Lord Nelson and slavery: Nelson’s dark side

When Lord Nelson died he was hailed as Britain’s greatest seafaring hero – a reputation that survives to this day. However, a letter he wrote onboard HMS Victory reveals a different face, showing his vehement opposition to William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of the slave trade. Christer Petley uncovers Nelson’s sympathy with a brutal Jamaican slave-owning elite

Lemuel F Abbott's famous 1797 portrait of Horatio Nelson. In 1805, the British naval hero promised to speak publicly against the abolition of slavery, but was denied the opportunity by his death at Trafalgar later that year. (Picture by Alamy)

In the summer of 1805, Horatio Nelson was pursuing the French in the Caribbean. He had been lured there as part of the complex naval cat-and-mouse game that would culminate, some four months later, at the battle of Trafalgar. On learning that the French admiral Villeneuve had crossed the Atlantic with a large fleet, Nelson took his own British fleet straight from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean. Writing from his flagship, HMS Victory, on 11 June, he confessed that he had been “in a thousand cares for Jamaica”, Britain’s most productive and valuable colony, knowing that a successful attack on the island was “a blow which Bonaparte would be happy to give us”. Nelson chased Villeneuve across the Atlantic without orders but calculated, reasonably, that the government at home could have few complaints, because defending lucrative British colonies like Jamaica was a strategic priority surpassed only by the defence of Britain itself.

While he searched unsuccessfully for a Napoleonic fleet in the Caribbean, Nelson also found time to reflect on the relationship between Britain and its precious colonies in the region. In the letter scratched out at his desk on Victory, Nelson proclaimed: “I have ever been and shall die a firm friend to our present colonial system.” He went on to explain: “I was bred, as you know, in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions; and neither in the field or in the senate [House of Lords] shall their interest be infringed whilst I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”

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