Nelson, the Supporter of Slavery – Part 3.

Nelson, the Supporter of Slavery – Part 3.
We shall now address the evidence for Neslon’s support of slavery. There is probably more information recorded about Nelson than any other person. From this volume of evidence, one private letter is all that has been used to condemn him as supporting slavery.
There are two versions of this letter. One was published in Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register two years after Nelson’s death, in 1807. This was an independent newspaper founded by William Cobbett in 1802. The part of the letter used to claim that Nelson supported slavery, follows.
“I have ever been and shall die a firm friend to our present colonial system. I was bred, as you know, in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions; and neither in the field or in the senate shall their interest be infringed whilst I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of **** and his hypocritical allies,
“and I hope my birth in heaven will be as exhalted as his, who would certainly cause the murder of all our friends and fellow subjects in the colonies; however, I did not intend to go so far; but the sentiments are full in my heart, and the pen would write them. I have as soon as I have done with this fleet go to England for a few months, and if you have time and inclination I shall be glad to hear from you – we are near thirty years acquainted, and I am as ever, &c. – Neslon and Bronte.” [1]
The other version was published in the formal collection of dispatches and letters of Nelson. The same part of the letter follows.
“I ever have been, and shall die, a firm friend to our present Colonial system. I was bred, as you know, in the good, old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West India possessions; and neither in the field, nor in the senate, shall their just rights be infringed, whilst I have an arm to fight in their defence, or a tongue to launch my voice. We are nearly, my dear Mr. Taylor, thirty years’ acquaintance; and I am, as ever, your faithful and obliged friend, Nelson and Bronte.” [2]
Taylor died in 1813, six years after the letter was published. The collection of his approximately 2,000 letters is stored at the University of London. That letter from Nelson, which is perhaps the most important Taylor would have received from him, is notably absent from his collection. It is not even referenced.
The Slave Trade Abolition Bill was introduced into the House of Lords on 2 January 1807. It passed 41 votes in favour and 20 against. It was scheduled to be debated in the House of Commons on 23 February 1807.
Cowbett, who supported the slave trade, published the private letter on 21 February 1807. It did not appear to affect the outcome, since the Bill passed by an overwhelming margin of 283 in favour, and 16 against. It was passed into Law on 25 March 1807.
Despite the questionable credibility of the letter, let us make the unverifiable assumption that the most damning version of the letter is authentic. In that version, the most damaging part to Nelson’s reputation, is his intention to use his “voice against the damnable and cursed doctrine of [Wilberforce] and his hypocritical allies” in the “senate”.
Nelson never referred to the House of Lords as the Senate in any of his dispatches. However, Simon Taylor, who was born in Jamaica, and was a representative of the Assembly of Jamaica, may have referred to it in that manner. Nevertheless, the main question is: what is the cursed doctrine of Wilberforce?
There appear to be two likely explanations. The first is the doctrine of appeasement, since Wilberforce advocated peace with France in Parliament during the war. This was a very unpopular doctrine, and much disliked by Nelson, who did not trust the French, given their behaviour during the war.
This view is supported by the comment that the doctrine would “cause the murder of all our friends and fellow subjects”. Nelson understood the magnitude of France’s deceit during the war. The French had earlier slaughtered 4,400 persons after pretending to offer them peace [3]. The evidence from Nelson’s letters and actions, showed that he vigorously opposed peace with France.
The other likely explanation, is the abolition of the slave trade. This could also result in the murder previously described, given the genocide that occurred in Haiti following the Haitian revolution.
The problem with this explanation, is that there is no record of Nelson supporting the slave trade in parliament. Rather, as shown in the evidence in Part 2, he vigorously opposed the slave trade, including to representatives in Parliament.
There is one piece of credible evidence that supports the view that Nelson may have supported the slave trade. To my knowledge, his accusers have never used this evidence. However, honest research demands that all evidence must be unbiasedly examined.
It was a letter Nelson wrote to Locker in 1796. Nelson wrote: “I hope our West India Islands will not suffer more than they have done; but I see Wilberforce is meddling again with the slave-trade. I feel very much obliged by Simon Taylor’s remembrances; pray do not forget me to him when you write [4].
Nelson’s ‘meddling’ comment about Wilberforce seems more aimed at ridicule than active opposition. Nevertheless, his comment suggests that he did not oppose the slave trade in 1796, but was more likely to support it if questioned.
It should be noted that this letter was written two years before the Mediterranean campaign of 1798. It was then that he would have seen the horrors of slavery for himself. It was then that his letters opposing slavery were written, where his “blood boils” and his “heart bleeds” [5].
For some, like surgeon Thomas Trotter who served on a slave ship, it took observing the horrors of slavery up-close to get them off the fence and embrace a side. For others, like ther hardened slave ship captain John Newton (who later wrote the hymn, Amazing Grace), it took the power of God.
By his dispatches and actions after 1798, Nelson saw something that made him oppose all forms of slavery, and place himself on the right side of history. From the evidence in Part 2, it seems that it was the horrors of the north-African slave trade that changed his mind.
There remains one final part of this series – Part 4. It is to address the accusations made by Trevor Marshall and David Comissiong during our appearance on The People’s Business on 21 July 2020. I was not given the opportunity to respond to them on the broadcast. However, the accusation that Nelson was a mass murderer of Barbadians, which the media has uncritically promoted, deserves to be investigated.
Grenville Phillips II is a Chartered Structural Engineer and President of Solutions Barbados. He can be reached at
References for Part 3 follow.
[1] Cowbett. Political Register. 1807. p.296.
[2] The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, Vol 5. 1846. p.450.
[3] Lowry. Fiddlers & Whores: The Memoirs of James Lowry, a Young Surgeon in Nelson’s Mediterranean Fleet. 2013. p.90.
[4] Letters and Dispatches of Horatio Nelson – Vol 2 1895 to 1897, p.130.
[5] Letters and Dispatches of Horatio Nelson – Vol 4 1802 to 1804. p.125.

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