by Heather R. Darsie
This series of articles is dedicated to my father, Burns Darsie III, born in June 1943 and deceased on Good Friday 2020. Due to the pandemic, we are unable to have a proper funeral. I chose to write about my father’s favorite historical figure, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson. We had the pleasure of going on a Nelson-themed tour around England in September 2019. He was overjoyed. Please help honor my father’s memory with me by reading this article. Thank you.
What do Trafalgar Square, Henry VIII, Portsmouth, Napoleon, and St. Paul’s Cathedral have in common? They are all connected to Lord Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson and 1st Duke of Bronte. Nelson was born on 29 September 1758 in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk. Nelson was the sixth child of eleven born to his parents. His mother, Catherine Suckling, married the Reverend Edmund Nelson on 11 May 1749. Edmund was an Anglican priest, and Catherine the daughter of a priest. Edmund was 25 years old and Catherine was 23 when they married. Three sons were born to the couple after their move to Swaffham. Sadly, the older two sons did not survive infancy. The third, named Maurice, did. The couple next moved to Burnham Thorpe, where they welcomed the rest of their eleven children. Another son and a daughter were born to the couple before Horatio Nelson, named in honor of his godfather, was born in 1758. Horatio, called Horace in his youth, was not a very strong infant. His parents feared that Nelson would die soon after his birth. Nelson was privately baptized on 8 October 1758 for fear of him dying. He was later publicly baptized on 15 November 1758.
The rest of Nelson’s siblings were born by 1765. In total, the couple had three surviving daughters and five surviving sons. Nelson’s mother died in December 1567. Nelson’s father Edmund did not take the death of his wife well, and found himself overwhelmed with eight children. Edmund’s brother-in-law, Maurice, assisted Edmund in finding funding for the education of the Nelson children. Maurice himself was a captain in the navy, and he agreed to take one of the five Nelson boys under his wing.
Horatio Nelson c. 177-1781, with Fort San Juan in the background, by John Francis Rigaud via Wikimedia Commons.
Horace continued his education at Norwich School. After turning twelve, Horace asked his father if Horace could join his uncle Maurice in the navy, to which Edmund agreed. Horace was assigned as a coxswain under his uncle Maurice on the HMS Raisonable in January 1771, and within the year was allowed to start training for an officer position. By July 1771, Horace was transferred to the HMS Mary Ann, a ship used for conveying goods from Jamaica and Tobago. He made two round trips across the Atlantic, then returned to his uncle’s service.
Horace caught wind of another ship in the navy trying to find the Northeast Passage, and asked his uncle to be transferred to that ship. The ship was curiously named the HMS Carcass, and under the command of Constantine Phipps. It left in June 1773, when Horace was not quite fifteen years old. The voyage was unsuccessful and returned in September 1773 to England, where Horace rejoined his uncle.
Uncle Maurice quickly made arrangements for young Horace to join the crew of HMS Seahorse, sailing to the East Indies in November 1773. Horace spent the next three years on the HMS Seahorse, and had his first taste of battle whilst aboard. A war broke out between British and Maratha forces. In February 1775, the Seahorse was attacked and exchanged fire with a couple small boats from the Maratha navy.
A year later, Horace, who already suffered from chronic sea sickness, came down with malaria and had to return home. . He arrived back in Britain in September 1776 with his health recovered. Horace’s uncle stepped in again and had Horace, now an adult, added to the HMS Worcester. Horace became Acting Lieutenant Nelson aboard the Worcester, and stayed with the ship for about six months until he could complete his formal exam as a lieutenant.
Nelson passed the exam and was assigned to the HMS Lowestoffe. The Lowestoffe was assigned to the West Indies in 1777. The American Revolutionary War was in full swing by this time, so the Lowestoffe took advantage by seizing the occasional American ship. One such ship was the Little Lucy, and was appointed commander of the ship. This was his first appointment as commander. Nelson was next appointed to the HMS Badger on 8 December 1778. For almost the whole first-half of 1779, Nelson commanded the Badger up and down the Caribbean coast of Central America, from modern-day Belize all the way down to Nicaragua. In June, Nelson was promoted to post-captain and put aboard a captured French ship, newly christened HMS Hinchinbrook.
Nelson next earned the much larger warship, the HMS Janus, in 1780 after successfully ousting the Spanish from a couple of their Central American colonies, such as Fort San Juan in Nicaragua. Nelson’s malaria flared at around this time, so he could not take command of the Janus. After his recovery, Nelson received an appointment to the HMS Albemarle in August 1781. He was not quite twenty-three years old at the time….
Part II will be released in short order!
Love learning about the Early Modern period? Are you interested in Tudor history or Women’s history? Then check out my book, Anna, Duchess of Cleves: The King’s ‘Beloved Sister’, a new biography about Anna of Cleves told from the German perspective!
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Sources & Suggested Reading
- Sugden, John. Nelson: A Dream of Glory. London: Jonathan Cape (2004).
- Hayward, Joel S. A. For God and Glory: Nelson and His Way of War. United States Naval Institute Press (2003).