Trafalgar Day - Nelson: a counterrevolutionary adventurer

Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle that is associated with the name of one man, Horatio Nelson. He was considered a national hero, both in his own lifetime and in the Victorian period following his death. But should the working class celebrate the life of this man? We will examine his exploits and show them in a light that is not exactly what the present patriotic hullabaloo is designed to do.

Today is Trafalgar Day - the 200th anniversary of the battle that is associated with the name of one man, Viscount Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), the British naval commander, whose statue dominates Trafalgar Square in London. His victories in the battles of the Nile and Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars caught the public imagination at the time, and he was considered a national hero, both in his own lifetime and in the Victorian period following his death. But should the working class celebrate the life of this man? We will examine his exploits and show them in a light that is not exactly what the present patriotic hullabaloo is designed to do.

There is no doubt that Nelson was a great military commander and strategist. He began his naval career in 1771 when he was only 12 years old, and it ended with his death at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. He was born in Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, close to the North Sea coast, on September 29, 1758. His family origins were humble. He was the son of the Reverend Edmund Nelson. However, his mother, Catherine Suckling, was from slightly more elevated stock. Her grandmother had been the sister of Sir Robert Walpole, the chief minister of George II.

He entered the Royal Navy in 1770 and in 1771 joined the HMS Raisonnable as a midshipman. The ship was commanded by his uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling. By the time he was 20, he had already gained considerable naval experience through service on a merchant vessel, on an Arctic expedition, and in the East Indies and the Caribbean. By 1779 he had attained the rank of captain. Subsequently he saw battle service in the West Indies in 1780, was chosen to instruct Prince William, later William IV, in naval tactics, studied naval matters in France, and in 1784 commanded the British frigate Boreas, stationed at Antigua.

But events were being prepared that would transform the world – and the life and destiny of Horatio Nelson. He rose to fame as Britain’s most successful naval commander during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.

A period of war and revolution

The period under consideration was one of explosive economic and social changes. The development of capitalism, in which Britain led the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, expressed itself as an agricultural and industrial revolution. The tremendous growth of manufacturing provided the impetus for British expansion into the world in a search for markets in which to trade its goods. Hence the importance of the navy, which was vital both for the maintenance of Britain’s overseas colonies and for the protection of merchant shipping.

Like our own period, this was a period of many wars. The Seven Years War (1756–63) between Britain and France was followed by the alliance of the French with America in the War of American Independence (1775–82), which led to further war between the two countries. The Royal Navy assumed a vital role in protecting British ships trading throughout the world, to the Baltic, India, the North American colonies and the West Indies. It was a period in which “Britannia ruled the waves”.

The power of British capitalism, from a military and diplomatic point of view, depended largely on her position as an island. The seas that enclosed her on all sides served as a defensive wall. This fact set its stamp on the development of Britain, which differed from her continental neighbours in one important respect. Whereas France and Germany were compelled to defend their frontiers with large land armies, with all the consequent expense and bureaucracy, Britain could afford to keep a relatively small army, depending on her navy and a policy of keeping the rest of Europe weak and divided (“divide and rule”). This meant that until the beginning of the 20th century, the British state was relatively weak and the twin evils of militarism and bureaucracy were almost unknown – a fact commented on by Engels.

The importance of the navy for Britain until relatively recently is shown by the fact that traditionally she maintained a policy that the royal navy had to be stronger than the combined navies of the next two most powerful nations. The navy was the “senior service”, enjoying a unique prestige. At the beginning of the 19th century, therefore, an ambitious and capable naval officer could anticipate a brilliant career. The confidence in the navy was expressed in popular songs such as “Hearts of Oak”:

“’Tis to honour we call you, as free men, not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?
Hearts of Oak are our ships,
Jolly tars are our men.
We always are ready!
Steady, boys, steady!
We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again!”

However, the life of the “jack tars” (as the sailors were known from the custom of covering their trousers with tar to make them waterproof) was far from jolly. The navy obtained most of its sailors by forcibly kidnapping men through the infamous system of the press gang. Men were sent to sea against their will for long periods, separated from their wives and families and living in appalling conditions. The food was bad, consisting mainly of salted meat and a dry biscuit called “hard tack”. Men died of scurvy for lack of vitamin C, until the importance of lemons was discovered. They were kept in a semi-drugged state by the daily rum ration, which partially dulled their senses and allowed them some consolation in the face of the daily hardships, brutality and monotony of life at sea.

