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First Steps Up The Ladder






A CHAPTER FROM NELSON'S CAREER.

BY ROBERT SOUTHEY.


Though Nelson did not live to be an old man, he crowded his life with so
much activity that it is quite impossible to follow it in detail within
the limits of the present space. Active to restlessness, he wearied
beyond endurance of perfunctory duty and official routine, and if active
service did not come in his way he sought it. The death of his uncle,
Captain Suckling, soon after he had obtained his lieutenancy, threw him
upon his own resources, and compelled him to look out for himself. This
naturally strengthened his self-reliance and helped to develop his
character.

On the day following his examination for a lieutenancy Nelson was
appointed to the Lowestoffe frigate,--Captain William Locher then
fitting out for Jamaica,--from whence he passed to the Bristol flag-ship
and soon became first lieutenant. On December 8th, 1778, he was
appointed to the command of the Badger brig. While the Badger was
lying in Montego Bay an incident occurred which showed the coolness and
readiness of resource of the young officer. The Glasgow, a craft of
twenty guns, having entered the bay and cast anchor, was found to be on
fire, the steward having carelessly caused the conflagration while
taking rum from the after hold. Many of the crew sought safety in
flight, leaping into the water to escape the inevitable explosion of the
magazine. Nelson, however, was soon upon the spot, when he compelled
the remainder of the crew to throw the powder overboard and point the
cannon upwards, thereby minimising the evil consequences of the
catastrophe.

Shortly after this Nelson was employed in conveying five hundred men
from Port Royal to Cape Gracias a Dios in Honduras, in furtherance of a
project of General Dalling to take Fort San Juan and cut off the
communication of the Spaniards between their northern and southern
possessions in America.

The castle of San Juan is thirty-two miles below the Lake of Nicaragua,
from which the river issues, and sixty-nine from its mouth. Boats reach
the sea from thence in a day and a half; but their navigation back, even
when unladen, is the labour of days. The English appeared before it on
the 11th, two days after they had taken San Bartolomeo. Nelson's advice
was, that it should instantly be carried by assault: but Nelson was not
the commander, and it was thought proper to observe all the formalities
of a siege. Ten days were wasted before this could be commenced: it was
a work more of fatigue than of danger; but fatigue was more to be
dreaded than the enemy. The rains set in, and, could the garrison have
held out a little longer, disease would have rid them of their invaders.
Even the Indians sank under it, the victims of unusual exertion and of
their own excesses. The place surrendered on the 24th. But victory
procured to the conquerors none of the relief they expected; the castle
was worse than a prison, and it contained nothing which could contribute
to the recovery of the sick or the preservation of those who were yet
unaffected. The huts, which served for hospitals, were surrounded with
filth and with the putrefying hides of slaughtered cattle--almost
sufficient of themselves to have engendered pestilence; and when, at
last, orders were given to erect a convenient hospital, the contagion
had become so general that there were none who could work at it; for,
besides the few who were able to perform garrison duty, there were not
orderly men enough to assist the sick.

Nelson was attacked with the prevailing dysentery when the news arrived
that he had been appointed to succeed Captain Glover in the Janus of
forty-four guns. He returned to the harbour the day before San Juan
surrendered, and immediately sailed for Jamaica in the sloop that had
brought the news of the appointment. His health, however, compelled him
to forego his opportunity and return to England, where he spent four
months in rest and recuperation. Nelson's next appointment was to the
Albemarle of twenty-eight guns with which, as he said, as if to try
his constitution he was now sent to the North Seas and kept there the
whole winter. Nelson arrived at this station during the armed
neutrality; and when he anchored off Elsineur, the Danish admiral sent
on board, desiring to be informed what ships had arrived, and to have
their force written down. "The Albemarle," said Nelson to the
messenger, "is one of his Britannic Majesty's ships: you are at liberty,
sir, to count the guns as you go down the side; and you may assure the
Danish admiral that, if necessary, they shall all be well served." Other
characteristic actions are recorded of Nelson at this time.

On his return to the Downs, while he was ashore visiting the senior
officer, there came on so heavy a gale that almost all the vessels
drove, and a store-ship came athwart-hawse of the Albemarle. Nelson
feared she would drive on the Goodwin Sands: he ran to the beach; but
even the Deal boatmen thought it impossible to get on board, such was
the violence of the storm. At length some of the most intrepid offered
to make the attempt for fifteen guineas; and, to the astonishment and
fear of all the beholders, Nelson embarked during the height of the
tempest. With great difficulty and imminent danger he succeeded in
reaching her. She lost her bowsprit and foremast, but escaped further
injury.

