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HMS Caroline remains temporarily closed. Find The Latest COVID-19 Updates Here.


Nelson on a Pedestal

Recent events have ignited debate around a range of historical figures and the representation of their legacy still today. In this article, the Executive Director of Operations for the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Matthew Sheldon, reflects on the debate surrounding Admiral Nelson, explaining Nelson’s views on slavery. He explores the wider context of the relationship between the Royal Navy and the slave trade, and reveals sources from the Museum’s collection which highlight aspects of the relationship. He also shares some initial thoughts on how we must embrace difficult conversations around the Navy’s history. 

Nelson on a Pedestal

It is an unsettling and frustrating to be sitting writing these thoughts in lockdown isolation, with the Museum’s exhibitions and collections closed to visitors, over a weekend when an urgent historical debate is played out on our streets. At the time of writing the campaign group ‘Topple the Racists’ are crowdsourcing a map of statues that are said to ‘celebrate slavery and racism’; Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square currently appears on the map, even if others – e.g. the statue at the Sally Port in Old Portsmouth - are not yet plotted. The National Museum of the Royal Navy does not have any statues of Nelson, but we do have a large exhibition gallery, ‘Nelson: the Hero and the Man’– last redisplayed in 1997 - which is part of his veneration and places him firmly on a pedestal.

These attacks on the Navy’s most enduring national hero are unsettling, but it is surely right when such fundamental connections are made between the representation of British history and social justice in today’s Britain to feel uneasy, to be challenged about the truth of the accusations against Nelson and to develop a response by the Museum. These notes are no more than a start and try to set out Nelson’s views on slavery and their context, with some thoughts on how the Museum might approach sharing these - and the wider story of the Royal Navy’s connection both in the Atlantic slave trade and its abolition – with our visitors.

Nelson’s views on and Slavery

It is important to state that Nelson never owned slaves, never owned a slave plantation, never took part in slaving activities at sea and never financed a slave ship - after his early career he was never stationed in the Caribbean, making just one brief visit after 1787. The critical piece of evidence that he was a supporter of slavery is a letter written four months before the Battle of Trafalgar during his pursuit of the French fleet. The private letter written in June 1805 and sent from ‘HMS Victory at sea’ to Simon Taylor a sugar planter of Jamaica includes the phrase:

‘I have ever been and shall die a firm friend to our colonial system, 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, shall their interests be infringed while I have an arm to fight in their defence or a tongue to launch myself against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies …’

Nelson’s direct links to slavery and his public statements on the issue may therefore seem slight, but it is clear in fact that his personal commitment to the system of slavery was strong. In part this seems to be because of the depth of his experience and the connections that he made in his early years. Nelson’s first experience at sea in 1772 - at the age of 12 - took him to Jamaica and Tobago for a year, he then spent much of the period 1777 - 1783 based in the Caribbean during the American War of Independence, and a long commission in command of HMS Boreas stationed in Antigua from 1784-1787. It was in this last period that he met and married Frances ‘Fanny’ Nesbit, the niece of a plantation - and therefore slave owning - family from the island of Nevis. One of the reasons for Nelson marrying was the promise of a significant dowry (which never materialised) based on slave produced wealth. In these years Nelson spent many months ashore and had constant exposure to the realities of the slavery system – indeed it would be impossible not to have when on an island like Antigua over 90% of the population was enslaved producing the sugar which was the very visible export of the slave economy.

The relationships with plantation owners and these personal connections – which outlasted his relationship with Fanny - play a part in his views. His letter to Taylor writes that ‘we are near thirty years acquainted’ and also of his concern that the reaction to Wilberforce’s campaign for abolition ‘would certainly cause the murder of all our friends and fellow subjects in the colonies’. However, more important is the naval component for what he calls ’the good old school’. In the colonial system which Nelson was defending there was a long-standing justification that colonies directly strengthened naval power, that ‘empire served the Navy just as much as the Navy served empire’. In Nelson’s Navy the great majority of ships were commissioned only in war time by crews recruited from merchant ships; the argument made throughout the 18th century was that the ships which carried exports from colonies were the ‘nursery’ of seamen which provided the crews to fight Britain’s enemies and defend the country.