During a naval battle, these gigantic ships would face each other for hours with guns blasting away. The men faced death and fatal injuries of the most horrible type. A cannon ball smashing through the ship’s wooden hull would cause huge splinters to fly like shrapnel, tearing through flesh, as well as starting fires and explosions. The methods of surgery were primitive with no anaesthetics or disinfectant other than rum. In the middle of a battle the ship would resemble a slaughterhouse. At the bottom of Nelson’s flagship The Victory, the ship’s surgeon had the bright idea of painting the floor red, so the wounded would not faint at the sight of so much blood, thinking that it was seawater.

In large wooden ships where hundreds of men were crowded below decks in close proximity to the privileged officers, the latter lived in constant fear of mutiny. The men were kept in order by a ferocious system of discipline. The word of the ship’s captain was law: to defy him was death. A man could be sentenced to flogging for the most trivial offences. The night before the flogging he was given a piece of leather and had to spend the whole night making a whip called the “cat of nine tails”. The following morning the whip was inspected and if it was not perfect the condemned man was forced to undo all his work and make it again, while the number of lashes was increased.

This is the origin of many phrases that have passed into the English language as proverbs, such as “to make a whip for your own back” (to make problems for oneself) or, even more interestingly, “to rub salt in the wound”. This was the painful remedy applied to the lacerated back of a man who had been flogged. Another case is: “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” This was an expression of class solidarity among the sailors. They developed a remarkable ability to whip a comrade in such a way that it would merely scratch the skin without causing serious injury. So if you would scratch my back this time, the next time I would show you a similar courtesy.

It is true that men who live and fight together can develop a certain affinity, and that the sailors could admire a brave officer, like Nelson. But the feelings of the officers for their men, even when they praised them, were no different for the admiration of an aristocratic gentleman for a good dog or horse. The officers no more regarded the common sailors as their equals as the manufacturers regarded their factory “hands”.

Under such conditions it is easy to see that many of the officers would develop a hatred for revolution. Even more than their class brothers and sisters on land they feared these dumb masses and saw them as an inferior race, which was absolutely necessary, and even possessed some admirable qualities of bravery and endurance, but which at all costs had to be kept in its place. The officers, and above all the captain, were absolute tyrants on board, to a far greater extent than the king of England in Buckingham Palace.

The French Revolution

The French revolution of 1789-93 marked a decisive turning point. At first a section of the British establishment adopted an ambivalent attitude. But this soon hardened into implacable opposition when it became clear that the Revolution had roused the masses and was going beyond the boundaries of moderate constitutional monarchism. The rise of the most radical faction, the execution of the king and queen and the Jacobin terror, caused panic in the ruling circles all over Europe. This applied above all to Britain, where the industrial revolution had produced a sharp social polarization.

The feverish economic growth had another face. Alongside fabulous wealth there was terrible poverty. Periodic slumps in trade, linked to the effects of war, harvest failure, and unemployment, led to social unrest and protest. The British establishment was terrified of the spread of ideas such as those of the French Revolution. Edmund Burke, who, in his Reflections on the French Revolution, famously referred to the masses as “the swinish multitude”, expressed the hatred felt by the ruling class for the French Revolution.

All the wars that went before paled in insignificance beside the Revolutionary Wars (1793–1801). All the forces of reactionary monarchist Europe were aligned against revolutionary France. Armed with the ideas of the Revolution, the French people fought back and one by one defeated their enemies. The victorious armies of the Revolution advanced on all fronts, driving back the Austrian and Prussian armies. But England, the most powerful and determined member of the reactionary camp, remained undefeated, and became the paymaster and main organiser of the counterrevolutionary camp.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) followed as a logical consequence of this. The victory of Napoleon finally liquidated the democratic gains of the French Revolution, replacing the democratic dictatorship of the Jacobins with the dictatorship of one man. In all the outward forms Napoleon slavishly copied the old regime. But just as the dictatorship of Stalin did not abolish the new property relations established by October, so Napoleon continued to uphold the new property relations established by the Revolution of 1789-93. Moreover, in his wars in Europe, he made use of the democratic ideals of the French Revolution to secure the support of patriots and democrats in other countries.

Even in the distorted form of Bonapartism, the French armies were extending the democratic gains of the Revolution across Europe. As a result, the old powers of Europe hated him as the personification of the Revolution that he had betrayed and crushed. Naturally, therefore, Britain continued to back the enemies of France, now with money, now as a direct military participant. In a series of shifting alliances, Britain found herself at war with Spain as well as France. Her shores were protected by the sea, and her powerful navy kept the enemy at a safe distance.


