Thanks to Lord Hood, very shortly after Nelson's return to England he was appointed to the command of the frigate Boreas.
In this ship he again sailed for the West Indies, taking on board Sir Richard Hughes, the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, and Lady Hughes.
There were some thirty midshipmen on board, and Lady Hughes was much struck with Nelson's interest in and kindness to "the young gentlemen who had the happiness of being on his quarter-deck," as she calls them.
"Well, sir," he would say to some midshipman newly come from a life on shore, and naturally rather timid of going aloft, "I am going a race to the mast-head, and beg I may meet you there."
Encouraged by this, the boy would clamber up somehow, to be met at the top by his captain, who would assure him that it was very foolish to imagine that there was any danger in the feat, and very soon the youngster would be as much at home scaling the rigging as if he were climbing a tree bird-nesting.
When Nelson had to attend any big dinner or state banquet on shore a middy always went with him.
"Your Excellency must excuse me for bringing one of my midshipmen," he said to the Governor of Barbadoes, "as I make it a rule to introduce them to all the good company I can, as they have few to look up to besides myself during the time they are at sea."
Nelson was by this time second in command on the station, so quickly had he risen; and as senior captain he had a great deal of work to do. One of his chief duties was to prevent smuggling between the British colonies and the new United States. This may have been not quite to his liking, and for the first and only time in his life Nelson was to feel that he was unpopular. Bitterly he felt it; but in spite of the cold looks and angry murmurings of those around him—especially of his former friends, the planters—he stuck to his duty, and earned the thanks and gratitude of his king and country.
Some of his West Indian friends remained true to him, especially a Mr. P. Herbert, the President of the island of Nevis, who lived with his niece, Mrs. Nisbet, a young widow of twenty-eight, and her son, a child of three.
The latter soon made great friends with the warm-hearted sailor, who romped and played with him to his heart's content. One day, hearing that Nelson had called, Mr. Herbert hastened to greet him, when, to his astonishment, he found "that great little man, of whom everybody is so afraid, playing under the dining table with Mrs. Nisbet's child."
Mrs. Nisbet was much touched by the kindness to her boy, and Nelson soon won her heart also.
They were married on 11th March 1787, Prince William adding distinction to his friend's wedding by giving away the bride.
Three months after the Boreas sailed for England, and, on arrival there, Nelson went with his wife and stepson to live under his father's roof at Burnham Thorpe.
Mr. Nelson was now an old man, and had long been an invalid, but the sight of his dear son, he declared, had given him new life. The latter had intended to go to France to again study the language, but his father begged him so hard to stay and cheer his old age, that Nelson felt it would be cruel to distress the fond parent he might never see again.
While at the parsonage he spent his time quietly, but on the whole happily enough. Sometimes he would dig for hours at a time in the garden, for the sheer pleasure of feeling weary after hard exercise. At other times his boyish spirit came out, and he would go long bird-nesting excursions with Mrs. Nelson as his companion. But on the whole the idle life of a country gentleman did not suit the man whose real home was on the sea.
He took an interest in greyhounds and coursing. "Shoot I cannot, so I have not taken out a licence," he writes to a friend. His habit of carrying his gun at full cock and letting it off without even bringing it to his shoulder was scarcely likely to kill much game, though he proudly relates that he once shot a partridge.
The events of the French Revolution were, however, soon to provide him with more exciting work than shooting and bird-nesting.
In 1793 all Europe was horrified by the news that the French had beheaded their king and queen, and had promised "assistance to all peoples and countries wishing to be free."
This was a direct challenge to all forms of; law and order, and was a threat at the loyal people of Britain, who were wisely and kindly governed and had no wish for any change.
The country had need of her seamen, and on the 30th January Nelson got what he had always wished for—the command of a battle-ship, the Agamemnon, of 64 guns.
Two days later Great Britain and Holland declared war on the French Republic.
Already Nelson had become known as a brave and kind captain to serve under, and a fresh proof of his popularity was given on his taking up his new command. From his native county, Norfolk, seamen flocked in numbers to his flag, and captains whose ships were filled by the aid of the hated pressgang looked on with envy at the ease with which the Agamemnon secured a crew. Nor were friends of Nelson's own rank lacking; for, besides his stepson, Josiah Nisbet, who went with him, many of his neighbours, the Norfolk squires, were glad to let their sons serve under him.
Nelson was a good hater, and his advice to his midshipmen was short and to the point:—
"First," he said, "you must always implicitly obey orders without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety; secondly, you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of the king; and, thirdly, you must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil."
The French were said to have found a way by which they could throw red-hot shot upon their enemy's ships, and thus set them on fire. This caused some alarm in England, but Nelson only laughingly said, "Then we must get so close to those red-hot gentlemen that their shot may go through both sides, when it will not matter whether they are hot or cold." And in this wish to come to close quarters the captain and crew of the Agamemnon sailed.
Their first duty was the blockade of the towns of Toulon and Marseilles. This was not exciting work, and Nelson longed for actual fighting.
"All we get here," he writes, "is honour and salt beef;" and greatly did he rejoice when, after nineteen weeks, he was sent to the island of Corsica.
Corsica had lately been given up to France by the Republic of Genoa, without asking the wishes of the natives.
Under their brave chief Paoli, who declared that "the rocks which surrounded him should melt away" before he gave in, they made a brave fight, but the French were too strong. And so the British determined to help these islanders in their struggle for liberty.
