It’s not yet even a year since I read a book called This Sceptred Isle – a history of Britain.  Within its pages were just a few paragraphs dedicated to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson and his battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. But, for whatever I reason, I became hooked.  I can’t fully explain what it was that drew me to him, but it was his contradictory, multi-faceted character, his flaws as well as his heroic deeds, his emotional vulnerability and physical frailties, together with a tremendous strength of spirit, humanity and charisma, that meant I found myself craving more and more knowledge about him.  My collection of books grew, and within each biography of course are quotes from Nelson’s letters and journals.  It is in these that we can get to know the man.  
I stumbled across an article by Colin White in which he described his search for new and undiscovered Nelson letters.  By far the greatest collection of letters is in Nicholas Harris Nicolas’ The Letters and Dispatches of Lord Nelson, but even Nicolas himself acknowledged that his source for letters for which he could not find the originals, may not have been reliable.

So I embarked on a quest to see the very few Nelson letters within my reach – those in the British Library. And I must say, simply touching very old paper once held by Lord Nelson himself, seeing ink smudges and the odd fingerprint left behind as his hand moved swiftly across the paper before the ink had fully dried, and the particular messiness of his writing on days when he wrote “Storms all day”, is an indescribable feeling.  Here, I found myself becoming immersed not just in Nelson’s words, but his presence – his handwriting, those smears and fingerprints, gave me an image of the man sitting at his desk with his pen in his hand and this piece of paper on his desk.

But it is that presence which presents a problem for someone unused to studying such material – reading his handwriting!  Before he lost his right arm, his writing was exceptionally neat, though written in that slanted, fancy Georgian script that is quite hard to read at times.  After the period at which he lost his arm – after the letter in which he pitifully wrote “A left-handed admiral will never again be considered as useful…”, you are reading something written, often in a hurry, by a right-handed man with his left hand, whose grammar was erratic, and who would be writing on a ship which could quite easily by lurching severely from side-to-side – not only that, but he would of course use certain terminology, names of people and ships, and abbreviations, that can be quite hard to interpret if you have a limited knowledge of these things.  But though tricky to read, these quirks give character to a simple letter.

But aside from all of this, as any historian knows, nothing compares to studying a primary source, in terms of accuracy.  This is especially true of letters which were originally published by Clarke and M’Arthur, which often left out passages which may have been considered to be embarrassing or for other reasons, and attempted to fix Nelson’s grammar – which, I feel, takes away the character of something written by a man who often poured emotion into his letters.

Later, I found myself wanting to find Nelson’s journals.  Extracts of these appear in most, if not all, biographies, but when I found out that a couple are in the British Library, I had to see them for myself, not least because, with the exception of the one he kept in the very last few weeks of his life (amounting to about 20 pages) I couldn’t find any that had been published in full.

The first journal I got my hands on is very small, about A5, probably small enough to fit into a large coat pocket.  The paper is quite thick, faintly brown-yellow, with quite a strong, but pleasant (to me at least!) smell.  It has been neatly rebound, and the pages numbered in pencil, presumably by the BL.

And I have to say, I was astonished by the differences between some of what has been published, and the actual journal.  Below is an example, from a couple of days in 1803, when Nelson was watching the French fleet in Toulon.  Admittedly, some of what was left out of the published version isn’t all that interesting to the casual reader, and so the extract reads more like a summary.  But it shouldn’t, in my opinion, be written as if it is an accurate transcript of what Nelson wrote.  In my transcription I have tried to be as accurate as I can although, as I said above, I found the odd word hard to decipher!  I also haven’t fixed Nelson’s dodgy grammar, so some sentences take a couple of reads to get context!  And I will say also that it took a fair bit of time researching for me to try to find out where some of the places that he was talking about are.

 Nicolas vol. V p.274


Saturday, October 29th, found ourselves about five leagues directly to leeward of the place we left last night.  At daylight, made sail under close-reefed topsails and reefed courses, with a very strong current against us; but the Fleet being absolutely in distress for water, I am determined to persevere, not withstanding all the difficulties.  At one pm, fetched Castel Sardo, a small Town in Sardinia, rounded in stays three miles from the shore: beating along shore all night about three miles from the Coast.