In common with the rest of his class, Nelson felt a deep-seated hatred towards the French throughout his lifetime. He was an ambitious man, with the psychology of an adventurer. He rose rapidly, and from Lieutenant, he was promoted to Post-captain in 1779 and then Commodore in 1796. In the Battle of Cape St Vincent 1797 he was promoted rear admiral of the Blue.

He certainly never lacked personal courage. In the 1794 Campaign in Corsica he lost sight in his right eye after being struck in the face by flying stones and sand at Calvi. In 1797 his right arm was amputated after being hit above the elbow with grapeshot at Santa Cruz, Tenerife. After this exploit, Nelson was knighted.Then in Egypt in 1798 Nelson received the title Baron of the Nile after the Battle of the Nile (Aboukir Bay).

Under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Hood, in 1793 he participated in the occupation of the city of Toulon by allied British and Spanish forces. In the course of a visit to Naples, from which he convoyed troops to help the British at Toulon, Nelson first became acquainted with Emma, Lady Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador at Naples. The French army, led by a young artillery officer called Napoleon Bonaparte, drove the British army out of Toulon. After this setback, Nelson assisted Hood in the taking of the towns of Bastia and Calvi in Corsica, and in occupying the island. This was in 1794.

His meteoric rise continued. As already pointed out, he was made a commodore in 1796. One year later he played a prominent part in the victory off Cape St Vincent, Portugal, of the British fleet under John Jervis over the fleet of Spain, then allied to France. The following year he was sent to discover the purpose of the great French fleet gathering at Toulon. Nelson’s ships, reconnoitring off Toulon, were scattered by a storm, and before he could resume his position the French fleet had sailed. Nelson realised that it had gone east carrying Bonaparte’s troops for an invasion of Egypt, and set out in hot pursuit.

The main feature of Nelson’s military genius was his impetuosity and willingness to take risks. These features are well adapted to the psychology of an adventurer. There was something of the gambler about this man, always willing to risk everything on a desperate throw. They did not always succeed. In July 1797, Nelson led a rash attack by small boats on the town of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, a Spanish possession; the attack failed, and this was the battle where Nelson received the wound in his right arm that resulted in its amputation.

The French fleet had discharged its troops before Nelson caught up with it at Abukir (Abu Qir) Bay. This was the origin of the Battle of the Nile. On August 1-2, 1798, he destroyed most of the French fleet and thus severed Napoleon’s line of communication with France. This compelled Napoleon to withdraw from the Middle East in spite of his military victories there. The victor of the Nile was showered with accolades and titles. England made him a peer. The Sultan of Turkey awarded him a chelengk, a plume of artificial diamonds, which Nelson proudly wore on his hat. This love of ostentation was a further expression of his overweening pride and ambition. He was also appointed commander of naval operations east of Corsica and Sardinia, made responsible for blockading the French at Malta and Egypt, and tasked with supporting the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the event of war with France.

Nelson then proceeded to Naples, which was then in the grip of revolutionary upheavals. French troops and Neapolitan sympathizers with the French Revolution had combined to drive out the Neapolitan royal family. Here we see the real counterrevolutionary face of Nelson. His deep hatred for the Revolution and his monarchic sympathies persuaded him to take an active part in crushing the uprising and restoring the royal family in 1800. In return for his services Ferdinand I, King of Naples made him Duke of Bronte. This further flattered the aristocratic aspirations of Nelson.

Emma Hamilton

Lady Emma Hamilton, c.1761–1815, was just as much an adventurer as her lover. Their famous affair caused a scandal in the Mediterranean and later in London, when Nelson returned to England in the company of the Hamiltons. The daughter of a blacksmith from Cheshire, her rise in society came after her marriage to the much older Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to the Court of the King of the Two Sicilies in Naples.

She had married Sir William Hamilton only three years before in 1791. She was much younger than her husband. Despite her humble origins, and earlier relationships, Emma was a great success in Naples society, and became well known for her performance of classical poses or “attitudes”. Her whole life was one great pose, resembling the heroines of Thackaray’s novels like Becky Sharpe in Vanity Fair. But the couple were still the target of the gossip of high society. How could a man in his 60s marry a young woman in her mid 20s? How could such a man of his class lower himself to marry a woman of such questionable standing? The questions, of course, answer themselves.

While in Naples, Nelson became the lover of Lady Hamilton, and her advice and help subsequently influenced his career. He returned to England the same year and the following year was separated from his wife. On hearing of the victory in the Nile, Emma Hamilton is supposed to have exclaimed: "I am delirious with joy and assure you I have a fever caused by agitation and victory. Good God what a victory! Never, never has there been anything half so glorious…I should feel it a glory to die in such a cause. No, I would not like to die until I see and embrace the victor of the Nile”.