To Nelson, in whom Lord Hood had the greatest confidence, was entrusted the siege of Bastia, an important town, to the capture of which he gave his whole heart and mind. But the task was a hard one. The strength of the enemy was much greater than Hood had fancied, and to have failed against such odds would have been no disgrace. Indeed, had Nelson let his commander-in-chief know how greatly outnumbered he was, the risk might never have been taken.
The captain of the Agamemnon, however, was not the man to think of difficulty or danger, and in the end he triumphed.
"I always was of opinion, have ever acted up to it, and never had any reason to repent it, that one Englishman was equal to three Frenchmen," he had declared; and after some sharp fighting the garrison of Bastia, consisting of 4500 men, laid down their arms to less than 1200 British seamen.
Unhurt before Bastia, Nelson was not to be so lucky at his next fight, the siege of Calvi. Here much of his duty lay on shore. The climate was a deadly one; men died around him in scores; he himself was constantly ill, but his pluck and spirits seemed to keep life within him.
"I am the reed among the oaks," he wrote; "I bow before the storm while the sturdy oak is laid low." To add to his sufferings, a shot struck near him, while in the batteries before the town, and blinded him with sand and gravel.
Though he lost the sight of one eye and suffered great pain, he still stuck to his post. "Nothing but the loss of a limb would have kept me from my duty," he declared.
Nelson wounded at Calvi.
At length Calvi fell, and the wounded captain got back to the Agamemnon, now more like floating hospital than a ship of war, so filled was she by the sick and wounded.
Though defeated in Corsica, the French were everywhere else successful.
The combined armies of Great Britain, Austria, and Holland had been driven out of France and Belgium, and the Prussians and Austrians had retreated to the right bank the Rhine. In Spain also France was victorious, and Italy was soon to be crushed.
The fate of Europe hung in the balance; Bonaparte and his conquering armies seemed to have cast a great shadow of fear and oppression over the nations, and all eyes were turned upon England and her sea power as the one means of saving Europe.
With Corsica as a place of shelter for her ships, the influence of Britain had greatly increased in the Mediterranean. The French saw that to make all their conquests secure the British fleet must be destroyed, and on 8th March 1795 they sent out fifteen ships of the line, with six smaller vessels.
Admiral Hotham, who was now in Lord Hood's place, sailed to meet them with a smaller force. The French, though in much greater strength, did not venture nearer than three miles to our ships. They kept this distance till dawn the next morning, when, still not liking the look of things, they sailed away, and orders for a general chase were given to the British fleet.
The Agamemnon got a good start, and being a fast sailer, soon came up with one of the enemy's ships, the Ca Ira, of 80 guns.
The latter had run into the vessel in front of her, and lost both her fore and main top-masts.
Nelson saw his chance in her disabled condition, and quickly seized it. The Frenchman "was absolutely large enough to take Agamemnon in her hold"; but her size mattered little to the Agamemnon's captain. Down on the enemy she swooped; reserving her fire till at close range, she poured in a storm of shot. The other French ships were meanwhile hastening to the rescue; the British vessel was alone, far in front of her fleet, and Hotham made the signal for recall, but not before the Ca Ira had been so damaged that she had to be taken in tow by another French vessel, Le Censeur.
Next morning both these ships had fallen so far behind that they were surrounded and had to strike their flags.
Thus Nelson's skill and daring caused the loss of two fine ships; but this was not enough to satisfy him. In vain he pleaded with the admiral to pursue and attack the whole French fleet, which he felt sure would be destroyed.
Hotham, a cool but cautious leader, refused to act. "We must be contented; we have done very well," he replied to all entreaties.
"Now, had we taken ten sail, and had allowed the eleventh to escape, when it had been possible to have got at her, I should never have called it well done," said Nelson
Whether Hotham was too cautious, or whether he was right in acting as he did, it is hard to say; but it is certain that had Nelson been in command he would have risked everything on a battle. His plan was always to attack, and either destroy or severely damage the enemy. His own loss he never thought about.
After the excitement of the battle, Nelson, who always seemed well and in good spirits when there was fighting, began to feel ill, and was much troubled by pain in his wounded eye.
He had been looking forward to Lord Hood's coming out as commander-in-chief. The latter had, to use his own words, always "treated him like a son," and he was much disappointed when Lord Howe was sent in his stead.
Lord Howe was "a great officer in the management of a fleet," he said; "but Lord Hood is equally great in all situations which an admiral can be placed in."
However, it really mattered little to him, as he was at this time given command of a detached squadron, with which he was to help on sea the Austrians, who were fighting the French on land, in the part of Italy known as the Riviera.
On this service, while showing his usual zeal in all purely naval matters, he gave proof of great skill in dealing with political and diplomatic questions.
The duties of a naval officer upholding the honour of his country all over the world are many-sided.
"Soldiers have not the same boldness in undertaking a political measure that we have," Nelson used to say. "We look to the benefit of our country, and risk our fame every day to save her: a soldier obeys orders and no more."
At this time we must remember that the British army had not yet become famous under Wellington. Our power on land was not strong enough to make much way against the all-conquering Frenchmen—Great Britain was looked on purely as a sea power.
"We had yet to see how these sea-wolves could fight on land," writes a French historian.
Shortly after Admiral Jervis, afterwards Lord St. Vincent, took command of the fleet.
"You must have a larger ship, for we cannot spare you either as captain or admiral," was his greeting to Nelson. And on the 11th of June the latter, now a commodore, shifted his pendant to the Captain, of 74 guns, and bade farewell to the battered, storm-tossed; Agamemnon, with her crew "who minded shot as little as peas." The old ship was again to appear in his fleet and share the glories of Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Like her former captain, she ended her career on active service; for, fifteen years after Nelson left her, she grounded off the coast of South America and was totally lost.