An advertising man

Nelson: the man and the legend

Terry Coleman <em>Bloomsbury, 234pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0747556857

It is to be expected that officers of the Royal Navy drink to "the immortal memory" on Trafalgar Day. It is more surprising that Tony Crosland, when an economics don at Oxford and a prospective Labour candidate, confessed to me that he was reduced to tears by the memory of Nelson's death. He was in the grip of the legend that surrounds our greatest national hero. It is the purpose of this scrupulously researched and magnificently illustrated book to separate the man from the legend. The man Terry Coleman discovers will not be to the taste of committed Nelsonians. The hero is a bit too pushy, a bit too full of himself.

Coleman, a former columnist for the Guardian, does not underrate Nelson's genius - the "Nelson touch" - which allowed him to annihilate his enemy. The Battle of the Nile in 1798, in which Nelson destroyed the French fleet, made him the people's hero. His death in 1805 - having won, at Trafalgar, our greatest naval victory since the Armada - ensured his apotheosis. But the first stone of the legend was laid in 1797 at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, where, disobeying the order of his commander, Sir John Jervis, he captured a Spanish ship and leapt, sword in hand, on to another, crying: "Westminster Abbey or a glorious victory!" He made sure that his version got into the London press.

For Coleman, Nelson was "an instinctive self-publicist", what George V would have called "an advertising man". He set out to become a legend in his own lifetime. But the quest for glory could lead to grave misjudgements. In 1797, he believed he could strike a fatal blow to Spanish power by mounting what would now be called a "combined operation" against Tenerife in the Canary Islands. It would "immortalise the undertakers". It was ill-conceived, and turned out to be a fiasco. Not only did he lose his right arm in his determination to save his honour, but his dash for glory cost twice as many lives as Jervis's great victory over the Spanish at Cape St Vincent.

More serious was Nelson's involvement in the politics of the Kingdom of Naples. A fervent monarchist, he hated Jacobin revolutionaries and heartily disliked Whigs. As commander of the Mediterranean squadron, he was dazzled by the "sacred majesty" of Carlotta, the Queen of Naples and sister of Marie Antoinette, a victim of the Jacobins. When, in 1799, the Neapolitan liberals established a Parthenopian Republic, Nelson used the terms of a treaty he had denounced to trick the rebels into surrender on the understanding that their lives would be saved. They were executed. Nelson's conduct, Coleman writes, was "indefensible both morally and in law". A shabby business, it shocked his fellow officers. To Italian historians, he is seen as a brutal reactionary, even a war criminal.

It was in Naples that he became besotted sexually with Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador Sir William Hamilton. When Nelson first met her, his friend and great admirer Gilbert Eliot described her as equipped with "the easy manners of a barmaid". Adultery is always a messy business. But in 1803, Hamilton died and Emma was free to marry. The "impediment" was Nelson's devoted wife, Fanny, whom the lovers hoped God would remove. When God did not help, they both behaved badly. Emma dismissed Fanny as a "false, malicious witch", where she herself was a malicious liar. Nelson returned a pathetic letter from Fanny, in which she pleaded for reconciliation, as opened by mistake and not read by Lord Nelson. Eliot, now Lord Minto, regarded as in bad taste Nelson's flaunting of the affair in public: "He does not seem at all conscious of the sort of discredit he has fallen into" - the object of a savage and obscene caricature by George Cruikshank. Emma fed Nelson's childish vanity: "She goes on cramming Nelson with towelfuls of flattery which he goes on taking as a child does pap!" His appearance in public, and at dinner at home, covered in stars and ribbons, led General Moore to observe that he looked like a prince in an opera rather than a British admiral.

After Trafalgar and Nelson's death on board HMS Victory, celebrated in heroic paintings and engravings, none of this mattered. His obsession with Emma was romanticised, though the nation, against Nelson's hopes, did not regard her as his legacy: she died penniless in Calais of drink and dropsy. His conduct in Naples was forgotten except by those who knew the truth. Trafalgar came when Napoleon was triumphing at Ulm and Austerlitz. His body was brought home in a cask of brandy, and the government, sadly in need of a national triumph, gave him a state funeral attended by 7,000 people (not including Lord St Vincent, as Jervis had become, and 18 other admirals who pleaded colds).

The irascible St Vincent wrote in 1814 that "animal courage was the sole merit of Lord Nelson, his private character most disgraceful in every sense of the word". This is not a fitting judgement. It is almost a rule of nature that great heroes, from Achilles down the ages, have always had great weaknesses. Tony Crosland's tears were rightly shed.