It was quite fashionable for a lady of quality to swoon should an occasion present itself to do so. The hero of the Nile’s return to the city of Naples provided the enterprising Lady Hamilton with a perfect opportunity to do so. Nelson’s arrival in Naples on 22 September 1798 was met with wild scenes of celebration. Sir William Hamilton and Emma went to greet him. Uttering the words: "Oh, God is it possible!" Emma, Lady Hamilton, swooned into the arm of the man soon to become her lover.

Revolution in Naples

Nelson arrived in Naples in September 1798 and was enthusiastically received. King Ferdinand called Nelson “our liberator” (Nostro Liberatore). However, the admiration was not entirely mutual. Nelson described the kingdom as a “country of fiddlers and poets, whores and scoundrels”. These words, despite their unflattering nature, are not a bad description of the court clique at Naples. But this was only one Naples. There was another, entirely different one. And the conflict between them was about to erupt.

On the outbreak of the French Revolution King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Queen Maria Carolina did not at first actively oppose reform; but after the fall of the French monarchy they became violently opposed to it, and in 1793 joined the first coalition against France, instituting severe persecutions against all who were remotely suspected of French sympathies. Republicanism, however, gained ground, especially among the aristocracy. In 1796 peace with France was concluded, but in 1798, during Napoleon’s absence in Egypt and after Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile, Maria Carolina induced Ferdinand to go to war with France once more.

At the beginning of 1798 a French force had captured Rome, ousted the Pope and set up a republic. The struggle between the forces of republicanism and reaction was breaking out in other places, including Naples, where Nelson had established his command base. He was soon drawn into Neapolitan political affairs by the intrigues of Queen Maria Carolina. The wife of King Ferdinand was rightly considered to be the kingdom’s real ruler. Ambitious and unscrupulous, she naturally adopted the most belligerent stance against the republican and progressive forces.

It was only to be expected that the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, would be actively involved in the reactionary intrigues of the Queen and the court circle. Maria Carolina took upon herself the role of the avenger of Marie Antoinette. She did not hesitate to drag her husband’s kingdom into a war with revolutionary France, while simultaneously drawing Austria into the conflict. Answering a request by Carolina, the Austrian general Mack arrived from Austria, with the aim of assembling a Neapolitan army of 30,000 to overthrow the French in Rome.

Nelson was involved in this intrigue. He was to land 4,600 troops at Leghorn, north of Rome in Tuscany, to cut off a French retreat, while the army under General Mack attacked from the south. At first all went well. Leghorn surrendered on 28 November 1798, and the next day King Ferdinand led his troops into Rome. This “glorious exploit” was somewhat diminished by the fact that the French army had already withdrawn. The first act of King Ferdinand was to invite the Pope to return to Rome. But the triumph of the counterrevolution was short-lived. In early December 1798 the French army attacked Rome and reoccupied it, brushing aside the Neapolitan forces like a fly. As soon as the French attacked his troops, the “conquering hero” hurried back to Naples.

In a devastating commentary on this reactionary rabble, Hamilton advised Britain’s foreign secretary that “the fine [Neapolitan] army from treachery and cowardice is fading away…It needs no great penetration to foresee that…the Kingdom is lost…fortunately Lord Nelson is here…which will secure us a retreat”. The retreat was not long in coming. Ferdinand’s social base was disintegrating fast. In a panic he was forced to flee with his court to Palermo. The royal family had to be hastily and ignominiously evacuated by Nelson, helped by a Neapolitan navy admiral, Francesco Caracciolo, about whom we will hear more presently.

Nelson in Naples

Nelson was in poor health and in one of his periodic states of depression. He was now embroiled in an illicit love affair with Emma, whose influence over him was a useful instrument in the hands of the Queen. From her Sicilian exile, she was thirsting for revenge. It is said that Nelson felt guilty about the fall of the royal family and wanted to restore the King and Queen to the throne. But no personal or profound psychological reasons are necessary to explain the actions of a man who hated revolution like poison, who embraced the principle of monarchy with the passion of the low-born parvenu, and who shed blood with the same indifference as one who accidentally spills a small glass of wine.

His obsession with Neapolitan politics actually made him neglect his military duties. While he was embroiled in the counterrevolutionary intrigues of the royal family, the naval situation in the Mediterranean was deteriorating. When 25 French ships of the line escaped from Brest and 17 Spanish ships from Cadiz, Lord Keith, second-in-command in the Mediterranean, pursued the French with an inferior force of ships. Desperate for reinforcements, he requested help from Nelson. The latter sent 10 of his ships but remained in Palermo. On 13 May 1799 he wrote to St Vincent “what a state I am in! If I go, I risk, and more than risk, Sicily, and what is now safe on the continent”.