As written in 1714: ‘Your trade is the mother and nurse of your seamen; your seamen are the life of your fleet; and your fleet is the security and protection of your trade; and both together are the wealth, strength and glory of Britain’

Much more on this justification is available in the excellent chapter by Professor Christer Petley, ‘The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’ from ‘The Royal Navy and the British Atlantic World, 1750-c.1820’, 2016. This makes it clear that Nelson was articulating an argument made by a significant number of other naval officers which was being used by those – like Simon Taylor to whom he was writing – to argue against abolition of the slave trade. We might not be aware of Nelson’s views in this private letter if they had not been published by the anti-abolitionists opposing Wilberforce and published in an attempt to use a dead hero’s renown to bolster their argument.  In a final irony not only did Nelson’s views on slavery have no effect in halting abolition, it was in fact his fleet’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar which by establishing such dominance of the sea undermined the case for the colonial system as a ‘nursery of seamen’.

Whilst Nelson’s views on the connection between slavery and the Royal Navy’s power were widespread amongst naval officers they were not universal, nor did they go unchallenged. Lord Charles Barham, First Lord of the Admiralty, and Nelson’s ultimate boss in 1805 was a significant ally to Wilberforce, and an example of a wider group of evangelical officers who as ‘rulers of the waves’ heard the appeal by Abolitionists:

    ‘Cease, ye British sons of murder!
    Cease from forging Afric’s chain;
    Mock your Saviour’s name no further,
    Cease your savage lust of gain.
    Ye that boast “Ye rule the waves”, Bid no slave ship soil the sea,
    Ye that “never will be slaves”, bid poor Afric’s land be free’.

Extract from Hannah More and Eaglesfield Smith ‘The Sorrows of Yamba’ 1795

Sharing this History

If we accept this history how then should we use it to answer the questions being raised in the current debate? Should we focus on Nelson at all? If so how should we adjust the telling of Nelson’s story? How should we tell the wider history of the Royal Navy’s connection to the Atlantic slave trade? Where are the stories of people of colour who served in or were affected by the Navy? How should we reflect the Royal Navy’s role in abolition of the slave trade?  What changes are required to help us address these?

Nelson and Slavery: Sharing the History

My simple opinion is that it would be bad naval history, and a disservice, not to include an intensive study of Nelson in our exhibitions and programming. The significance of his achievements, their impact on Britain and Europe, the influence of their legacy – quite apart from the way one flawed individual life provides a route into understanding the complexities of the Georgian Navy – all argue for it. Many of the statements in favour of the removal of statues do also see a place for them within a museum setting, with the idea that by placing them in a different context there are opportunities to interpret the lives of the people shown. The Museum does not have a Nelson statue to remove, but we certainly do have an exhibition gallery, ‘Nelson: the Hero and the Man’ which is ripe for re-interpretation.

The exhibition uses our collections to look particularly at the later part of his career from 1797-1805 when he was such a national figure; if one is objective frankly though there is more of the ‘hero’ than anything else. When the exhibition looks at the ‘man’ there are statements which stress his humanity, his concern for the welfare of his crews and his religious faith; these are all valid, but there is no content which sets out his views on slavery which undercut them. Equally, part of the exhibition is a reflection on the changing way Nelson’s life has been memorialised and understood – how it has been used as a patriotic example to children, as a model for leadership, as an inspiration at the formation of other navies, etc. – all of which is important. However, what if for a growing number of people Nelson comes to be understood principally in connection to slavery and as a ‘racist’? If historical understanding is all about context then I think the Museum must make a much better job of explaining that context and addressing these views through a redisplay of the gallery.

Slavery and Abolition in Nelson’s Navy: Sharing the History

Equally, if we are frank we could do much more to share, interpret and assess the size of the Royal Navy’s connection to the slave trade and slavery. The Royal Navy with which Nelson was familiar was a Navy which built and served an ‘empire’ based largely on trade by sea; one which sought to control the sea rather than large territories and populations. This empire and the Navy’s role though were never static or stable even in Nelson’s short life: Nelson was born in 1759 in the middle of the Seven Years’ War – the world’s first truly global war – which saw the establishment of Britain’s first colony in West Africa – the short-lived Province of Senegambia: he served during the War which resulted in Britain losing the American colonies and witnessed the subsequent growth of the slave trade into the southern states: he also served when slave revolts during the French Revolutionary Wars over-turned the system of slavery in some French colonies. The Navy’s ships might not have been principally stationed in the West Indies, they might not have actively escorted British slave ships from Africa, but they were the key guarantor of the colonial system – they did convoy ships carrying sugar in wartime and their presence was a powerful support to planter society against slave revolts.

