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Nelson and the Slave Trade

12 Jan 24

170 pages

David Childs

My great naval hero is Francis Drake who, in partnership with his kinsman, John Hawkins, was responsible for establishing the English trans-Atlantic slave trade. Has my admiration diminished with the highlighting of that unfortunate fact?  No, but I have had to admit that, warts and all, a man’s a man for all that. So, why should Nelson’s peerless name be in any way lessened when his links with that pernicious trade were so far removed as to be almost vanishingly insignificant?

Nelson wrote several thousand letters in his life-time, many of which were gathered into published collections but, at the time they were written were mostly personal and private. As such they cast a light on the writer’s firmly held humane and liberal views and beliefs.   Among these many thousand epistles was one written on 10th June 1805, while Nelson was off Martinique, desperately hoping to catch-up with Villeneuve’s  French fleet which he had chased across the Atlantic and was now about to pursue back to Europe. It was written to Simon Taylor, the richest plantation owner in Jamaica, who had engaged Nelson in correspondence in 1802 in the hope that the admiral would support the slaveowners in the next session of Parliament.  Nelson’s reply is lost but he did not speak on the issue in Parliament.  However, in the letter which is the main concern of this book he wrote that:

“I was taught to appreciate value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field or in the Senate shall their interests be infringed while I have an arm to fight in their defence or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies…”

The author claims that the main purpose of this letter was to plead for the re-instatement of Nelson’s friend, the Rev’d Dr. Scott, as rector of St. John’s Jamaica, but as this subject is addressed but obliquely in four lines of the postscript this does not seem likely. What is apparent is that Nelson, well aware of the bloodshed as a result of the slaves’ revolt in the French colony Saint Dominigue, feared a similar outcome in the British West Indies as an unintended consequence of abolition.

Several versions of this letter exist some of which the author believes were tampered with (forged seems too strong an epithet) to show his support of the anti-abolitionists. What he did support was a proposal to replace slavery with indentured labour but this initiative never materialised. Now, centuries later, several articles have appeared using this letter as evidence to indicate that Nelson was a racist and supporter of slavery. This book is a well-researched counter-attack but, what is obvious is that, despite the author’s concerns, the desire to besmirch Nelson’s escutcheon by claiming he was a ‘white-supremacist’, a ‘racist’ and ‘pro-slavery’ will find minimal support among his countrymen. Not only do the actions of this most humane commander disprove the first two charges but his failing to speak in favour of the latter when opportunity arose returns a ‘non-proven’ verdict. Those who are still nervous of damage to his heroic reputation might be advised to look over the channel and see how unshaken on his pedestal stands clay-ankled Napoleon. Whatever one’s views this is a book well-worth reading as a forensic support of one no longer able to speak in his own defence – not that he needs to.