The situation in Naples was now chaotic. The lazzaroni (the lowest class of the people) were supporters of every reactionary cause, and in particular the Bourbon dynasty. They went on the rampage, massacring anyone suspected of republican sympathies. On the other hand, the educated classes, and even sections of the nobility were increasingly inclined towards a republic under French protection. In January 1799 the French forces under Championnet reached Naples. The lazzaroni tried to stage a pro-monarchist uprising but were violently quashed. Finally, on 20 January 1799 the French occupied the city.

The Parthenopaean Republic

On 23 January 1799 the Parthenopaean Republic was proclaimed. (The name Parthenope refers to an ancient Greek colony on the site of the future city of Naples.) The Republicans were men of culture and high character. But they were met with the sullen hostility of the lazzaroni and had to rest on French bayonets. Robespierre once remarked that nobody likes missionaries with bayonets. Moreover the services of the French did not come cheap. Championnet’s constant demands for money plunged the Republic into financial difficulties

The Republicans made many mistakes. They failed to organise the army, and met with little success in their attempts to "democratise" the provinces. Meanwhile the exiled court at Palermo set about organizing the counterrevolution. The king sent Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, a wealthy and influential prelate, to Calabria to organize the "Christian army of the Holy Faith" (Esercito Cristiano della Santa Fede). Ruffo managed to assemble an army of 20,000 against the French occupation. This most Christian force consisted of brigands, convicts, ignorant peasants and some mercenaries. It marched through the kingdom plundering, burning and massacring.

The British watched these developments carefully. Nelson supported Ruffo’s action by sending four ships. An English squadron approached Naples and occupied the island of Procida, but after a few engagements with the Republican fleet commanded by Francesco Caracciolo, an ex-officer in the Bourbon navy, it was recalled to Palermo, fearful of the arrival of the Franco-Spanish fleet.

Russian and Turkish ships under the command of Admiral Ushakov joined Ruffo’s force. They were now in a position to march on the capital, whereupon the French withdrew, except for a small force under Méjean. The Republican detachments were defeated, only Naples and Pescara holding out. On 13 June 1799 Ruffo, together with his Turkish and Russian allies and barbarian hordes reached Naples. After a desperate battle at the Ponte della Maddalena, they entered the unfortunate city. Ruffo’s rag-tag army indiscriminately began to slaughter those thought to be French sympathisers.

For weeks the Calabresi and lazzaroni continued to pillage and massacre. Even so, the Royalists were not in control of the city. The French in Castel Sant’ Elmo and the Republicans in Castelnuovo and Castel dell’ Uovo still held out courageously, raking the streets with gunfire, in the hope that the Franco-Spanish fleet would arrive. This explains the conduct of Ruffo in the subsequent negotiations. His leniency towards the rebels and his willingness to accept generous terms of surrender were dictated not so much by Christian charity as fear that at any moment the French navy would relieve the republicans.

Ruffo was desperate to come to terms with the Republicans for the evacuation of the castles, although the queen had issued express orders that no terms be offered to the rebels. After negotiation, both sides concluded an armistice and agreed on capitulation. It was agreed that the castles were to be evacuated, the hostages freed and the garrisons allowed to remain in Naples unmolested or to sail for Toulon. The rebels kept their promise: all the hostages in the castles were liberated save four. On the other side, ships were being prepared to take the rebels who wanted to be evacuated to Toulon. Everything seemed to be in order. Then Nelson arrived.

On 28 June 1799 Nelson received orders from Sir John Acton, King Ferdinand’s Prime Minister, and the King and Queen only to accept an unconditional surrender. Nelson wrote to Acton “I approve of not one thing which has been and is going on here”. Queen Carolina urged Nelson to go to Naples. He took with him Sir William and Emma Hamilton. Returning to Naples with his squadron on 24 June 1799, Nelson was outraged by the clemency of these conditions. He adamantly refused to recognise it except in so far as it concerned the French.

Nelson argued that since the King had not approved the treaty it was invalid. But Cardinal Ruffo as well as the Russian and Turkish commanders had endorsed the conditions of capitulation, and captain Foote had signed for Britain on June 22. Many republicans had already given themselves up under the agreement, and the latter was determined to stick to it. A violent row broke out between Nelson and Ruffo. The latter indignantly told Nelson that the treaty had been signed, not only by himself but by the Russian and Turkish commanders and by the British captain Foote, and that it must be respected. When Nelson refused, he said that he would not help him to capture the castles.

