Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Edmund F. Sellar

Nelson's Early Years at Sea—His First Command

Before, however, war had actually begun, Great Britain and Spain agreed to come to terms, so Horatio was not yet to "smell powder."

Very shortly afterwards the Raisonable  was paid off, and Captain Suckling got the command of the Triumph, 74 guns, then the guardship in the Medway. To this ship his nephew followed him, and was on her books for the next two years. During this time, however, the boy, in order to gain experience in his profession, by his uncle's advice went a cruise to the West Indies on board a merchantman. On this voyage he shipped as a volunteer, and as a common seaman he shared the hard work and rough life of a fore-mast hand.

Life in the forecastle of a merchant ship was, of course, very uncomfortable, but it had its advantages, and he returned after a year's experience, to use his own words, "a practical seaman."

On rejoining the Triumph his uncle took care that his time should not be wasted, and among other duties he was continually employed in the cutter and long-boat. Thus he not only became a good pilot, "confident of himself among rocks and sands," as he afterwards wrote, but he was at the same time learning the lessons of responsibility and self-reliance.

Shortly after this, an expedition to the North Pole was fitted out, and although an order was given that no boys were wanted, Nelson so earnestly begged Captain Lutwidge, the commander of the expedition, to let him come, that his wish was granted, and he sailed as the captain's coxswain, a position for which his lessons in managing a small boat, learnt in the Medway, quite fitted him, in spite of his youth.

In these Arctic seas our hero came near ending his life. One clear moonlight night, while the ship was lying ice-bound, he and another midshipman, armed with a rusty musket between them, slipped down over the side and started off over the frozen sea to try to shoot a Polar bear.

They had to wait some time before one was sighted, but at length a huge white fellow appeared. The middy took careful aim, pulled the trigger, but the musket missed fire.

"Never mind!" shouted young Horatio; "do but let me get a blow at him with the butt end and we shall have him." So saying, he dashed off with raised gun, determined to come to close quarters. Fortunately at this moment the noise of a gun from the ship broke the stillness of the Arctic night, and so startled the bear that, with a defiant growl, he turned tail and shambled off over the frozen snow.

When the boys got back to the ship, Captain Lutwidge, who had witnessed the scene and been thoroughly alarmed for their safety, spoke somewhat sharply to them for this piece of daring folly. Asked what he meant by it, Horatio, with the pout of his lip peculiar to him, could think of no other excuse than that "he wished to kill the bear that he might carry the skin to his father."

On his return from the Pole, he was as eager as ever for more service, and at his own wish he was transhipped, with scarcely a day on shore, to a small ship, the Seahorse, under orders to sail for the East Indies.

From the extremes of cold he was to go direct to the extremes of heat. "Nothing less than such a distant voyage could in the least satisfy my desire of maritime knowledge," he afterwards, explained.

On the Seahorse  he at first did the work of an ordinary seaman aloft, but in a short time he was finally rated as midshipman and placed on the quarter-deck. We are told that he started from England a thick-set, athletic young man, with a ruddy-brown face and healthy complexion.

The frozen Pole was, however, kinder to him than the sun and heat of India. After two years he was invalided home, his life despaired of, and it was probably owing to the nursing and tender care of Captain Pigot of the Dolphin, in which ship he made the return voyage, that our future admiral owed his life.

He arrived in England three years from the time of his departure, no longer stout and strong as he had started, but a mere living skeleton, for some time scarcely able to use his limbs.

When he had recovered, his next duty was that of acting lieutenant of the Worcester, 64 guns, then going out to Gibraltar on convoy duty. Nothing of special interest happened while on this ship, but the young man always after remembered with pride the words of his captain, "that he felt as easy when Nelson was upon deck, as any officer of the ship."

Some six months after joining the Worcester, another rung of the ladder was reached, another milestone on the road to fame was left behind, for on the 8th April 1777 he passed his examination for lieutenant.

Two days later he got his commission to the Lowestoft, a frigate of 32 guns. Once again he visited the West Indies; but whereas before he had shared the hardships and labour of a common seaman in the merchant service, this time he sailed as a full-fledged ward-room officer in the Royal Navy.

Great Britain was now at war with her revolted American colonies, which were soon to be known as the United States.

