Colin White: Horatio Nelson was a shrewd spin doctor

From a talk given by the historian and director of Trafalgar 200, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich
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The Independent Online

When you tell people you're researching the life of Horatio Nelson, their first reaction is often to point out that everything has been said. "We all know that story," they cry. But it's not the case. Yes, there's been a lot written about our great seafaring hero, but there's lots of new insights that we can learn about the man and his career.

Since 1995, the official Nelson Commemoration Committee has been holding regular conferences in which we try and get the European angle on the great admiral, as opposed to looking simply through a British perspective. We've had visits from the Spanish, the French and recently the Danes, all nationalities against whom Nelson fought, and we've been able to look at the battles from a totally different point of view. We're used to the traditional narratives about Nelson's life, but this exchange of information gives us a much broader and more interesting picture.

We must remember that the story of Nelson is very much a "constructed story". The task we must set ourselves is working out exactly "how" it has been constructed. We know that the British establishment had an interest in portraying Nelson as a great seafaring hero and British saviour, but my research here in the museum archive has also led me to discover that Nelson himself took part in constructing this story. He was, so to speak, his own "spin doctor".

The way Nelson handled his publicity and the reports of his battles was very shrewd. After a great battle in which he was involved, he would write down his own version of events. He would then send this to a friend in England, who would deliver it to the popular press.

After the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, he felt it very important that he got his own account into the public arena. He sent his letter outlining the battle, as well as his own role in it, to Captain William Locker, his old mentor, and under whom he had been a lieutenant. Locker passed on the letter to The Sun (not an ancestor of today's red top), where it was duly published.

Newspapers in those days relied on eye-witness accounts, not having armies of foreign correspondents, and such accounts usually went under the byline "from an officer". So, in effect, Nelson was writing a review of his own battle. When it was known that he done this, some of his colleagues were extremely annoyed.

Another example of Nelson's interest in his public image can be found in the circumstances surrounding the creation of a print of him in 1802, depicting him surrounded by all the ships he had hitherto captured in his career. I have discovered in his correspondence a letter that shows just how interested he was in this particular image. He states: "The name of each ship to be wrote between the Main and Foremast. The ships to be put in rotation as captured. The Portrait disapproved. To be like the outline formerly sold by Mr Brydon."

Nelson had obviously been shown a proof copy of the print and, while taking a stylistic interest, was also unhappy with the image of him. The image he wanted was one by Simon de Koster, made in December 1800, which he considered to have captured his best likeness. It is interesting that the De Koster drawing is not a heroic image by any means, but rather shows Nelson in an approachable light, which may have influenced his choice. It almost brings to mind Madonna choosing which picture of herself she wants for the cover of her new album.

Through this new research into the life of Nelson, I am not trying to undermine his status as a great hero. I certainly don't consider myself a revisionist. However, I do believe that we can learn a lot more about him through careful research in original sources and by looking at his story with a fresh eye. I think we can make that story all the more vital to a generation coming to study Nelson for the first time.

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