Nelson was now ordered to Quebec, and accordingly sailed for Canada.
During her first cruise on that station the Albemarle captured a
fishing-schooner, which contained, in her cargo, nearly all the property
that her master possessed, and the poor fellow had a large family at
home, anxiously expecting him. Nelson employed him as a pilot in Boston
Bay, then restored him the schooner and cargo, and gave him a
certificate to secure him against being captured by any other vessel.
The man came off afterwards to the Albemarle, at the hazard of his
life, with a present of sheep, poultry, and fresh provisions. A most
valuable supply it proved; for the scurvy was raging on board: this was
in the middle of August, and the ship's company had not had a fresh meal
since the beginning of April. While here, Lord Hood introduced Nelson to
Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, telling him that if he wished to
ask any questions respecting naval tactics, Captain Nelson could give
him as much information as any officer in the fleet. Another
characteristic act of Nelson occurred while he was cruising between
Puerto Cabello and La Guayra, under French colours, for the purpose of
obtaining information, when a king's launch, belonging to the Spaniards,
passed near, and, being hailed in French, came alongside without
suspicion, and answered all the questions asked concerning the number
and force of the enemy's ships. The crew, however, were not a little
surprised when they were taken on board, and found themselves prisoners.
One of the party went by the name of the Count de Deux Ponts. He was,
however, a prince of the German empire, and brother to the heir of the
Electorate of Bavaria: his companions were French officers of
distinction, and men of science, who had been collecting specimens in
the various branches of natural history. Nelson having entertained them
with the best his table could afford, told them they were at liberty to
depart with their boat and all that it contained; he only required them
to promise that they would consider themselves as prisoners, if the
commander-in-chief should refuse to acquiesce in their being thus
liberated: a circumstance which was not by any means likely to happen.
Tidings soon arrived that the preliminaries of peace had been signed;
and the Albemarle returned to England, and was paid off.

Nelson's next appointment was to the Boreas, twenty-eight guns, bound
for the Leeward Islands as a cruiser on the peace establishment. Here
we have a happy picture of his treatment of the midshipmen who came
under his influence.

If he perceived that a boy was afraid at first going aloft, he would say
to him, in a friendly manner: "Well, sir, I am going a race to the
mast-head, and beg that I may meet you there." The poor little fellow
instantly began to climb, and got up how he could--Nelson never noticed
in what manner, but, when they met in the top, spoke cheerfully to him,
and would say how much any person was to be pitied who fancied that
getting up was either dangerous or difficult. Every day he went into the
school-room, to see that they were pursuing their nautical studies, and
at noon he was always the first on deck with his quadrant. Whenever he
paid a visit of ceremony, some of these youths always accompanied him.

The sense of duty, which was so strong an element in Nelson's character,
led him into much trouble at this period of his career. The Navigation
Act as then in existence had been allowed to become a dead letter in as
far as America and Nova Scotia were concerned, and Nelson felt that it
was the duty of the navy to enforce it. This led him into difficulties
with his superiors, who resented his dictation, and with the traders
whose interests he attacked. In the result he had to choose between
disobeying his superiors and disobeying acts of parliament. "I
determined," he says, "upon the former, trusting to the uprightness of
my intentions, and believing that my country would not let me be ruined
for protecting her commerce." For this he would probably have been tried
by court martial had not the spirit of the fleet been with him. As it
was he was subject to civil proceedings, which made it impossible for
him to leave his ship for a long time for fear of arrest and subjected
him to annoyance for years after. The government, however, ultimately
took up his defence and finally thanked the commander-in-chief for the
services rendered by Nelson against his orders.

Nelson's attempts at this time to put down the abuses whereby the
British Government were being defrauded by dishonest traders also made
him many enemies; but in this as in most of his enterprises, he was
ultimately successful; inducing the Government to introduce proper
systems of checking supplies.

About this time he found consolation for public worries in domestic
felicity, betrothing the daughter of Mr. Herbert, the President of
Nevis, then, though only in her eighteenth year, the widow of Dr.
Nisbet, a physician. She had one child, a son, by name Josiah, who
afterwards entered the navy. One day Mr. Herbert, who had hastened,
half-dressed, to receive Nelson, exclaimed, on returning to his
dressing-room, "Good God! if I did not find that great little man, of
whom everybody is so afraid, playing in the next room, under the
dining-table, with Mrs. Nisbet's child!" A few days afterwards Mrs.
Nisbet herself was first introduced to him, and thanked him for the
partiality which he had shown her little boy.

They were married on March 11th, 1787; Prince William Henry, who had
come out to the West Indies the preceding winter, being present, by his
own desire, to give away the bride. Nelson took his wife to his father's
parsonage, meaning only to pay him a visit before they went to France; a
project which he had formed for the sake of acquiring a competent
knowledge of the French language. But his father could not bear to lose
him thus unnecessarily. Mr. Nelson had long been an invalid, suffering
under paralytic and asthmatic affections, which, for several hours after
he rose in the morning, scarcely permitted him to speak. He had been
given over by his physicians for this complaint nearly forty years
before his death, and was, for many of his last years, obliged to spend
all his winters at Bath. The sight of his son, he declared, had given
him new life. "But, Horatio," said he, "it would have been better that I
had not been thus cheered, if I am so soon to be bereaved of you again.
Let me, my good son, see you whilst I can. My age and infirmities
increase, and I shall not last long." To such an appeal there could be
no reply. Nelson took up his abode for a time at the parsonage, and
amused himself with the sports and occupations of the country.





Next: On Board The Agamemnon

Previous: The Story Of Nelson's Boyhood



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