Promotion on such a station was always rapid, and a frigate, being both fast-sailing and active, was considered a grand school for a young officer.

But even a frigate was not active enough for Nelson's mind, and he soon managed to be transferred to the schooner which acted as tender to the Lowestoffe. Here he was able to put into practice the lessons in pilotage learned in the Medway. There was much responsibility laid on his shoulders, and his position gave scope for the fearless self-reliance which he already was seen to possess.

Before leaving the Lowestoffe  he had distinguished himself by an act of skilful seamanship and great bravery.

The frigate had captured a Yankee privateer, and the first lieutenant had been sent to board the prize. There was a heavy sea running at the time, and after one or two attempts the boat was obliged to return, having failed in her object.

"Have I no officer in the ship who can board her?" exclaimed the captain.

"It is my turn now! If I come back, it is yours," said Nelson, stopping another officer who had hurried to the side, and jumping into the boat himself.


There was a heavy sea running.

Then, as always, he was "the first on every service, whether by day or night," and his zeal and love of duty were bringing their reward, for promotion was coming fast.

Joining the Bristol, Sir Peter Parker's flag-ship, as third lieutenant, in July, he had risen to be first by September. The admiral took a great liking to the eager young lieutenant, and, showing the greatest interest in him and in another young officer, afterwards to become famous as Lord Collingwood, did his best to bring the two young men forward. Both more than bore out their chief's sound judgment, and showed that the fine old sailor had not been mistaken in his men.

At twenty, Nelson was a commander, while a year later he was post-captain of the Hinchinbrook.

Great Britain was by this time at war with both France and Spain, and there was a great deal of fighting on shore, in which Nelson had his share and showed great courage.

In the words of an eye-witness, "he did more than his duty; when anything was to be done, he saw no difficulties."

The climate was a trying one, the work hard, and the food often scarce, and there was little wonder that his health gave way. For a long time he refused to leave his post, until finally, almost at death's door, he was carried to the admiral's house in Jamaica. Here he had always been treated almost like a son of the house, and now, thanks to Lady Parker's care and nursing, he partly recovered, and was at length able to return to England.

After some nine months' illness, he began to feel a little better, and the first thing he thought of was to apply for a new ship.

The Admiralty gave him the command of the Albemarle, a frigate of 28 guns, and though still an invalid, and often in great pain, Nelson was glad to be employed again, and entered on his new duties with cheerfulness.

He had the power of winning men's hearts, and his new ship's company, both officers and men, soon showed that they would do anything to serve him.

After visiting the Baltic, where he was afterwards to become so famous, the Albemarle  sailed for Quebec, and while on this station Nelson soon gave a proof of his skill and coolness in the face of danger.

His little frigate was met and chased one day by a whole French squadron. Escape seemed impossible, but holding on under every stitch of canvas, Nelson coolly threaded his way among the shoals and sands of Boston Bay, where the big French vessels were afraid to follow for fear of running aground. One frigate, indeed, tried to do so, but on the Albemarle  clearing for action, thought better of it, and afraid to attack single-handed, turned back and rejoined the other ships. Well might Lord Hood declare that the young captain "knew as much about naval tactics as any officer in the fleet!"

A midshipman on Lord Hood's flagship, no less a person than our future king, William IV., thus gives his early impressions of our hero, whom he met now for the first time, and with whom he formed a lasting friendship. To him the commander of the Albemarle  appeared "the merest boy of a captain," but he adds, "there was something irresistibly pleasing in his address and conversation, and an enthusiasm that showed he was no common being."

Peace was soon after declared, and the "boy captain" returned with Hood to England. Of money from the capture of the enemies' vessels he had little, but of honour, which he prized far above riches, he had had his share.

On the Albemarle  being paid off, his whole ship's company showed the affection they felt for her captain by offering, if he could get another ship, to enter her immediately. Nelson was much touched by this devotion, but he had earned a rest, and after being presented to his sovereign by Hood, he returned once more to his father's quiet rectory, to wait till the Admiralty should again call on his services. While thus on half pay, and being eager to gain any knowledge likely to help him in his profession, he got leave of absence to visit France, in order to learn the language.

Of this holiday he writes: "I hate their country and their manners;" and this view he never altered. To the day of his death the man who broke and destroyed the power of France "hated a Frenchman like the devil."