Nelson’s Lost Son
Admiral Lord Nelson is a towering figure in British and world history; the man who destroyed the combined Franco-Spanish fleet at Trafalgar, after a series of earlier stunning victories, such as at the Nile, and at Copenhagen. His stepson Josiah Nisbet is rather less well known.
However, dying at the moment of his greatest triumph was perhaps his greatest victory, at least in terms of his reputation. Nelson’s personal conduct had become increasingly erratic, perhaps as a result of his various wounds and the stresses of battle, as shown by his partisan actions in Naples, his public parading of his mistress, Emma Hamilton, his fractured relationships with the King and members of his court, and his falling out with the then First Sea Lord, John Jervis, Earl St Vincent. The world remembers Nelson, or at least did so until recently, as the heroic figure who at Trafalgar saved England from invasion, ushering in a century of British naval dominion across the world’s oceans. Revisionists would now prefer to tag him as a racist colonial oppressor who supported slavery.
In his personal life, Nelson was less of a hero to some of those around him. “Behind every great man, there is a woman”, goes the saying. “And behind her, is his wife”, added Groucho Marx. Usually sandwiched, somewhat uncomfortably, between the two are the great man’s children. In Nelson’s case, that meant his stepson, Josiah, the son of his mother Fanny, Lady Nelson, and her late husband.
Josiah Nisbet was born in 1780 and, after his mother married the then 28-year-old Captain Horatio Nelson, Nisbet went to sea with him in HMS Agamemnon in 1793 at the age of 12, a period covered in the author’s earlier novel, Nelson’s Folly. Nisbet and Nelson fought alongside each other, before the former was promoted to Post Captain at the astonishingly young age of 19. At Santa Cruz, where Nelson was struck in the arm in a disastrous night landing, Josiah saved his life, applying a tourniquet to staunch the loss of blood then getting him into a boat and back to the ship. Nelson’s gratitude and patronage no doubt helped Josiah achieve this early promotion soon after, and with it the command of the frigate HMS Thalia. But a combination of arrogance, immaturity, ill-temper, drunkenness, and resentment at his stepfather’s treatment of his mother, left him isolated, without a command and on the beach at the age of 21.
Thereafter, Nisbet largely dropped out of the history books, though he went on to become a wealthy and successful businessman. Tom Pocock’s masterful 1987 biography of Nelson gives Josiah only a dozen or so entries, culminating in the acerbic comment that, “Josiah had proved as successful in commerce as he had been inadequate as a naval officer”. His grave and a splendid memorial plaque on the wall of St Andrew’s Church at Littleham, Devon, help preserve his memory for a few curious visitors. But he is, otherwise, justly described as “lost” – to his stepfather, to the Navy, and to history.
Historian and author Dr Oliver Greeves is a descendant of Josiah Nisbet – his great, great, great grandson, in fact. Nisbet was a minor character in his first historical novel, Nelson’s Folly. Now, in the second instalment of what Dr Greeves intends to be a trilogy, Josiah becomes the central character. Captain Josiah Nisbet has largely been lost to history, but this relative obscurity gives his descendant considerable scope for creativity, and he employs this most convincingly.
Greeves takes up Nisbet’s story after he loses his command, ashore on half-pay with an uncertain future. He places him into various real-life contemporary dramas – such as Earl St Vincent’s enquiry into dockyard corruption, the African slave trade, naval and land battles in the West Indies, and the Battle of Trafalgar. These events are accounted with conviction and clearly based on deep research; as I was reading the book, I several times stopped to read up on them. Some were real, some fictional, or based on near-contemporary happenings, but I enjoyed, throughout, the flow of the story and mix of history and of fiction.
This is more than an action adventure, though it certainly is that. It’s also an exploration of how a once rising star, brought low, begins his redemption, and starts to develop into a man of real character. Dr Greeves, apart from being a writer, is also a mentor and a business coach, and his deep understanding of character and its development under pressure informs the novel. A minor historical figure, cast into the darkness by a brilliant, heroic but sometimes cruel stepfather, is brought into the light, and Greeves turns him this way and that to examine his very human weaknesses and motivations, though with a great deal of sympathy. The simple, blunt, arrogant sailor becomes a more sophisticated man with an awareness of others, and a talent for subterfuge. At the end, Nelson dies a national hero, mourned by all, and Nisbet, maturing, emerges as a lesser hero, as one worthy of admiration, and perhaps, one no longer ‘lost’.
This is a rollicking and enjoyable read. Oliver Greeves is clearly sympathetic to his ancestor but understanding and realistic in his depiction of character – Josiah’s, and the others who cross his path in the course of the novel. He takes some licence with historical events, to the great advantage of the plot, but carries it through with conviction, so that, by the close of the novel, the reader has become invested in this semi-fictional figure and wants to know more of what comes next. With another 25 years before Josiah’s death in Paris as a wealthy businessman, there should be plenty of scope for further adventures. I hope Dr Greeves will bring us more, and I look forward to reading them. Highly recommended.