on 17 August 2008
John Sugden's "Nelson: A Dream of Glory 1758 - 1797" is the first volume of what promises to be a two volume definitive biography on the life and career of Vice Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, the greatest admiral in the history of Western Civilization. Not only is Sugden's tome impeccably well-researched, but his prose is often as fine as Patrick O'Brian's, giving readers a compelling view of the late 18th Century Royal Navy and the wars against France as seen not only through Nelson's eyes, but indeed those of many of his friends, acquaintances, and subordinates, including sailors from the lower decks. This is quite simply the finest nonfiction book on the Royal Navy that I have read; without question, it is a far better written and researched book than Arthur Herman's recently published "To Rule the Waves", his one volume history of the Royal Navy. I wait eagerly for Sugden's second volume, which will show Nelson's genius for battle during his celebrated victories at Aboukir Bay and, of course, Trafalgar.
Sugden offers a compelling portrait of a man who was more often a sinner rather than a saint, yet still heavily revered and regarded by his subordinates and superiors such as Admiral Sir Samuel Hood and Admiral Sir John Jervis, the Earl of Saint Vincent. Sugden demonstrates how this son of an impoverished parson was able to use his important familial ties to such distinguished British families as the Walpoles in obtaining and then furthering his career in the Royal Navy, going to sea at a relatively young age as an unrated servant aboard his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling's ship. But thanks to his uncle's connections, Nelson soon mastered the skills of navigation - becoming an excellent navigator in his own right - and joins a little known Polar expedition sponsored by the Royal Navy. In the short span of slightly more than a decade, Nelson acquired extensive experience sailing in the West Indies, Arctic waters and of course, off the coasts of Great Britain and France, before assuming his first post-captain command just barely out of his teens, a frigate, during the latter years of the American Revolution.
Sugden demonstrates repeatedly the complexity of Nelson's character. He notes often how Nelson repeatedly tried to advance the careers of his subordinates, including sailors as well as commissioned officers, frequently making his case to the Admiralty Board itself by going above the heads of his superiors such as senior captains and admirals. Despite this, Nelson earned the respect and friendship of senior admirals such as Sir Samuel Hood, and especially, Sir John Jervis (Sugden notes that Jervis rebuked his flag captain, Robert Calder, for daring to criticize Nelson after Nelson's deliberate failure in obeying Jervis's order during the Battle of Cape of Saint Vincent, by noting that he would praise Calder too if Calder had disobeyed Jervis's order.). And yet Nelson was praised for his generosity towards his commanding officers and subordinates, he was also, in many respects, a rather vain, selfish person, interested in pursuing glory for its own sake; a character flaw which would lead eventually to his scandalous affair with Lady Emma Hamilton. While seeking favors from those who were his superiors in military rank and/or social status, Nelson would be blind occasionaly to their own failings, which Sugden emphasizes in Nelson's relationship with Prince William Henry, the future King William IV, while the latter was a junior frigate captain serving under Nelson's command in the West Indies.
Sugden also describes, at much length, Nelson's relationships with his "band of brothers", forming life-long friendships with fellow distinguished officers such as Rear Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, Captain Thomas Troubridge, Captain Ralph Willett Miller, and Captain Benjamin Hallowell, to name merely a few, and his immense admiration and affection for the officers and crew of HMS Agamemnon, the 64 gun third rate ship-of-the-line which he regarded as his favorite command. Sugden devotes ample space not only to Nelson's service during the American Revolution - most notably his distinguished service in Central America - and the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent, but more importantly, to lesser known aspects of his career as a young senior captain stationed in the West Indies immediately after the American Revolution and his amphibious campaigns on Corsica and Elba during the early phases of the wars against Revolutionary France in the 1790s. Here we get a good glimpse of Nelson's brilliance as a commander leading men both at sea and ashore, but also his failings, most notably during the aborted raid on the Canary Islands that left him seriously wounded, nearly bringing his Royal Navy career to an untimely end in 1797.