BY PHIL DEEKS
Two-hundred-and-fifteen years ago, Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson sailed his fleet headlong towards the enemy, casting caution and centuries of naval convention to the wind. Leading from the front, his flagship, HMS Victory, bore the brunt of French and Spanish fire. British gunners unable to launch their broadsides until they were dense among the hostile cannon. Nelson knew his men and ships superior, but his decision was no less courageous. It paid off. When the day was his, at least twenty-two French and Spanish ships had been captured, with none lost in return, but Nelson paid with his life – his life of courage, skill and service ended in the heat of battle securing Britain’s freedom. He was entombed a hero and remained one until the present day.
Outliers agitate, argue, and attempt to upturn society. It is their wont. Ordinarily, they would be ignored, or their proposals moderated and enacted with majority consent if they had merit, but these are not ordinary times. Impacted by Covid-19 and coordinated social unrest, British institutions have accepted the complaints of outliers wholesale, questioning every aspect of British life. The National Maritime Museum joined them last week by reviewing Nelson’s politics to determine if he is fit to be a national hero.
Is it right to do so?
In a word: no.
Nelson is a hero of war, a defender of Britain. He is acclaimed for his naval accomplishments, his victory at the Battle of the Nile, his sacrifice at Trafalgar, not his social conscience. It is his actions in battle that are admirable, and they remain so, whether or not his views conform to 21st Century mores.
Heroes are products of their age, but their deeds exist outside of time. Indeed, their opinions may seem alien to us, but their achievements do not. They remain examples of the skill and sacrifice that mark out the heights of what it is to be human. Nelson was a man of his time, his politics reflect that, but his courage, including maintaining his post on the quarterdeck of the Victory as musket balls pounded and pockmarked the deck around him, is of the ages.
It is also possible to admire the accomplishments of imperfect individuals. Their flaws may or may not be integral to their achievements, but they do not invalidate them. If they did, we would be without the bravest acts and brightest works passed down to us. Lord Byron, Churchill and The Beatles would be expunged for their sins, as would every other person who fell short of fashionable morals. That is not a society in which I want to live.
Nelson was a man of action, and it is time we acted as he did. We must find his courage to defend our history, to honour those who spilt their blood for our freedom, to know that our past may be as checkered as any other nation, but we have among our number heroes who fought the odds against them and won – men and women who can still inspire us today.
Nelson earned his status as a national hero with his life. He defended Britain when outnumbered and outgunned and guaranteed her liberty. He deserves our respect.
Phil Deeks is a writer based in Cheshire. He creates prose and poetry inspired by the art and ideas too often abandoned by his peers. He is a passionate advocate of democracy and common sense. You can find more of his thoughts on Twitter.