On 26 June 1799 Nelson seemed to change his attitude. He authorised Sir William Hamilton, the British minister, to inform the cardinal that he (Nelson) would do nothing to break the armistice; while Captains Bell and Troubridge wrote that they had Nelson’s authority to state that the latter would not oppose the embarkation of the Republicans. Taking the British at their word, the Republicans embarked on the vessels prepared for them. But in reality the promises of this “English gentleman” were not worth the paper they were printed on.

Nelson, breaking his promise not to take action against the conditions of the agreement, prevented the departure of the rebels, who had laid down their weapons. The king, queen and prime minister, still exiled in Palermo, urged Nelson to show the revolutionaries no mercy and even to arrest Cardinal Ruffo if he considered it necessary. But these letters did not reach Nelson until June 28, 1799. He needed no encouragement from the royal family. He personally ordered the arrest of the revolutionary leaders, in violation of the terms of the capitulation. Then he handed them over to the tender mercies of the counterrevolutionaries.

He had the vessels brought under the guns of his ships. Many Republicans who had been promised free passage were arrested. The rebels – among them Prince Caracciolo, the admiral of Naples – could expect no mercy from the courts of the counterrevolution. Caracciolo was sentenced to death. The unfortunate admiral Caracciolo was caught whilst attempting to escape from Naples, tried by a court-martial of Royalist officers under Nelson’s auspices on board the admiral’s flagship, and condemned to death and hanged immediately on Nelson's orders, against the recommendation of the presiding judge. He was hanged at the yardarm.

On 8 July 1799, King Ferdinand arrived from Palermo, and the rigged trials, conducted in the most arbitrary fashion, intensified their work. The result was wholesale butchery in which hundreds of persons were executed. Among the victims of the white terror were some of the best men in the country, such as the philosopher Mario Pagano, the scientist Cirillo, Manthonè, the minister of war under the republic, Massa, the defender of Castel dell’ Uovo, and Ettore Caraffa, the defender of Pescara, who had been captured by treachery, while thousands of others were thrown into filthy dungeons or exiled.

Worse was to come. The royalist irregulars were thirsting for revenge. The lazzaroni, the scum of Naples, always the willing tool of the counterrevolution, was now unleashed on the population. For months, the mob indulged in an orgy of uncontrolled violence against republicans, patriots and anyone else they did not like. They carried out a campaign of murder, arson and rape, while Nelson looked on impassively.

Nelson’s war crimes

In our own age, Nelson's actions in Naples would come under the category of crimes against humanity - and not only in our own times. Even at the time, these actions constituted a gross violation of the articles of war for the British navy, never mind the so-called gentleman's code of honour. Nelson's conduct was criticised by the parliamentary opposition even at the time.

In the present orgy of self-congratulation and patriotic bilge that is daily spewed out on the television screens of England, every attempt is made to find excuses for Nelson and to play down the importance of these crimes. From the homepage of the Nelson Society, for example, we learn that Nelson was completely dominated by Emma Hamilton and no longer in control of himself! As a British admiral, Nelson was under no obligation to carry out acts of revenge on behalf of the Neapolitan royal family.

It is true that his mistress, Emma Hamilton, the close confidante and agent of the queen, ably fanned the flames of his passion. But it is clear that Nelson acted on his own initiative. He took it upon himself to wreak vengeance upon the Jacobins, who had executed their king. His guilt is beyond all doubt. The record proves that Nelson not only made these bloody massacres possible, but actively encouraged them. He was motivated by his innately reactionary and pro-monarchist sentiments, his hatred of all revolutionaries and progressives.

This adventurer was not one to be bound by the rules or obey orders, either in his private life or in war. He was always ready to take the greatest risks, irrespective of the danger to his own life or that of his men. The same things that drive most adventurers drove him: ambition and a thirst for power and personal glory. He was merciless to his enemies, especially when they were revolutionaries. In many of his letters Nelson speaks of humanitarianism, but he was quite capable of great cruelty. Nelson was a very brutal man with absolutely no regard for human life. In the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, he gave the Danes an ultimatum, threatening to burn the captured ships along with their crews. There can be no doubt that he was capable of carrying out this grizzly threat.