 October 31st - Not being able to clear the Levisena Islands, stood towards Shark's Mouth, tacked, and fetched the Northernmost of Martha Islands.  N.B. The Straits of Bonafaccio lie between the Martha and Levisena Islands, the last of which belong to Corsica.  When near the Southernmost, Martha Island, we opened the little one to the Westward of the Island Spanioti, close to the ledge of rocks, and weathered them about one mile; we then tacked under Sardinia, and stood into a beautiful little bay, or rather harbour.  After various tacks, and being close to the two rocks in Captain Ryves' Chart, and abreast of the rocks where he was, the whole Squadron anchored by six o'clock in the evening, without any accident, in Agincourt Sound, under the Sardinian shore.

British Library MS Add 34,966

Saturday October 29th found ourselves abt. 5 lgs direct to leeward of the place we left last night.  At day light made sail under close reef Topsails & reeft courses a very strong current abt. us but the fleet being absolutely in distress for water I am determined to persevere notwithstanding all the difficulties.  At 1 fetch'd Castel Sarde a small town in Sard.  3 miles from the shore 35fms Sandy storm beating along shore all night.  At 3 miles from the shore 40fms clear ground.  Under close reeft topsails & reeft courses.

Sunday Oct 30th At daylight found we had gained abt. 7 miles at 8 I shall hope 5.  At 5 in the evening anchored under Cape Largo Sardo bearing NENE.  5 miles in 35fms.  

Monday Oct 31st 1803 At day light wind at SSE.  Rounded Largo Sardo standg. to the N.  At 8 tacked not being able to clear the Levisi Islands.  Stood towards Sharks Mouth and fetched the Northernmost of Martha Islands.  N.B. the parts & straights of Bonafaccio is between Marthas Island and Levisi Islands the last belong to Corsica.  Stand for Sardinia Wind SSE but variable 20pts.  At 9 30fms 2 miles from Sardinia between Sharks Mouth & 5 Rocks.

9h 23m 35fms: near to the Southernmost Martha Island opened the little Island to the Westward of Spanioti.  9h50: 28fms close to the ledge of Rocks.  10h 13m: close to the little Island of Spanioti 30fms.

10h 30m: 28fms Weathered the Rocks abt. one mile.

10:46:25fms within half a mile of the little Island of Spanioti bearing EbN.

11h.5m: on the Sardinian shore 1 mile distant 20fms

11.25: close to Spanioti 23fms

11h 37m: on the Sardinian shore 17fms

11h 52m: under Spanioti 18fms

12h: 7m: under Sardinia standing into a beautiful little bay or rather harbour. 14fms:

0h.22m: under Spanioti 18fms:

0.36: under Sardinia 19fms

0h-47m: under the point of Spanioti 20fms

0.58m: under Sarda. 24fms

1.11: close to the Eastern pt. of Spanioti 20fms

1h.23m: under Sarda. 24fms

1h.37m: close to Madalena 25fms:

1.5: under Madalena

2.13: under Madalena

2.28: under Madalena

2.40: under the Sarda. shore in Agincourt Sound.

2.47: close to the 2 Rocks in Capt. Ryves chart.

2.59: abreast the Rocks marked in C.R. chart where he was.

3h.8m: near the Rocks

3.15 anchored in 17fms by 6 o'clock the whole Squadron anchored witht. an accident great credit is due to Capt. Ryves for the exact help of his Chart and directions.

So you can see there is a massive difference between the actual journal, and what was published as an ‘extract’ – not least of which is that a whole day was left out!  Not the most interesting of entries, true, but still.  Aside from the content, I ‘feel’ a lot more of Nelson in his own words, his erratic spelling and grammar, the abbreviations he used – even if it didn’t all make sense!  Even something as simple as the underlining of “notwithstanding all the difficulties” emphasises Nelson’s determination, which is somewhat missed when that underline is left out.  But I’m not claiming that my transcript is necessarily a correct and true one, either, as I may have read something wrong.

 For these reasons I would recommend anyone interested in Nelson (and the point about primary vs secondary sources applies to any study of history) to try and access his original letters – of course, not all of them, but even just a few.  I’ve barely made a dent in penetrating the vast number of letters and journals that have been preserved, and it’s unlikely that I ever will, but I still find that now, I am familiar enough with Nelson’s style that I can read published letters with their corrected grammar, and ‘hear’, in my mind, the way Nelson probably did write that letter, the way it would read as if he were speaking.  For an obsessive Nelsonite like me, that familiarity with him that can’t be achieved in any other way, is a kind of magic.

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