Horatio Nelson Presages, Nearly 20 Years Beforehand, His Legendary Signal at Trafalgar (“England expects that every man will do his duty”), Pledging to “do my duty in despite of all machinations”

In a letter to his mentor and first captain William Locker, he boldly (and audaciously) assumes the mantle of his illustrious uncle Maurice Suckling, Comptroller of the Royal Navy: “I feel myself, to my Country, his heir; and...I feel he gave it to me as a legacy.’"

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Of his love for his future wife: “Her heart is equal to her head, which every person knows is filled with good sense. My affection for her is fixed upon that solid basis of esteem and regard”

This is a famous letter quoted in Nelson’s biographies, and one of the finest Nelson...

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Horatio Nelson Presages, Nearly 20 Years Beforehand, His Legendary Signal at Trafalgar (“England expects that every man will do his duty”), Pledging to “do my duty in despite of all machinations”

In a letter to his mentor and first captain William Locker, he boldly (and audaciously) assumes the mantle of his illustrious uncle Maurice Suckling, Comptroller of the Royal Navy: “I feel myself, to my Country, his heir; and...I feel he gave it to me as a legacy.’"

Of his love for his future wife: “Her heart is equal to her head, which every person knows is filled with good sense. My affection for her is fixed upon that solid basis of esteem and regard”

This is a famous letter quoted in Nelson’s biographies, and one of the finest Nelson letters we have ever carried

Captain Maurice Suckling was born in 1726 to the Reverend Maurice Suckling and his wife Anne, who was a niece of Britain’s first prime minister, Robert Walpole. The younger Maurice had a brother William, and a sister Catherine who married Reverend Edmund Nelson. Their son Horatio Nelson was thus the nephew of both Maurice and William Suckling. Maurice Suckling joined the Royal Navy, and in 1757, in the time of the Seven Years War, had risen to the rank of commander of a 60-gun ship of the line. He arranged for his nephew Horatio to enter the Navy and join the crew of a ship he commanded. Then he saw to it that Nelson gained experience of seamanship and life at sea by sailing to Jamaica and Tobago, returning to Plymouth in 1772. Suckling became Comptroller (and thus manager) of the Royal Navy in 1775 and was able to continue to speed Nelson’s career. He used his influence on Nelson’s behalf until his death in 1778.

William Locker commanded the frigate HMS Thames. He was her captain from 1770 until 1773. In 1777, he took command of HMS Lowestoffe, sailing her to the West Indies. During this period, one of his lieutenants was the newly promoted Horatio Nelson. Nelson, then barely nineteen, served with Locker for fifteen months. His experiences with Locker, and Locker’s teachings, had a lasting effect on Nelson. Twenty years later, on 9 February 1799, Nelson wrote to his old captain: “I have been your scholar; it is you who taught me to board a Frenchman by your conduct when in the Experiment; it is you who always told me ‘Lay a Frenchman close and you will beat him;’ and my only merit in my profession is being a good scholar. Our friendship will never end but with my life, but you have always been too partial to me.”

In June of 1779 Nelson was made Captain, taking command of the frigate Hitchinbroke at Port Royal, Jamaica. During these early years in the Navy, Nelson served extensively in the West Indies, as well as in Canada and the Baltic. In the spring of 1784, Nelson was given command of the Boreas, a 28-gun frigate, with orders to proceed to the Leeward Islands Station at English Harbour, Antigua. His task was to enforce the Navigation Act, which stipulated that only British vessels could trade with Britain’s Caribbean colonies. The Act had become a major problem with the end of the American Revolution, as American vessels, now foreign, continued to dominate trade between the West Indies and the former colonies. Moreover, the West Indian merchants and planters, who were rather interested in maintaining a very profitable part of their trade, had the audacity to encourage such pernicious practices. As a result, the arrival of Captain Nelson was not greeted with exceptional joy. David Parry was colonial governor of Barbados and had jurisdiction over nearby islands like Nevis and Antigua, and he had no desire to take on the islands’ merchants, law or no law. Likewise, Nelson’s commander, Admiral Sir William Hughes, was unenthusiastic about enforcing the law. As Nelson wrote, “The longer I am on this Station the worse I like it. Our Commander has not that opinion of his own sense that he ought to have. He is led by the advice of the Islanders to admit the Yankees to a Trade; at least to wink at it…” Nelson’s attempts in the British West Indies to curtail illegal trade with the United States continued through July 1786.

