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.”
Nelson, whose victories as a naval commander had earned him a parliamentary seat in the Lords, was suggesting here that he would use his political position to speak up against the ideas of the famous British abolitionist campaigner William Wilberforce. His fiery words might seem shocking to modern eyes. Nelson even surprised himself. “I did not intend to go so far,” he confessed, but he went on to admit that “the sentiments are full in my heart and the pen would write them”.
Nelson’s sentiments present us with an untold side to his story. This is generally recounted as a tale of patriotic heroism – of a man doing his duty to protect the nation from a Napoleonic menace. Nelson the dutiful patriot is certainly in evidence in the letter he wrote aboard the Victory in the Caribbean. But we also find a man in heartfelt solidarity with British slaveholders against the perceived menace of Wilberforce and his campaign to abolish the slave trade. This letter, documenting a crucial moment in the war against Napoleon, is therefore also a vivid piece of evidence from another struggle of no less global-historical significance: the internal battle within the British empire about whether British colonialism could, or should, continue without the transatlantic slave trade.
Nelson wrote his letter for a long-standing friend: a slaveholder named Simon Taylor, one of the wealthiest Britons of his generation. Taylor lived in Jamaica, where he owned three huge plantations and claimed ownership over more than 2,000 slaves: men, women and children forced, like countless other captives, to work and die producing huge quantities of sugar. The profits from slave-produced Caribbean sugar were staggeringly high, making fortunes for men like Taylor and flowing back into the wider British economy. This slave system was little other than a lucrative system of institutionalised manslaughter. Poor conditions for slaves meant that deaths outnumbered births, and white managers continually had to replenish their enslaved workforces from slave ships bringing new captives from Africa. By the time of the Napoleonic Wars, more than 3 million people had been taken across the Atlantic in British ships, destined for lives of slavery on New World plantations.
Taylor and Nelson had first met in 1779, while the 20-year-old Nelson was stationed as a junior naval officer in Jamaica during the American Revolutionary War. Taylor was the elder of the two, approaching middle age when they became friends. As well as making a huge personal fortune from Caribbean sugar and slavery, he had established a great deal of political influence, which extended beyond Jamaica to London. Taylor was soon to emerge as a powerful voice in the political struggle over the future of the slave trade. Unsurprisingly, he was furious about rising anti-slavery sentiment in Britain and stood bitterly opposed to Wilberforce’s campaign.
The fact that Nelson shared Taylor’s strong dislike for Wilberforce and abolitionism is a stark indication of how out of step he was with the rising humanitarian sentiments of his own times. But in this respect, Nelson was hardly unique. Other British naval officers harboured similar views. Many of them had spent long stretches – months or even years – on one of the Royal Navy’s West Indian stations, often forming strong affinities with white slaveholding colonists.
While stationed in the eastern Caribbean during the 1780s, Nelson met and married his wife, Frances, the niece of a wealthy slaveholder in the British island-colony of Nevis. The Duke of Clarence (and future King William IV) had also served with the Royal Navy in the region, and spoke up forcefully in parliament against Wilberforce and his plans for the abolition of the slave trade. So too did Admiral Lord Rodney, who before Nelson’s dramatic rise had been the most celebrated British naval commander of his age. The influence of such men helped to ensure that the early abolition campaigns of the 1780s and 1790s ended in failure. No wonder slaveholders like Simon Taylor were keen to cultivate their friendship.
For nearly two decades, Wilberforce found his calls for an end to the slave trade blocked by conservative elements in parliament. The main reason was that, for all of its obvious inhumanity, the commerce in human beings underpinned a system of Atlantic trade that had defined the 18th-century British empire.
Slave-produced colonial sugar was the nation’s most valuable import, and trading ties between Britain and its colonies were governed by laws designed to strengthen the Royal Navy. These ensured that trade between British possessions was carried on in British ships, crewed by British sailors – skilled mariners who could be pressed into the navy during wartime. In addition, import duties collected on British colonial produce helped fund a treasury whose primary objective was to raise funds for the defence of the realm, which included the high cost of maintaining the nation’s war fleet. Pro-slavery spokesmen like Simon Taylor, the Duke of Clarence and Lord Rodney wasted no opportunities to emphasise that the slave trade, colonial commerce, British greatness, and national security were all interlinked.
