Updated: Aug 8, 2020
Some of the monuments currently under the spotlight depict individuals who were lost in the mists of obscurity until recently. Not so Nelson’s Column. Constructed between 1840 and 1843, it commemorates the victories of Britain’s most famous naval officer, who was killed while defeating the combined Franco-Spanish navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
At various points during its long history, the column has been appropriated as both a symbol of oppression (as in 1884, when Irish nationalists tried unsuccessfully to blow it up) and a platform from which to critique it (as in 1978, when two activists climbed to the top as a means of publicising the anti-apartheid struggle). In the last few years, however, controversy has centred on accusations that it depicts a notorious apologist for the slave trade. The evidence for this comes from a private letter written to plantation-owner Simon Taylor in 1805, in which Nelson vowed to fight “the damnable and cursed doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies,” who at that time were seeking to ban the transatlantic traffic in human lives.
To twenty-first-century eyes, this letter seems enough to damn its writer rather than his opponents. What could have motivated Nelson to express such sentiments? The admiral was a military man first and last, and seems to have viewed the slave trade primarily through this lens. When he wrote to Taylor, his chief concern was that abolition would collapse Britain’s economic strength – which was heavily dependent on its Caribbean colonies – at a moment when the country was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Napoleonic France. On other occasions, when the interests of opposing slavery and resisting France coincided, it must be acknowledged that he was happy to support the former. For example, in 1799 he personally secured the liberation of Muslim slaves from Portuguese ships in the Mediterranean, in order to improve the prospects for an anti-French alliance with the Islamic powers of North Africa. Moreover, only months before writing to Taylor, he petitioned the admiralty in support of the black Haitian officer Joseph Chrétien, who had been serving aboard the HMS Victory ever since it had freed him from imprisonment on one of Napoleon’s warships. Chrétien had fought specifically to overthrow slavery in French-ruled Haiti, but Nelson had no qualms about describing him as “a very good orderly man [who] has done his duty,” and saying “it is but justice he should receive his wages” for helping the British.
The other facet of Nelson’s hostility to abolition was the worry that it “would certainly cause the murder of all our friends and fellow-subjects in the colonies.” Like many captains who had served in the West Indies, he had been courted by the plantation-owning elite – indeed, his wife hailed from this class – who often used naval officers to represent their own grievances back to the metropolis. Nelson’s fear for the planters’ survival was not completely irrational; a year before he wrote to Taylor, the Haitians had finally defeated the brutal attempts to suppress their revolution, and had retaliated with a genocidal purge of the island’s French population. Nonetheless, his attitude was both biased (he showed no such concern for the thousands of slaves murdered each year by the brutality of plantation servitude) and mistaken (when the trade was banned in the British Caribbean in 1807, no massacres resulted).
Plainly, Nelson was guilty of allowing his friendships with white planters and his obsession with defeating France to blind him to the suffering of enslaved people, a grievous failing. Although his views were not motivated by personal gain, outright racial hatred, or an attachment to slavery as an institution, they were still reactionary even by the standards of his time. They can be contextualised and explained, but never justified.
However, it remains true that his anti-abolitionist sentiments played only a small part in his private life and no part in his public one, since he never acted upon his pledge to speak out in favour of the trade. Had he survived his final battle, it is quite possible that he would have done so (if far from certain; he seems to have had doubts about his anti-abolitionist commitment almost immediately, telling Taylor “I did not intend to go so far”), but we cannot judge individuals for deeds they never got a chance to commit. He cannot credibly be placed in the same bracket as men like Edward Colston and Robert Milligan, who owned slaves themselves and devoted large portions of their careers to expanding the transatlantic trade.
Nelson’s repellent personal opinion also played no part at all in the erection of his statue in Trafalgar Square, which was conceived years after slavery had been outlawed and his views on it forgotten. In contrast to statues of Rhodes and Confederate generals, which were specifically created to glorify racist causes, the column was always intended as a monument to self-sacrifice rather than white supremacy. Had it been otherwise, its makers would not have prominently featured a black sailor (possibly George Ryan, a 23-year-old member of the Victory’s crew) in a heroic pose on the sculpted panel which depicts Nelson’s death. Since then, steps have been taken to further improve the incomplete visual narrative told by Trafalgar Square, though there is still a way to go. In 2010, its vacant fourth plinth hosted the artwork Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle by Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, which replaced the Victory’s sails with African-style fabrics to highlight “the legacy of British colonialism” enabled by the Battle of Trafalgar. This piece is now on permanent display in the National Maritime Museum, but perhaps in future the square could also house a more lasting memorial to the victims of slavery, whose forced labour enabled Nelson’s victory in the first place.
Ultimately, whilst it is right and necessary that historians should shine a light on the admiral’s neglected dark side, on balance it seems doubtful that this justifies the wholesale removal of his monument. Indeed, there is a risk to deeming all historical figures who held some unacceptable views automatically persona non grata. This helps to perpetuate the idea that racism is confined to a handful of monsters who exist beyond the pale of civilised society, and encourages complacency in everyone else.
The events of the last few weeks have made it increasingly clear that we cannot simply divide the white population into a wicked racist minority and an innocent non-racist majority; in fact, racism is a vast interconnected system of cultural and socio-economic privilege in which we are all implicated to a greater or lesser extent, even if we’d wish otherwise. Where monuments clearly serve to whitewash history and celebrate atrocities, they should come down, but Nelson’s Column does not seem to fall into this category. Properly contextualised, it makes the point that even heroes are not immune to prejudice, which is more valuable than arguing he was nothing but a villain. It is a reminder that all of us – however much we’ve achieved, and however virtuous we think we are – need to do better.
Written by Louis Morris