Nelson Goes Global: The Nelson Myth in Britain and Beyond

  • John M. MacKenzie

Abstract

Trafalgar Day1 remains a resonant date in the calendar, commemorated in many places in the Anglophone world. The continuing significance of this day, remembered annually in so many places for almost two hundred years, is ample evidence of the mythic status of the action it commemorates and the most famous actor at the centre of that victory. Indeed, the legendary status of Horatio Nelson is probably the greatest of all the heroic myths created by the British to explain the essence and uniqueness of their history. In the nineteenth century, the mythic hero became a central instrumental device for British social cohesion. In explaining the history of a nation whose unity was only a recent creation it also performed vital economic and strategic roles. When Thomas Carlyle wrote in Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) that ‘No great man lives in vain. The history of the world is but the biography of great men’ he produced a manifesto for the teaching of history in the Victorian age and for the preparation of the countless books of heroes published in those years.2

Keywords

Furnace Europe Amid Sandstone Marketing 

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Carlyle recognised the heroic significance of Nelson and chose to write about him in an early stage of his career. Andrew Lambert, Nelson: Britannia’s God of War (London: Faber, 2004), pp. 334–5.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For other analyses of imperial myths, see John M. MacKenzie, ‘David Livingstone and the Construction of the Myth’, in Graham Walker and Tom Gallagher (eds), Sermons and Battle Hymns (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990), pp. 24–42;Google Scholar
  3. MacKenzie, ‘Heroic Myths of Empire’, in John M. MacKenzie (ed.), Popular Imperialism and the Military (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), pp. 109–38;Google Scholar
  4. MacKenzie, ‘T.E. Lawrence: The Myth and the Message’, in Robert Giddings (ed.), Literature and Imperialism (London: Macmillan, 1991), pp. 150–81;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. MacKenzie, ‘The Iconography of the Exemplary Life: The Case of David Livingstone’, in Geoffrey Cubitt and Allen Warren, Heroic Reputations and Exemplary Lives (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 84–104, as well as other chapters in the same volume.Google Scholar
  6. For naval heroic myths, see C.I. Hamilton, ‘Naval Hagiography and the Victorian Hero’, Historical Journal, 23.2 (1980), pp. 381–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 5.
    A number of biographers have commented on Nelson’s fascination with Wolfe. Sir N.H. Nicolas’s Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Nelson (7 volumes, London, 1844–46) contain a number of references.Google Scholar
  8. Off Corsica in 1794, Nelson wrote ‘What would the immortal Wolfe have done?’ (quoted in Christopher Hibbert, Nelson, a Personal History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995), p. 95). Nelson’s celebrated encounter with Benjamin West at Fonthill in 1800 is fully recounted in Lambert, Nelson, p. 181, while Nelson’s early sense of a death scene coming on, at the Battle of the Nile, is described on p. 128.Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    A.W. Reed, Dictionary of New Zealand Place Names (Wellington: Reed Books, 2002), p. 333;Google Scholar
  10. A.H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, vol. 2 (Wellington: R.E. Owen, 1966), p. 643. Later the Nelson Lakes National Park was gazetted in the twentieth century.Google Scholar
  11. 8.
    Anthony Sampson, Mandela (London: HarperCollins, 1999), p. 7.Google Scholar
  12. 9.
    Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (London: Yale University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Colin White, The Nelson Encyclopaedia (London: Chatham, 2002), pp. 176–8.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Charles Alexander Strang, Borders and Berwick: An Illustrated Architectural Guide to the Scottish Borders and Tweed Valley (Edinburgh: Rutland Press, 1994), p. 172.Google Scholar
  15. 21.
    Notices to all Masonic lodges and public bodies were issued in The Herald in late July 1806. The account of the laying of the foundation stone appeared on 4 August 1806. Other accounts can be found in Robert Chapman, The Picture of Glasgow or Stranger’s Guide, editions of 1806, 1811, 1818, pp. 178–9;Google Scholar
  16. also George MacGregor, Glasgow Ancient and Modern (Glasgow, 1872), vol. 3, pp. 593–4 and 1888 edition, p. 69.Google Scholar
  17. See, additionally, Elspeth King, The People’s Palace and Glasgow Green (Glasgow, 1985)Google Scholar
  18. and Ray McKenzie, Public Sculpture of Glasgow (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  19. 29.
    As well as the spectacular monuments described here, Nelson was also commemorated in a host of other ways, from a great range of paintings and their associated prints (still to be seen in the shops of Greenwich today) to countless ceramics, medallions and the extraordinary glass pictures which were published within six months of his death. See L.P. Le Quesne, Nelson Commemorated in Glass Pictures (Woodbridge: Antique Collectors Club, 2001).Google Scholar
  20. For some of the ceramics, see David Williams, ‘Nelson Commemorated’, The Trafalgar Chronicle, no. 14, 2004, 88–99. All forms of Nelson commemorative material can be found in the Nelson Gallery of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    Margaret Baker, London Statues and Monuments (Princes Risborough: Shire, 1995), pp. 8–9. While John Ruskin, influenced by Southey, respected Nelson, he did not admire the columns erected to his memory.Google Scholar
  22. 31.
    Huw Lewis-Jones, ‘“Displaying Nelson”: Navalism and “The Exhibition” of 1891’, The Trafalgar Chronicle, no. 14, 2004, 53–86.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    Sir Algernon Aspinall, The Pocket Guide to the West Indies (London, 1931), pp. 78–80, 229, 272, 230.Google Scholar
  24. 47.
    Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 (London, 1890), and The Life of Nelson, the Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain (London, 1897).Google Scholar

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© John M. MacKenzie 2005

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  • John M. MacKenzie

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