Nelson’s counterrevolutionary fanaticism is also underlined by the following detail. The situation in Naples diverted his attention from pressing naval operational matters. Lord Keith, now Mediterranean commander-in-chief, ordered him to defend the island of Minorca, which was threatened by the French. Nelson declined repeated orders to do so, only sending ships. Nelson wrote “It is better to save the Kingdom of Naples and risk Minorca, than to risk the Kingdom of Naples to save Minorca” (Hibbert, page 193). King Ferdinand rewarded Nelson’s services by granting him a title of Sicilian nobility, the Duke of Bronte, which he accepted without his own King’s approval.

Nelson turns a blind eye

As an adventurer and a parvenu, Nelson was never really accepted by the aristocratic establishment. He was fêted publicly but sneered at behind his back. His relationship with Emma was frowned upon by high society, governed, as always, by the rule of hypocrisy and double standards.

At a royal party in St James’s Palace on 11 November 1800, Nelson turned up wearing all his unauthorised foreign honours and awards. King George III shunned him and the King’s wife refused to receive Emma. Later that evening Lady Spencer observed at a dinner held at Admiralty House by the First Lord of the Admiralty that Nelson treated his wife “with every mark of dislike and contempt”. His former commander St Vincent remarked “That foolish little fellow Nelson has sat to every painter in London. His head is turned by Lady Hamilton”.

Nevertheless, he continued to rise. In 1801 Nelson rose to the rank of vice admiral, but in spite of his rank he agreed to serve under Sir Hyde Parker when the latter was placed in command of the fleet sent to the Baltic Sea to compel Denmark and Sweden to discontinue their economic aid to France. Britain had been planning naval operations in the Baltic to undermine the armed neutrality between Denmark, Sweden and Russia.

This alliance was led by Russia, whose Tsar supported France. The alliance was perceived as dangerous to Britain as it could prevent the supply of naval stores and timber on which the Royal Navy was dependent. As a result, Nelson was transferred to HMS St George, a 98-gun ship on 1 February 1801 for service in the Baltic. He joined Sir Hyde Parker, commander-in-chief, and the Baltic fleet in Yarmouth on 2 March 1801, the fleet leaving England 10 days later.

Admiral Parker was 61 years old, cautious and indecisive. Parker had been trying to induce Denmark to withdraw from the neutrality, “by amicable arrangements, or by actual hostilities”. Such methods did not suit Nelson. He was for attacking the stronger Russian navy in Reval – an action that Parker thought too rash. In a letter to Emma, Nelson raged “reports say we are to anchor before we get to Kronborg…that our Minister at Copenhagen may negotiate. What nonsense! How much better could we negotiate was our fleet off Copenhagen…if they are the plans of [our] Ministers, they are weak in the extreme…I hate your pen-and-ink men; a fleet of British ships of war are the best negotiators in Europe”.

When diplomacy failed to persuade Denmark to abandon the Armed Neutrality, Parker commenced blockading the Baltic. But this gave an opportunity for the Armed Neutrality’s ships to combine forces. Nelson tried to convince Parker of the need for immediate action. In the end, he authorised a direct attack on the Danish fleet in Copenhagen, protected by the formidable guns of Trekroner fort. Two hours after the battle commenced, Parker made a signal to discontinue the action. Made aware of the order by his signal lieutenant, Nelson turned to Captain Foley and said “You know…I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes’ and raising a spyglass to his right eye added ‘I really do not see the signal”.

Here once more we see the character of the adventurer. Nelson had once again disobeyed a superior officer’s orders. Although second in command, he had usurped control of the British operations by a typically audacious manoeuvre. If he had failed, he faced disgrace and possibly a court martial. But he succeeded brilliantly. The bombardment by the British fleet persisted for several hours. The British ships battered the floating defences and many Danish ships were destroyed, including the flagship Dannebrog.

The Danes suffered 1,700 casualties, the British 941. Nelson sent an ultimatum to the Crown Prince of Denmark. A ceasefire followed and Nelson went on shore to negotiate an extension of the truce. On 9 April 1801 both Britain and Denmark agreed to a 14-week armistice. Later that year Nelson was named a viscount. Nelson replaced the unfortunate Parker as commander-in-chief. Yet another gamble had paid off.

The Armed Neutrality of the North was dissolved on 19 May 1801.

Not all Nelson’s gambles ended so well. On 24 July 1801, he was appointed commander-in-chief of a squadron deployed between Orfordness and Beachey Head specifically as a defence against French invasion forces. His force consisted of 57 boats. On 15 August 1801 Nelson planned an attack on the French invasion flotilla at Boulogne. He mounted a surprise evening attack. However, this time the attack was a failure. The British lost 12 boats and had 45 men killed and 128 wounded. The French did not lose one boat and suffered few casualties.

