Two hundred years ago Nelson was the most famous person in Britain. He has often been named the first popular celebrity in Britain, as people would come in their hundreds just to catch a glimpse of him, while shopkeepers sold prints, memorabilia and even clothing in celebration of his battles. For a country undeniably afraid of invasion, he was seen as the saviour.
His distinctive appearance made it easy for him to be instantly recongnisable, much helped by the caricaturists, and his scandalous private life only added to his fame. He was the "people's hero" and the public could both relate to him and revere him for his victories at sea.
His death confirmed his place in the people's hearts, as they generally took to mourning rather than celebrating the victory at Trafalgar. His funeral was enormous. A procession of ten-thousand soldiers, over thirty admirals and a hundred captains, and thousands of the public lining the streets.
His dramatic death in the moment of triumph earnt him immortality, he had given the ultimate sacrifice for his country and he was never to be forgotten.
A hundred years ago he was still a household name, and during the World Wars, people often looked to him for inspiration.
Nowadays, however, he his often confused with the Duke of Wellington, winner of the Battle of Waterloo, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, or (and I can imagine how mortified he would feel at this!) Napoleon Bonaparte, the very person Britain was so desperately afraid of.
Even worse, in a survey conducted on school kids a couple of years ago, in which the pupils were asked about British maritime history, the results were somewhat catastrophic (read the article here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/8075874/Horatio-Nelson-was-French-football-captain-say-children.html).
Now, I'm aware that newspapers tend to over dramatise things such as this, and also that the answers the children gave may well not reflect their actual knowledge on these events, however, I do believe that there is some truth in these results. It certainly does seem to me that the youth of today are not as well clued up on Britain's maritime history, and how that shaped our country, as they could be, and Nelson and Trafalgar seems to be almost completely forgotten.
So what happened that caused Nelson's popularity to decrease so rapidly within the last century?
Also, after Britain gave many of it's territories independence after the Second World War, there was a sense of guilt about the empire we once controlled, and a feeling that it should no longer be celebrated, resulting in a decline of the popularity of the figures who had helped Britain's empire to grow.
It seems that it is viewed as inappropriate for children to learn about the era of sail, and even more so, the Napoleonic wars, and that it might be considered as politically incorrect nationalism. It has become very un-British to celebrate our past, and so our connection with the sea, something which I believe has had a great affect on Britain, as well as other countries, and was part of our identity as a nation, is largely unknown today.
It is no surprise then that a great population of the younger generations confuse Nelson and the Duke of Wellington with each other, while Napoleon, the great general they were fighting against, is much better known.
And since we are reluctant to acknowledge our past as a seafaring nation, this era has often been neglected by the media. The last proper Nelson film, which was actually more about Lady Hamilton and their affair, but which included Trafalgar, was almost forty years ago. And while today we have the technology and the open-mindedness now to be able to make a film about Trafalgar, the chances of this happening are very slim. As far as Hollywood is concerned, Nelson is neither hip nor important, and Britain, it seems, is too concerned about political correctness to be willing to do such a thing.
Nelson's appears very little in the children's section of the bookstore. The Blitz, the Battle of Britain, Pompeii, the Victorians, the Romans, the Vikings, Titanic, they're all apart of the same series of children's books, of which Trafalgar is indeed included, but is it ever there? Absolutely not! It's just not popular anymore. It's become a specialist subject that is studied by the academics and no one else. It's uncool and unheard of.
In my school, history was a very popular subject, and the people who did it with me, for the most part, loved it. Their interests varied from, of course, World War Two and the Nazis, to the Romans and ancient history. So, history itself is not uncool. But because Nelson's Navy has become so specialised and, I'm being very stereo-typical here, associated with sixty-year-old men with beards studying the subject, the youth of today obviously aren't going to take an interest in it even if they know about it. I see no reason why it should remain like that.
But what could possibly be done about this?
I believe that education would make a big difference. I truly believe that, with more knowledge of the era, more interest would be created by the younger generations. We shouldn't shy away from teaching our history and the way that it shaped us as a nation. It shouldn't be thought of as boasting. It's not about nationalism. Neither is it about glorifying war. I think we should honour those who sacrificed their time and their lives in service of their country, whatever country they came from, and whatever war they were fighting. We should be proud that we've had people, and still have people, who will do this for us.
Nelson is a symbol of Britain's naval history, something which had a great impact on us as a nation. Just because our views on war and how the world should be have changed, forgetting about Nelson and the thosands of others who died with him and the world they came from cannot be justified. History should be accepted and learnt from, not hidden away and forgotten about.