Nelson and the British Navy: Seamanship, Leadership, Originality

  • N. A. M. Rodger


There was much about Nelson’s career which was not at all unusual. As the son of a country clergyman, he came from that wide social range from the lesser gentry to the middle classes which provided the Royal Navy with so many of its officers. He might be compared with his contemporaries on the flag list St Vincent, Duncan, Cornwallis, Keith, Gardner, Gambier, Collingwood, and the brothers Bridport and Hood; St Vincent’s father was a provincial barrister, Duncan’s Provost of Dundee, Gardner’s an army officer, Gambier’s lieutenant-governor of the Bahamas, Collingwood’s a merchant, and the Hoods’ another clergyman. Cornwallis and Keith were younger sons of peers, but in Keith’s case his father was both poor and Jacobite. Only Cornwallis — ironically the only one of the ten who was never ennobled — could be said to have come from a privileged home. Nelson’s career benefitted from the powerful patronage of his uncle Captain Maurice Suckling, Controller of the Navy from 1775 to 1778, who helped him to his first lieutenant’s commission at the age of eighteen, but such interest was a common feature of successful careers. St Vincent’s uncle Sir Thomas Parker was Chief Baron of the Exchequer; Cornwallis was the son and nephew of peers close to Sir Robert Walpole; Keith, who had no notable patron early in his career, became a friend of the Prince of Wales; Gambier had two uncles on the flag list; and the Hood brothers were connected to the Pitt-Grenville cousinhood. Only Duncan, Gardner and Collingwood seem to have had no other backers than those they had earned by their own service.


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  1. 1.
    I make no attempt to provide references for every event of Nelson’s very well-known career, which can be followed in dozens of biographies. The general naval background may be found in N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004).Google Scholar
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© N.A.M. Rodger 2005

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  • N. A. M. Rodger

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