Nelson seems to have been something of a manic-depressive. As a result of the failure at Boulogne, he plunged into depression, “I am in silent distraction. My dearest wife, how can I bear our separation? Good God! What a change, I am so low that I cannot hold up my head”. Peace negotiations that had begun on 1 October 1801 led to the signing of an armistice, the Treaty of Amiens, on 27 March 1802 and a brief end to war between Britain and France.


The Napoleonic wars were a series of separate conflicts interrupted by a series of unstable alliances and shaky truces that broke down one after the other. The Treaty of Amiens (1802-1803) temporarily ended the fighting between England and France. But diplomatic relations between Britain and France soon deteriorated and were brought to crisis point over Britain’s refusal to evacuate Malta and Napoleon’s unwillingness to withdraw troops from the Netherlands, Switzerland and Piedmont, conditions both countries had agreed upon when signing the Treaty of Amiens. A new outbreak of hostilities was inevitable.

Britain declared war on France on 16 May 1803. When war broke out again in 1803 Nelson was appointed commander of the British Mediterranean fleet. He was given the task of defending Malta, Gibraltar and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. More interestingly from his point of view, he was ordered to prevent the French fleet at Toulon joining the French fleet at Brest, and destroy it if it escaped.

On 18 May 1804 Napoleon was proclaimed Emperor of the French by the senate. He later crowned himself Emperor at Notre Dame Cathedral on 2 December 1804. Spain joined France, declaring war on Britain on 14 December 1804. This worsened the position of Nelson’s fleet, increasing the possibility of a combined Franco-Spanish fleet reaching the English Channel and the eventuality of an invasion of Britain.

Napoleon had assembled his Grande Armée of 114,000 troops at Boulogne, apparently with the intention of invading Britain. This huge force required a large flotilla to transport them across the English Channel. The large French fleet under Vice Admiral Pierre Charles de Villeneuve stationed at Toulon was meant to be this flotilla. Napoleon, calculated that “only ten hours would be needed for landing…disciplined and victorious soldiers upon a coast destitute of fortifications and undefended by a regular army”.

In the Battle of Trafalgar, on October 21, 1805, Nelson overwhelmingly defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets, leading the attack himself in his flagship Victory. At 11:48 he made the famous signal to his fleet of 27 ships: “England expects that every man will do his duty”.

At around midday, off Cape Trafalgar, Nelson’s fleet formed into two columns. Nelson lead one column in the HMS Victory, and Collingwood, in the HMS Royal Sovereign, led the other. They sailed towards a single line of 33 French and Spanish ships on which served nearly 30,000 men. Nelson’s strategy was brilliantly original and audacious, but also very risky. He concentrated his ships’ attack on breaking the enemy line at several strategic points. This unusual tactic was intended to surprise the enemy and cause what he called a “pell-mell battle”. The superior gunnery and seamanship of the British fleet would then be deployed to devastating effect.

The tactic was extremely risky because the leading ships of the two British divisions would be met head-on by enemy gunfire without being able to return fire. Only when they closed in on the enemy line would they be able to fire their cannon. But once they did, the effect would be devastating. It meant fighting at very close quarters. As the British ships broke through the enemy line, Hardy described the proximity of the ships as “closed like a forest”.

HMS Victory collided with Redoutable becoming entangled with her rigging. At about 13:15 Nelson was hit by a musket ball fired by a sharpshooter on Redoutable, which passed through his left shoulder and a lung and lodged in his spine. Nelson was carried to the cockpit, where he died as a result of his wounds, just as the battle ended.

The British victory at Trafalgar had important repercussions. It put an end to Napoleon’s plans for invading England, and ensured Britain’s naval supremacy for the next hundred years. It is therefore an historical event of great significance. The British victory was undoubtedly mainly the result of Nelson’s military ability, his innovative tactics and willingness to take the offensive at all times.

The working class must be prepared to learn from its enemies. Horatio Nelson was one of the bitterest enemies of the cause of freedom and progress. He was a militant representative of the class whose interests he defended. He was an upper class parvenu – always the most ferocious kind of reactionaries. In modern times he would have probably had fascist tendencies. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the qualities he showed in warfare – courage, determination, élan – are just what is needed in the leadership of the class struggle. They are the kind of qualities that the new generation of working class militants must learn to acquire if we are to succeed.

We neither applaud nor celebrate the exploits of a man whose entire life was dedicated to opposition to the progress of the human race. We take note, we study, we learn, and we apply our lessons to the only war that is just and necessary – the sacred struggle for the emancipation of the working class.

London, 21 October 2005.