The Museum’s current coverage of this complex history is certainly incomplete. The Museum’s last exhibition which looked in any detail at the issues was, ‘Chasing Freedom; the Royal Navy and the Suppression of the Transatlantic Slave Trade’ - mounted in 2007 for the Bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade - which ran until 2016. Since the closure of this exhibition we certainly miss the opportunity to share unknown aspects of the Navy’s connection to slavery with visitors. This includes for example the connection between the Royal Navy and the private slaving Royal African Company which built slave forts along the Gold Coast in modern day Ghana. It was the Royal Navy’s ships which were used on occasion to protect the forts, and their officers who were sent to survey their condition and their slaves. A series of plans in our collections show the detail survey conducted in 1749 by Lieutenant Thomas Pye of HMS Humber.

Plan of Fort James, 1749

We miss also the opportunity to show the different ways that people of colour served in the Royal Navy and in the campaign for their own freedom. This exhibition featured the voice of Oloudah Equiano, an enslaved African who was bought by a naval officer, served in the Navy, eventually bought his freedom and became a leading abolitionist.  There has though been much research since the exhibition was created which reveals for example how a slave like William Stephens serving in the Navy was able to escape enslavement on arrival in Portsmouth in 1758, or of the experience of Captain John Perkins, an officer of colour, during the Napoleonic Wars. The opportunity to share these stories within our future interpretation of the Sailing Navy will only enrich understanding of the Navy’s connection to slavery.

As an anniversary exhibition ‘Chasing Freedom’ looked in most detail at the Royal Navy’s role after abolition in 1807 and particularly at the work and impact of the West Africa Squadron which was established to suppress slave trading by all nations. Understanding the importance of this role provides a vital contrast to the Navy’s roles in the century before 1807 and it is tempting to speculate how easy Nelson would have found it to adjust and serve after such a 180 ͦ shift in state policy. If he had lived it is surely inconceivable that he would have played any role in the West Africa Squadron.

The initial patrols by the Royal Navy which started with 2 ships in 1808 grew into a West Africa Squadron (formally established in 1819) which numbered 30 ships by 1847. This Squadron provided the muscle to enforce the Act of Abolition and apply it, not just against any British ships still trying to trade in slaves, but also against slave vessels from the United States and multiple European states. Their work through many decades was challenging and thankless with ships blockading locations suspected of holding slaves, chasing and searching ships at sea, landing raiding parties against slave camps, as well as taking liberated slaves to free settlements in Sierra Leone. Living conditions for the crews of ships stationed off the coasts were particularly harsh and the Squadron had the highest rate of death of any Royal Navy posting, with 1000s of seamen dying from diseases including malaria and yellow fever. Ultimately the campaign against the Atlantic slave trade became the Royal Navy’s longest campaign and by the 1860s had played a key role in ending, as well as directly freeing 10,000s of enslaved people. We are fortunate that in this period that the collection has excellent first-hand accounts by naval officers, and by liberated slaves, which can reveal the reality of the work. Sharing these stories will provide a fuller understanding of the Navy’s work against slavery which was the start of a long history of humanitarian work.


Long before the current protests against statues the Museum’s professionals and Trustees have had an awareness of the need to address these gaps in the history we share, not to shy away from difficult issues or areas of contention.

The Museum’s ‘Master Narrative’, which was first approved in 2015, is currently being reviewed as part of a regular check on its relevance - which includes its ability to address broader and sometimes challenging conversations. Already a number of reviewers have stressed that the diversity of the stories it tells should increase, that it should be clearer in connecting the Navy to different stages of empire and associated marginalised narratives.

On a weekend like this the pace at which we are able to make changes is a painful contrast to the pace with which the debate is moving. It is intensely frustrating that translating the Museum’s narrative into the physical exhibitions, which is what most of our visitors see, will take time to prepare. What we can do is add urgency to sharing more of our collections and our stories which connect to slavery, and its legacies, through our digital channels, and to address these through our programming.

Our first step in this programming will be to involve external voices and expertise in a virtual debate later this summer, which will look at Nelson’s views and the evidence for them as well as the place of slavery in the Royal Navy’s history.

Reviewing our narrative and encouraging debates are only small first steps. It will be important to listen to different audiences and the general public so that the narratives we share can explore their questions. We do this not because we always hope to arrive at a shared opinion (though we should always emphasise objective assessment of the historic evidence we hold), but because we can all learn more from addressing different histories. The involvement of our staff and volunteers is also absolutely key.

A wider response and action plan which draws together different strands of the Museum’s work –much of which is already underway – is being developed. Discussions with our Trustees about this are taking place and will be shared in a series of follow up pieces in the coming months.

Matthew Sheldon
Executive Director of Museum Operations

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