In the perspective of events, Nelson’s tour in the West Indies turned out to be a pivot point in his career, a three-year assignment that simultaneously would test and shape his character as a naval officer in career-threatening ways. It was a period when he had to deal with a major conflict between military and diplomatic interests. More important, it was a time when he blatantly challenged the judgments and orders of his commanding officer, Admiral Hughes, and the British governor Parry.

The situation climaxed when, cruising off Nevis, the zealous young commander seized four American ships illegally laden with Nevis goods. The ships had obviously violated the Navigation Acts. A stinging controversy arose, and Nelson was driven by a fighting doctrine that mirrored the one he employed in combat: seize the initiative and press the enemy aggressively. He stood his legal ground and appealed to the Admiralty and even King George III. Both Admiral Hughes and Governor Parry fought back. Moreover, the colonists and the American captains (supported, to Nelson’s great irritation, by the Charlestown merchant community) came up with the very effective strategy of suing Nelson directly for their financial losses resulting from his actions. Whatever the outcome with the Admiralty and government was going to be, if Nelson lost the court action initiated against him by the local merchants and plantation owners—which involved £40,000, approximately $6 million today—he would have been ruined financially. The colonists also attempted to have Nelson arrested, and as a result, he was for months a virtual prisoner on board his ship Boreas – a situation that he did not find at all amusing. In the ensuing trial, the judge eventually upheld the British Navy’s right to seize the American ships. But Governor Parry appealed the decision on the merchants’ behalf.

Before sequestering himself in the Boreas, however, Nelson had met Francis Nisbet, a young Nevis widow, and had called at her Montpelier estate. He was quite taken by her refinement, as well as by her resourcefulness in operating a large house alone. She was, in addition, an accomplished musician and a fluent speaker of French. Nelson and Fanny quickly fell in love, and they married on March 11, 1787, at Montpelier. Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence, later to be King William IV of England, and a close friend of Nelson’s, gave away the bride.

In this famous letter, Nelson shows his independence and even insubordination, calling Governor Parry “grossly ignorant”; discusses his “affection” being “fixed” on his future wife; praises his late uncle and mentor Maurice Suckling, and very boldly and audaciously claims his mantle; and presaging his legendary signal at Trafalgar (“England expects that every man will do his duty”), insists he will do his “duty in despite of all machinations”.

Autograph letter signed, three pages, Nevis in the Caribbean, 5 July 1786, to his uncle William Suckling but for the eyes of his friend Locker. “This will be delivered to you by Mr. Suckling who has done me the favor of calling here on his way to England. He appears much improved since I last saw him, & seems to possess a modesty of behavior which must ever get friends & promotions for him. My prizes were condemned, and were condemned on the 26 instant but an appeal is prayed by Gov. Parry against the distribution who thinks as Gov. he is entitled to a third of all forfeitures even though made by His Majesty’s ships. But he is grossly ignorant and sets his face against the Navy – more particularly against me as I will do my duty in despite of all machinations even with chiefs at the head of them.

“I wish I could tell you I was well, but I am far from it. My activity of mind is too much for my puny constitution. I am worn to a skeleton, but I trust that the Doctors and asses’ milk will set me up again. Perhaps you will think it odd if I do not mention Mrs. Nisbet;—I can only assure you, that her heart is equal to her head, which every person knows is filled with good sense. My affection for her is fixed upon that solid basis of esteem and regard, that I trust can only increase by a longer knowledge of her. I have not a line from either my father or sister. My brother just mentioned it in a cursory manner as you did. I hope you and your family are well, and ever will continue so.

“You have been my best friend, and I trust will continue as long so as I shall prove myself, by my actions, worthy of supplying that place in the Service of my Country, which my dear Uncle left for me. I feel myself, to my Country, his heir; and it shall, I am bold to say, never lack the want of his counsel;—I feel he gave it to me as a legacy, and had I been near him when he was removed, he would have said, ‘My boy, I leave you to my Country. Serve her well, and she’ll never desert, but will ultimately reward, you.’ You who know much of me, I believe and hope, think me not unworthy your regards. But I beg your pardon for this digression; but what I have said is the inward monitor of my heart upon every difficult occasion. Bless you, my best friend, and believe me most affectionately, Horatio Nelson.” So this letter originated with Nelson, was carried by his beloved uncle William and referred his famous uncle Maurice, and was ultimately designed for his friend and first captain, William Locker.

To Nelson duty was everything as he shows here. In all our years in this field, we can only recall carrying one other Nelson letter comparable in range and quality to this one.

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