Nelson, the Opposer of Slavery – Part 2

Nelson, the Opposer of Slavery – Part 2

Part 1 addressed evidence on whether Nelson was a racist. We shall now examine his position on slavery. We shall first present evidence that Nelson opposed slavery, and then evidence that he supported it. After reading both sides, you will be in a position to make an informed conclusion – which is how it should be.

During the Napoleonic war with France, the French were capturing thousands of Europeans, and selling them as slaves [1]. Whole European families were also captured by pirates and sold into slavery for life – with no hope of being freed [2]. This type of slavery had been going on for hundreds of years.

Barbadian historian, Ronnie Huges, rejected the idea of white slaves in Barbados [3]. He is correct. There is no equivalence between the relatively brief indentured servitude of Europeans, Indians and Asians, and the lifelong slavery of Africans in the Caribbean and Americas – none whatsoever!

That said, the enslavement of Europeans and Africans by the Islamic north-African countries, was – different. In Barbados, slaves were a labour investment. If they did not produce, then the merchant risked bankruptcy, and the plantation was sold – and many were.


In North Africa, slaves were treated like replaceable toys, or machines. A surgeon in Nelson’s fleet described his observations.

“His seraglio does not even consist of an amazing number of wives and concubines, but likewise of little boys from the ages of eight to seventeen, upon whom he commits that abominable crime. I could not credit this information until I had ocular proof of it. I saw in one apartment a number of these boys, and the keeper stuffing them with flour and water, the same as poulterers do turkeys.” [4]

While the women and youth were generally condemned to sex-slavery, the men were condemned to hard labour in agricultural fields, quarries, or worse – the galley.

Galley slaves were permanently chained to the galleys while at sea, which could be for several months. They ate, slept, were beaten, and defecated in the same seat. Some were permanently chained to their seats for almost two decades until they died, or were to weak to row [5].

In 1797, after Nelson rescued a fraction of 2,000 Austrians, whom the French sold into slavery, his commander wrote: “It is high time that a stop should be put to this abominable traffic, a million times more disgraceful than the African Slave Trade;” [6].


Nelson tried to use his reputation to free enslaved persons of all races. Sometimes he was successful, like in 1799 when he was able to free 25 Moors and Turkish slaves [7], and sometimes he was not [8].

Nelson frequently disobeyed orders to do what was right, regardless of the consequences. He hated unfairness, and disobeyed the orders of his commander in Barbados, so that he could stop the unfair advantage of US ships operating in the West Indies [9].

Nelson also used his own money to investigate corruption in the Caribbean, and uncovered corrupt activities in Barbados (worth approximately BD$80M), St Lucia (BD$100M), Antigua (BD$165M), and Jamaica (over BD$230M) [26]. Naturally, he made himself an enemy of the slave-owning planters and merchants [10].

Nelson also disobeyed orders from his commanders during battles, which resulted in him winning battles. Had he lost, he probably would have been sentenced to death, but he had confidence in his brilliant military strategies.

Nelson understood his limits, and those were the Laws of England, which reflected political considerations. A dispatch to Parliamentarian Wyndham in 1799, requesting authorisation to fight for the enslaved, is revealing.

“Dear Sir,

“I am this moment favoured with your letter of November 21st; and my blood boils that I cannot chastise these Pirates. They could not show themselves in the Mediterranean, did not our Country permit.

“Never let us talk of the cruelty of the African Slave Trade, while we permit such a horrid war. But on the other hand, was I present with the Fleet of England, I could not prevent it, without plunging our Country in a war which our Merchants would reprobate, and Ministers not support me in. The Germans having entire possession of the Tuscan State, can by the help of the Russian ships send troops for the protection of those Islands.

“My heart bleeds. Let Government send me the necessary orders, and I will answer for chastising these Pirates.” [11]


When the horrors of slavery are understood, people with consciences become opponents of slavery. Until then, they may be deceived by romantic notions of a different, tolerable type of slavery. Perhaps the slavery of Joseph in the Bible, who managed his owner’s house and became the Prime Minister of Egypt. Perhaps indentured servitude.

Thomas Trotter was a surgeon, who worked on a slave ship in 1783 because he needed a job. What he witnessed changed his mind, and made him bitterly opposed to the slave trade. He would later become the Physician of the Channel fleet during 1795 and 1802 [12].

Naval officers who spend most of their time on their ships, and do not inspect the treatment of slaves, may be unaware of the horrors of slavery. However, the horrors were well known to many in the Mediterranean.

Nelson not only hated corruption, unfairness, and orders that could unnecessarily harm his crew, he also hated hypocrisy. He hated the hypocrisy of trying to outlaw the Atlantic slave trade, while ignoring the European and North African slave trade. That brings us to the evidence used to claim that Nelson supported slavery.

Unfortunately, I have exceeded the word-count for this article. Therefore, Part 3 (evidence that Nelson supported slavery) will follow shortly.

Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at

References for Part 2 follow.

[1] Fraser. The Soldiers whom Nelson Led – Their Doings Described by Themselves. P.92.

[2] Lowry. Fiddlers & Whores: The Memoirs of James Lowry, a Young Surgeon in Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet. 2013. p.141.

[3] Government of Barbados. Report of the Committee for National Reconciliation, Vol 2. P.91.

[4] Lowry. Fiddlers & Whores: The Memoirs of James Lowry, a Young Surgeon in Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet. 2013. p.140.

[5] Ekin. The Stolen Village – Baltimore and the Barbary Pirates. 2006. p.187.

[6] Fraser. The Soldiers whom Nelson Led – Their Doings Described by Themselves. 2011. P.92.

[7] Harrison. Life of Lord Nelson, Vol 2. 1806. P.23.

[8] Letters and Dispatches of Horatio Nelson – Vol 4 1799 to 1801. P.112.

[9] The Life of Lord Nelson, Vol 1 by Robert Southey p.35.

[10] The Life of Lord Nelson, Vol 1 by Robert Southey p.37.

[11] Letters and Dispatches of Horatio Nelson – Vol 4 1802 to 1804. P.125.

[12] Browne. The Seasick Admiral. P.104.

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