Abolitionists were, eventually, only able to counter this old vision of empire when they learned how to go beyond simple moral arguments against human trafficking and offer, in addition, a more pragmatic case. By the early 19th century, British abolitionists were trying to reassure conservative-minded members of parliament that ending the transatlantic trade in slaves from Africa would not damage the colonies or bring about an immediate end to slavery itself. Rather, they claimed that ending the slave trade would trigger useful reforms. Without the option of turning to the slave ships for new recruits, it would be in the slaveholders’ best interest to ensure that births outnumbered deaths on the plantations. This would require an improvement in conditions, which should also make slaves more contented, and so lessen the likelihood of a large-scale slave uprising (the prospect of which struck fear into the minds of colonial slaveholders and British politicians alike). Many abolitionists hoped that such changes could slowly prepare the way for a smooth transition to freedom at some point in the distant future.
Nelson, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, remained unconvinced, influenced instead by the advice of his old friend Simon Taylor. Taylor believed that, despite their claims to the contrary, abolitionists were a dangerous influence. In one of his letters to Nelson, he complained that proposals to end the slave trade spelled “nothing but evil” for “unhappy colonists” in the islands of the British Caribbean, pronouncing that parliament’s decision on the matter would determine whether “the lives of all the white people” in the sugar colonies would be sacrificed. Guided by racist assumptions about the violent character of black people, Taylor presented Nelson with lurid warnings of how white slaveholders could be “butchered, massacred, and murdered” by slave uprisings inspired by misguided reformers acting “under the pretence of humanity”. Reflecting those prejudiced fantasies back to Taylor in his letter from the Victory, Nelson contemplated that the success of Wilberforce and his allies “would certainly cause the murder of all our friends and fellow-subjects in the colonies”.
Would Nelson have spoken out?
Parliament finally outlawed the slave trade in the British empire in 1807 (the abolition of slavery outright followed in the 1830s). In the Caribbean, there was none of the violent bloodshed predicted by the slaveholders; and the measure was popular throughout the British Isles. Would Nelson have followed through on his proposal to speak publicly against it? He had assured Taylor that he was willing to launch his voice against the abolitionists in parliament, but he was under no obligation to act on this suggestion.
Of course, he never had to face the dilemma. By the time the abolition question was debated, Nelson was dead – killed in the brutal sea battle that ended in destructive and decisive victory for the British fleet under his command in the waters off Cape Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Having tracked his rival to the Caribbean and back, he finally found the fight he craved, and the outcome turned him into a legend. Ever since, Nelson has been remembered primarily as a selfless patriot and military genius. A quasi-religious veneration of his memory, as a heroic warrior and self-sacrificing national hero – synonymous to many with Rule, Britannia! and a strong sense of British pride – has left little space for other assessments of his outlook or legacies.
Nelson’s private pro-slavery leanings have been almost totally ignored, but scrutinising them helps to expose an overlooked facet of the man behind the myth. It also does far more besides. Nelson, like anyone, was a complex human being, shaped by the world in which he lived. His attitudes towards slavery were moulded by close and long-standing ties between the Royal Navy and the British Caribbean. And, more broadly, his views help us to understand what abolitionists like Wilberforce had to overcome. Nelson’s sentiments were just one reflection of a more widely held ‘old-school’ defence of a profitable 18th-century British colonial system dependent on the slave trade. When Nelson wrote bitterly about the “damnable and cursed doctrine” of Wilberforce, he revealed a dislike for “meddling” humanitarians, a callous animosity towards enslaved people, and a desire to preserve the existing system – a system that, to some, seemed synonymous with British strength, and which had helped to build the navy that Nelson led into battle at Trafalgar.
Paradoxically, however, the outcome of the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 created some of the circumstances for the eventual success of British abolitionism less than two years later. Trafalgar confirmed the crushing of French and Spanish sea-power by the Royal Navy. The fact that British maritime strength was now overwhelming helped to ensure that parliament felt safe to embrace new ideas about the future of the empire. Finally, British politicians summoned the confidence to ignore the warnings of doomsayers who urged that ending the slave trade would be a disaster for the colonies and make Britain vulnerable to other maritime powers.
In the end, then, one of the unforeseen consequences of Nelson’s last victory was to provide conditions conducive to the triumph of Wilberforce and his ‘doctrine’. Nelson would almost certainly have disliked this unintended outcome of his deeds. He died content that he had done his duty, and secure in the knowledge that his fleet had won the day. But in the continuing struggle over the future of British slavery, he had backed the losing side.
Christer Petley is professor of Atlantic history at the University of Southampton
Book: White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution by Christer Petley (OUP, 2018)
This article was first published in the Christmas 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine