Admiral Horatio Nelson is one of the greatest heroes of British history. With the possible exception of Wellington, no one contributed more to winning the Napoleonic Wars. Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, his greatest victory, holds a place in British history analogous to that of Lincoln at the end of the Civil War.
But in recent years, Nelson has come under attack, and activists have urged that statues of him be destroyed–including the iconic one at the top of Nelson’s Column at Trafalgar Square. Why? The usual reason: he is alleged to have been pro-slavery.
In my opinion, this would be irrelevant even if true. Slavery was ubiquitous on every continent except Antarctica from the dawn of time until the 19th Century, when a coalition of Christians and Jews, acting largely through Nelson’s British Navy, managed to stamp it out across most of the world. Not the whole world–China didn’t purport to abolish slavery until 1910. The point is that if we erase everyone who had anything to do with slavery from history, there won’t be a lot of history left.
But it turns out that the claim that Nelson was pro-slavery is false. It is based on a letter that he wrote to a Caribbean planter shortly before his death, but we now know that the letter, in the version in which it became known, is a forgery. Anti-abolition planters, desperate to recruit the dead hero to their cause, made 25 changes to the letter Nelson actually wrote, and destroyed the original. We know this now only because Nelson’s copy of the letter, which has long languished among his papers in the British Library, recently came to light.
What were Nelson’s actual views on slavery? The Telegraph writes:
Mr Brett says he has amassed a wealth of evidence that shows Nelson’s views were quite different from the depiction of him by his modern-day critics.
Mr Brett says Nelson was relatively liberal in his views on race by the standards of the day.
He said: “Other evidence shows that Nelson actually freed slaves, argued against the Barbary slave trade and supported proposals for slaves to be replaced with paid labour.
“The accusation that he used his role in the Lords to support slavery does not stand up to scrutiny – he spoke only six times and never mentioned it.
“And the charge of him being a ‘white supremacist’ is based on zero evidence. He had black sailors in his navy as well as freed slaves who were paid the same as everyone else. If Nelson hated any people it was the French.
“The last person’s hand he shook on land before departing on his final voyage was that of a black sailor – a friend of his.”
The “racist” smear against Nelson lives on, despite being supported by no evidence, because certain people want to perpetrate it. Such charges are not made out of any genuine concern for the long-gone victims of slavery through the millennia, but rather to discredit the history of selected countries–i.e., the United States and Great Britain, but not China or Brazil. The project is a purely political one.
On a personal note, I was in Trafalgar Square just a couple of weeks ago. I shot this very short Instagram reel in which you can see the square’s Christmas market, the National Gallery, and Nelson on top of his column. Let’s hope he stays there forever.