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Why do we say ‘turn a blind eye’?

Horatio Nelson has gone down in history as the ultimate naval officer: a natural leader, an exceptional strategist, a figurehead determined to sail at the front of the battle. So what is his connection to the phrase 'turn a blind eye'?

An engraving of Admiral Lord Nelson
Published: February 1, 2015 at 12:00 pm
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It was that stubborn resolve by the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar that led to the action which spawned this expression – meaning to consciously refuse to acknowledge or act on something.


On 2 April 1801, the British Fleet, under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, engaged a joint navy of Danish and Norwegian ships at the Battle of Copenhagen.

When firing began at 10am, Vice Admiral Nelson, aboard the 74-gun flagship HMS Elephant, led the charge. Hours later, the battle still raged. A few Royal Navy vessels had run aground, and it appeared to the cautious Parker that no progress was being made.

Concerned that Nelson was in trouble, but guessing that he wouldn’t sail to safety without permission, Parker used flag signals to order the retreat. When Nelson was informed, he raised his telescope to his blind eye – wounded in a previous battle – and announced: “I have only one eye, and I have a right to be blind sometimes... I really do not see the signal!”

Nelson continued the fight – and won a great victory. His bravery and ambition was rewarded with the command of the British fleet, which he led to historic triumph at Trafalgar four years later.


This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine


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