nothing to them, then erased from history when they fail to live up to our extracting standards. (The fact that so few famous people of our era live up to them seems to have passed unnoticed.) This isn’t just absurd, it is dangerous. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it!

What can we learn from Nelson’s era? There’s the fundamental danger of keeping the lid screwed down tight on discontent, thus ensuring that the eventual explosion will be all the greater. That’s what triggered the revolution, the terror and ultimately the dictatorship in France. And then there’s the problems inherent in a command economy, instead of one allowed to grow naturally. That’s what weakened France in the war. And there’s the advantages of allowing talent to flourish, instead of promoting by birth. That gave France a significant advantage, although Nelson came from yeoman stock instead of the British aristocracy.

And then there’s the need to have a solid plan to win and the willingness to keep going, despite setbacks, that would daunt anyone. That’s what ultimately allowed us to win.

No one would deny that British history has its darker moments. And yet, we must not forget that those darker moments are part of a greater whole. Nor is there anything to be gained by trying to judge the figures of the past by modern-day standards. There is much to be proud of in our long history. Horatio Nelson is one of our heroes. We must not forget him or any of the others, the bad as well as the good. They made us what we are.

Horatio Nelson does not deserve to be erased from history. And those who would try do not have our best interests at heart.

22 Responses to “But What Did Nelson Ever Do For Us?”

  1. Pyo August 24, 2017 at 8:38 pm #

    > part of an era when Britain stood against chaos and tyranny and saved Europe from a brutal dictatorship.

    What, by installing or supporting reactionary and repressive governments like the Russians and Habsburgs? While the evil French propagated the code civil and driving on the right side of the road?
    I guess the winners write history …

    Anyway, Nelson deserves his reputation. Good admiral.

    • redrake September 18, 2017 at 12:50 pm #

      I agree on the above statement. Furthermore, Napoleon never intended to invade England. In fact he wanted to have peace with Britain and concentrate on his war against Austria, Prussia and Russia.
      Furthermore, Nelson’s involvement in Russia’s tzar Pavel I left a lot of questions unanswered.
      It is unfortunately a nagging point of British history to see Napoleon as a dictator, like Hitler or Stalin would be later on. Napoleon’s greatest legacy is the Civile Code. His empire, was also more of a personal nature. His title was Emperor of the French Republic, he never abolished the republican institutions.
      Case in point Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic Wars was mostly a behind the curtains action, with the exception of Trafalgar and later on Waterloo (but there Wellington got the fame without deserving it, as the battle would’ve been lost if not for Blucher’s Prussians marching towards the sound of the battle and also in the end the battle had no significance on the war as a whole, as the coalition had 2 more armies already converging on Paris).

  2. David Graf August 25, 2017 at 1:00 am #

    I support the removal of the confederate statues from public land but I am dumbfounded by the idea that Nelson’s column could be removed. Unbelievable!

  3. philippeo August 25, 2017 at 1:02 am #

    one article by one left-wing writer is not a movement. it had no support and barely cause discussion among Left in Britain.

    and you confused by what happen in America, its not about against Great Men, its against Confederate Statue (there are many statue of Confederate soldier). its because majority of Confederate statue is built in Jim Crow and Civil Rights era as emblem/symbol of White Supremacy. its not about History/Great Men/Heritage.

    if you keep jumping to right-wing news source, you would get distorted view of what true moderate and true left are actually talking about.

    • Kristophr August 25, 2017 at 1:16 am #

      It is about left-wing virtue signalling. Nothing more. By merely pointing and saying “Wrongthink!”, a leftist can feel good, and avoid discussing the bad consequences of his ideology.

  4. Kristophr August 25, 2017 at 1:13 am #

    Removing historic statues is merely the latest trend in loony left attention whoring. The proper response to this is extreme ridicule.

    Don’t argue politics or history with them. Point and laugh at them.

    • Sprout August 25, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

      You should always engage the opposition in a well reasoned argument. Not because it might necessarily convince them otherwise or change things, but because it is the only reasonable course of action.

      Giving in to frustration and hate will only lead to stupidity and extremism on the other end of the spectrum and affecting derision toward the people you’re trying to convince will only achieve the contrary by entrenching them further.

      There is no cure for the human condition.

      • Kristophr August 27, 2017 at 2:03 am #

        You are assuming that the person you are arguing with is rational, or that all third parties are rational.

        Rhetoric is just as important in political discourse as logic. And rhetoric works better on persons who are logic deficient. Save logic for people who are able to think.

  5. clbeam August 25, 2017 at 2:48 am #

    I think you have more to worry about than a famous statue. Did the may government just not turn the screws on a British citizens freedom of speech and increase the definition of ‘hate crime’ to be more vague and inclusive to mean anything that could be offensive to anyone.

  6. Serendipity August 25, 2017 at 4:03 pm #

    My country has a short history.
    It has few historic monuments but those we do have I respect even if I don’t agree with them.

    The American confederate statues being removed is a tragedy. But how dose the actions of others make yours any less of a travesty or excuse bad behavior.

    Lets be Frank tearing down statues is never a good sigh and is generally associated with political instability on a frightening level.
    Statues are easy targets to hate they represent ideas are visible and have no defense.

    So why am i the one pointing out that the most militarily powerful country on the planet having issues is very bad for every one.

  7. Vapori August 25, 2017 at 8:26 pm #

    Isn’t that mostly another storm in a teapot. sure some left extremist might suggest stuff like destroying all memories of people who did something important for the state while not being a perfect person.

    I can actually understand that some statues should be removed, replaced or moved to a more suitable location. (In small that happens quite often, renaming a street for example or moving a statue to a museum instead of a public place. But whoever suggested that has the right to suggest it while the other 99,9% can voice the option that the monument should be kept. (removing a national monument is something that hardly ever happens.)

    Well the public picture is always shifting. General Lee was long seen by a majority of american people as somebody who firmly rejected the idea of slavery but still fought for the south, as his birthplace. Somebody who united both the north and the south.

    That a good part of the black porpulation and lefts reject a statue of him in an Emanzipation park and want it removed or relocated is understandable.

  8. Dan August 26, 2017 at 6:22 pm #

    We’ve had something similar happen here in the states many of the statues to southern leaders of the civil war have been torn down angering many hope y’all over the pond don’t follow the same way our government is going.

  9. RandyBeck August 26, 2017 at 7:33 pm #

    This would be a sign of greater weakening of a society. Those who’d bring down Nelson’s statue should be deported.

    There are sane reasons to remove some Confederate statues, but there are no reasons to allow any of it to be done by left-wing crazies. None of them would have fought against slavery, had they been alive at the time.

    • Dan August 26, 2017 at 9:41 pm #

      There really aren’t the statues had been standing for many many years their destruction is an obvious attempt to CENSURE history. This always leads to Tyranny. We must remember the good and the bad the statues removal was a clear attempt on culture,heritage and our freedom of speech. Well that’s my opinion on it anyway.

      • FarWalker August 28, 2017 at 5:09 am #

        If the extreme left keeps attacking conservatives and Christian values it’s going to get downright ugly and violent here in the United States. It’s just a matter of time before the kettle blows.

  10. Barry Weaver August 27, 2017 at 6:44 am #

    I don’t know of any other country that would allow local governments to raise statues to rebellious (and arguably traitorous) leaders. I don’t necessarily agree with the knee-jerk reaction to take down all the confederate statues, but I also do not like to see these statues (or the confederate battle flag) on government land. They should be in museums or memorial parks. The real problem is the reason that the statues were raised, the way that they are used as rallying points for subversive and hateful groups, and the ongoing very apparent racism that still plagues the US (especially in the south).

  11. Ken August 27, 2017 at 7:27 am #

    Nelson was a hero and should keep his statue. He was human and had flaws. He helped save England, he got the job done. There is something wrong when history is not being taught. Instead propaganda is taught and mobs rule.

  12. Anarchymedes August 27, 2017 at 10:59 am #

    How can any monument-removalist condemn ISIS for destroying the ancient Sumerian artefacts? What’s the difference? The way to deal with the inconvenient monuments is to contextualise them. The simplest example would be to keep the statue(s), say, of Stalin, but also build the monument(s) to the victims of his repressions. Or to leave the Confederates alone – but build the monuments reminding of the vileness of slavery (I’m not American – certainly not an American historian – but I’m sure there will be plenty of events and topics to commemorate). Let the future generations see both how strongly their ancestors believed in their ideas and how bravely they fought for them – and how wrong some of those ideas have been: both could teach valuable lessons.
    Here in Australia there are also talks about removing the British-era monuments, and even changing the Australia Day celebration – but don’t get me started on that!

  13. georgephillies August 27, 2017 at 8:08 pm #

    Perhaps, across the square (I’ve been there), an equally tall monument and statue to Winston Churchill.

  14. Big Ben August 28, 2017 at 9:18 pm #

    I agree with several points that have been made.
    Those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.
    On the flip side – those that cling too stubbornly to the past never advance and evolve.

    A point of idle curiosity … are there many (or any) statues of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and their revolutionary contemporaries in the public parks and squares in Britain? After all, they began their lives as Englishmen, citizens of the British Empire decades before America revolted. Why are they not lauded as great heroes in England? (I don’t know, perhaps they are.) By the standards of their era, they were traitors to the crown who took up arms against the “state” and their own countrymen.
    Perhaps the big difference is … they were victorious.
    The statues causing such controversy in the southern United States are much the same, irrefutably traitors who took up arms against their government, and for much less worthy reasons than America’s founding fathers. And they lost their war, their “nation” and their way of life.
    Who else but the dysfunctional Americans would commemorate and even celebrate traitorous slave owners in their modern public spaces?

    Don’t forget history, but don’t celebrate the worst aspects of it, either.

    And I agree with Chris, Nelson deserves his place in the pantheon of the best naval officers in history.

  15. Les Barrie (Scottish borders) September 2, 2017 at 10:52 am #

    Quite why the Americans cannot find s compromise is beyond me,I quite understand both arguments and can see why many people don’t want to look at statues of people they despise but these figures lived in a different time with different laws and social norms,but these figures are part of US history whether neolibs like it or not,why not quietly move the offending statues to more discrete locations and provide fully informative plaques fully explaining their significance, that way you preserve history but remove the inflammatory “in your face” aspect.As for Nelson, only a shallow ignoramus would suggest hiding our past for better or worse.

  16. LK October 20, 2017 at 1:10 am #

    What seems to get lost in the arguments about Confederate statues is that a large percentage of them weren’t erected directly after the American Civil War, but during the Jim Crow era. They weren’t put up to celebrate history but to intimidate black citizens. If you want history, go to a museum. Statues aren’t about history, they’re about what, as a community, we value.

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