First Steps Up The Ladder



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 i
. 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


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


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


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.