The Corner

Culture

Leave Nelson Alone

In the Guardian, Afua Hirsch proposes that Nelson’s column should be removed from the center of London’s Trafalgar Square:

It is figures like Nelson who immediately spring to mind when I hear the latest news of confederate statues being pulled down in the US. These memorials – more than 700 of which still stand in states including Virginia, Georgia and Texas – have always been the subject of offence and trauma for many African Americans, who rightly see them as glorifying the slavery and then segregation of their not so distant past. But when these statues begin to fulfil their intended purpose of energising white supremacist groups, the issue periodically attracts more mainstream interest.

Why Nelson? Because he was, per Hirsch:

a white supremacist. While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it. Britain’s best known naval hero – so idealised that after his death in 1805 he was compared to no less than “the God who made him” – used his seat in the House of Lords and his position of huge influence to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends.

This sort of argument is precisely why so many people resist the call to remove to Confederate statuary, and why they do so on the grounds that any acquiescence to the request will start a far-reaching burst of iconoclasm with no obvious end. As one might imagine, I am extremely sympathetic to the calls to remove monuments to insurrection and to Jim Crow, and I have no particular problem with drawing the line for ineligibility at “wasn’t a violent traitor.” But I remain skeptical that, once begun, the project would be halted neatly. This, I should note, is not because I can’t see a logical cut-off point. I can. Rather, it’s because I don’t trust the people doing the agitating to agree to that point — or, if they do somehow concur, to stick to whatever was agreed. First it’s “no statues for traitors”; before long it’s “no statues for people who were wrong on important issues.” And then we’re all lost to the madhouse.

Admiral Nelson was a man of many flaws. But we are not, I hope, suggesting that it is those flaws that were the most interesting thing about him. Nor, I’d hope, are we seriously proposing that they are why he is perpetually celebrated. Nathan Bedford Forrest is known primarily for his key role in the Civil War, and for his role in founding the KKK. Jefferson Davis is known primarily for being the president of a country that was, by the words of its own charter, staunchly opposed to the Declaration of Independence. Horatio Nelson, by happy contrast, is known as the man who twice defeated Napoleon at sea, and, in so doing, confirmed Britain’s unparalleled naval supremacy. Did Nelson agree with Wilberforce on the question of slavery? No, he did not. And yet his unmatched tactical brilliance helped to pave the way both for Wilberforce’s ultimate triumph, and for the Pax Britannica in which that triumph was set. Indeed, after the British abolished the slave trade in 1807 — a move that seems obvious and natural now, but that was radical at the time — Nelson’s successors took manumission to heart. As the BBC noted in a recent review, “the Royal Navy’s role in the suppression of the transoceanic slave trades represents a remarkable episode of sustained humanitarian activity, involving patient diplomacy and problematic wrangling over treaty arrangements, dangerous and exacting naval operations, and intense political debate at home questioning the cost and purpose of the patrols.” And how, one has to ask, were the British able to do this? Because, thanks to Admiral Nelson, they enjoyed almost complete control of the seas.

We often date the “century of peace of prosperity” that preceded the First World War from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand in 1914. But it would be just as fair to push the start back a decade or so — to the string of decisive naval victories that Nelson did so much to engineer. Napoleon’s defeats at both Aboukir Bay and Trafalgar represented a sincere setback to his dream of matching the British at sea, forced the abandonment of any plan to invade the British Isles, and put a swift end to the French Empire’s nascent re-enslavement project. In consequence, Britain quite literally “ruled the waves” until the end of Second World War, at which point that crucial privilege was handed silently over to the ascendant United States. In helping to forge the modern world — and, dare I say, “the West” — Nelson has few peers. The same cannot be said, alas, of opportunistic op-ed writers in the Guardian.

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