Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 by Jonathan North
Nelson and his Crimes
We live in an age when figures from the past are being called to account for sins against the morals of today. Last summer, on the other side of the Atlantic, there was a wave of anger directed at statues of Confederate generals. A spate of demolition from Maryland to North Carolina saw marble memorials to yesterday’s men bite the dust, or, perhaps more accurately, saw them turned to dust. Over here, with a capital in which Cromwell still stands opposite a bust of Charles Stuart (glowering over a doorway to the parish church of the House of Commons), there has been little appetite to move against the nation’s stone idols. Nevertheless, in August 2017, an indignant broadside by Afua Hirsch in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery) asked us to question the commemoration of one particular British hero: Horatio Nelson. It pointed out the admiral had been an advocate of slave owners’ interests, and so, beneath an illustration of a Baghdad-style toppling of Nelson’s column, suggested we should cleanse the nation of memorials to this white supremacist. It was a challenge she repeated in her recent Channel 4 documentary on the same theme but, before these hints launched a fleet of revisionist bulldozers, Nelson’s admirers manoeuvred to the admiral’s support, defending the man they see as “a fundamental icon of British national identity. Inspirational leadership, duty – and humanity”.
Both these extremes are misleading. The admirers of the admirable admiral ignore anything which seems critical, whilst the bold claims of Hirsch impose an anachronistic orthodoxy on a man incapable of understanding her sensitivities. However, of the two, Hirsch’s is the greater disservice to history. For by pushing her own agenda, she draws attention away from the one area where Nelson really should be held to account: the atrocities he helped carry out against the Neapolitan republicans in the summer of 1799.
When I began my new book on this subject, Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799, for Amberley, I did not set out to sully Nelson’s reputation. I was aware of his qualities, as most historians should be. He was a dynamic, aggressive commander, exactly the kind of man needed when your aim is to destroy the enemy’s fleet. And he excelled at it, again and again. However, my focus was on his conduct away from the fighting, more particularly when he became involved in the brutal suppression of a revolution in Naples in 1799. And the more I looked into this episode, the more horrified I became. For me, Nelson’s wrongs have nothing to do with white supremacy, a failing true of most Georgians, but rather revolve around his war crime which saw the betrayal of thousands of surrendering Italian revolutionaries.
Nelson arrived in Neapolitan waters in the autumn of 1798 following his destruction of Napoleon’s fleet at Aboukir off the coast of Egypt. In Naples he was swamped by an adoring coterie of fans who declared that the battered hero was their saviour. Each had their reasons for doing so. The British envoy, Sir William Hamilton, enjoyed the reflected glory and dubbed Nelson immortal. His wife, Emma Hamilton, was already a little in love with Nelson, and wanted him to support her friends, the king and queen of Naples, in their struggle against the rampaging armies of revolutionary France. Ferdinand IV of Naples, that Bourbon sex-pest in silk, hoped that Nelson’s presence would keep the French, then plundering Rome, at bay. His wife, the arch Maria Carolina of Austria, hoped for more. She wanted Nelson to persuade the king and his ministers to take the war northwards, and thus perhaps enable her cowardly husband to be proclaimed king of a united Italy.
So it began. Nelson’s crime was preceded by a tragedy and a farce. The shambolic kingdom of Naples hoped to surprise a France shaken by the loss of her fleet and her Bonaparte, then stuck in Egypt, and so Maria Carolina sent her opera buffa of an army northwards to the Eternal City. It quickly ran into trouble in the shortest of campaigns and scurried home. The royals took Nelson’s ship for Sicily and the surprised French proclaimed a liberal republic in their stead. This new republic was governed by a remarkable set of scholars and reformers, men and women, who set about abolishing feudalism and dragging Naples into the modern age. However, their noble, revolutionary efforts were cut short by a royalist counter-attack in which Cardinal Fabrizio Ruffo, a warrior cleric leading a horde of bloodthirsty pilgrims, swept up to the gates of the capital. Trapped by this Holy Army of cut-throats and cannibals, the republicans agreed to surrender Naples on condition they be allowed to leave for France. Ruffo, seeing that this would spare the capital further bloodshed, agreed and granted them generous terms. Just as they were about to troop out and board ships taking them into exile, Nelson sailed in from Palermo. He lured the republicans out into the harbour on the pretext they could now depart, then tore up the act of surrender, and promptly handed thousands of unfortunates over to a merciless court. The betrayed republicans were subjected to the full force and barbarity of royal justice in the market places of Naples in that summer of 1799.
The royal family were again grateful, raising Nelson up to be Duke of Bronte, and Emma Hamilton, basking in reflected glory, completed her journey from Duke Street to a duke’s bed. Even so, the exultation in having placed Ferdinand back on his throne was of short duration and such a victory could not win many friends. The Loyal Opposition back home was even moved to condemn this bloody series of events and naval officers looked askance at the admiral’s vindictiveness. Southey, an early biographer of the admiral, would agree for he too lambasted Nelson for the betrayal of the Neapolitan republicans, calling it “a deplorable transaction, a stain on the memory of Nelson and upon the honour of England”.
This series of unpleasant events forms the basis for my book on Nelson at Naples. I place much of the blame for the bloodshed on Nelson as he had the authority to make possible this royalist vendetta and, despite the subsequent Victorian smoothing of Nelson’s record, it is clear that Nelson had innocent blood on his hands. I have no doubt that I shall be dubbed a revisionist historian for attacking Nelson so directly, and for questioning his wider legacy. But, in my defence, there is nothing revisionist about my handling of this episode. The truth is that Italian historians have been accusing him of a betrayal ever after the Neapolitan hangman finished his bloody work. And, for a time, many of their British peers advanced similar critiques, although this was more muted whenever the empire felt it preferred heroes.
That imperial triumphalism heaped on Nelson wiped away not only this stain on Nelson’s memory but what was the sordid life of the naval hero following his victory for the Bourbons. The butchery in Naples was followed by insubordination, infatuation and a fair amount of dissipation before a bitter though diamond-encrusted Nelson limped home with the Hamiltons. Only a hero’s death at Trafalgar saved his reputation.
Trafalgar and a state funeral for his pickled corpse were followed by heroic biographies which paved the way for the erection of that immutable column so beloved of pigeons and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Nelson’s column overshadows the admiral’s crimes at Naples, and a monument is no replacement for nuanced debate. But perhaps, rather than demolishing it, and replicating the fate of Dublin’s Nelson’s Pillar, we should see it as a prompt for further enquiry. A starting point on a historical journey.
Afua Hirsch may not agree, but, even after reading about Nelson’s bloody rampage in Naples in 1799, my view is that Nelson’s column should continue to sit in Trafalgar Square. There it can remind us that heroes and history are never black and white.
Jonathan North's new book Nelson at Naples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799 is available for purchase now.