The Struggle for Sea Power  by M. B. Synge

Horatio Nelson

"Thine island loves thee well, thou famous man,

The greatest sailor since our world began."


A MONG the ships that had sailed into the harbour of Toulon under the flag of Admiral Hood was the Agamemnon, under the command of Horatio Nelson. He was not present on that fateful night when the British fleet had to escape into the storm, as he had been sent to Naples with despatches. But it is strange to think that the two greatest figures in the war between England and France should "for a moment have crossed each other's path at this very beginning of the struggle."

Nelson was born in Norfolk, England, eleven years before his great enemy Napoleon. Like the little Napoleon, he was one of a large family. His mother died when he was but nine years old. At an early age he was sent to school, and of his school-days many stories have been told. Here is one.

The brothers William and Horatio Nelson were returning to school on their ponies, after the Christmas holidays. The snow lay deep, and the boys thought this a good enough excuse for turning home again.

"The snow is too deep to venture farther," said William, as he met his father in the hall.

"If that indeed be the case, you shall certainly not go," was the reply; "but make another attempt, and I will leave it to your honour. If the road be found dangerous, you may return; yet remember, boys, I will leave it to your honour."

Off they set again. The road now became almost impassable with drifts of snow, but although the danger was great Horatio refused to return.

"We have no excuse," he said firmly. "Remember, brother, it was left to our honour."

Horatio Nelson was twelve years old when, one day, he heard that his uncle had been made captain of a large ship. The boy knew that his father was very poor, and had a struggle to bring up his eight motherless children. So he begged that his uncle might be asked to take him to sea. He was a sickly and fragile-looking little boy, and his uncle's answer was not exactly encouraging.

"What has poor little Horatio done," he cried, "that he, being so weak, should be sent to rough it at sea? But let him come; and if a cannonball takes off his head, he will at least be provided for."

Sad enough is the first picture of the little would-be sailor. It was a dull grey morning when he arrived at Chatham, and the boy shivered with cold as he wandered about the dockyard looking for his uncle's ship, bewildered by the strange sights that met his eyes for the first time.

After all his uncle's ship did not sail, and the boy was put on board a ship bound for the West Indies. At first he was very unhappy, and as he paced the broad quarter-deck of the vessel, ploughing her way over the stormy waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, he yearned after his distant home in England. The voyage suited him well, and he returned, in 1771, a sunburnt lad of thirteen, with "every hair a rope-yarn and every finger a fish-hook."

He now joined a ship bound for the North Pole, and amid the frozen silence of the far north he learnt some of the lessons of his life.

One night,—so runs one story of him,—young Nelson and another youth stole away from the ship, which was fast among the ice, to try their luck in shooting a bear. Nelson, armed with a rusty musket, led the way in high spirits over frightful chasms of ice. It was not long before the two young adventurers were missed. A thick fog had come on, and the captain of the ship was in great anxiety about the boys. Between three and four in the morning the fog lifted, and the boys were discovered at some distance attacking a large bear. A signal was made to them to return at once. Nelson's companion obeyed.

"Let me but get one blow at him," cried Nelson eagerly.

But the captain saw what peril the boy was in. He fired hastily, and frightened the bear away. When Nelson returned he was severely scolded for his conduct, though the captain could not but admire the fearless courage of the young midshipman. Nelson was greatly agitated. "Sir, I wished to kill the bear, that I might carry its skin to my father," he murmured in self-defence.

At the age of fifteen Nelson possessed all the knowledge of an able seaman. In 1773, when Napoleon was but four years old, he was sailing off to the East Indies. But here the climate told on him. Disease took hold of him, he was wasted to a mere shadow, and sent home. Bitterly disappointed at the seeming failure, he felt he would never rise in his chosen profession. He fretted miserably about it, till one day he took himself in hand. "I will be a hero," he cried, "and, confiding in God, I will brave every danger."

This resolve to "do" now became the watchword of his life. It was an ever-growing passion till it ended in the grand finale, which will ring down the ages—"England expects every man to do his duty."

Nelson was appointed to the Agamemnon in 1793, and a few days later the French Republic, then at its fiercest heat, declared war on Great Britain and Holland. The dawn of a great war stirred the blood of English boys, and Nelson received a number of young midshipmen on board. Among them was Josiah Nisbet, his stepson, a boy about thirteen years old at this time. To these young sailors he gave this advice: "First, you must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety; secondly, you must consider every man as your enemy who speaks evil of your king; and thirdly, you must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil."

So in the year 1793 we have these two men—Nelson, a rising sailor in the service of England; Napoleon, a rising soldier in the service of the French Republic.

While they are preparing for the great struggle that was soon to take place, let us turn to two great explorers who were now playing their parts in unfolding the geography of Africa and South America.