Did Nelson really back the slave trade? Fresh evidence revealed in effort to clear his name

The doctored copy of Nelson's (inset) 1805 letter to Simon Taylor. Images: M Downer/Public Domain

The doctored copy of Nelson's (inset) 1805 letter to Simon Taylor. Images: M Downer/Public Domain - Credit: Archant

October 21 is Trafalgar Day, marking Lord Nelson’s most famous victory. STUART ANDERSON reports on a new push to clear the name of the Norfolk hero, who has in recent years become linked with the slave trade.

Nelson Society vice-chairman Chris Brett. Picture: Supplied by Chris Brett

Nelson Society vice-chairman Chris Brett. Picture: Supplied by Chris Brett - Credit: Archant

He is Britain’s greatest naval hero, but in recently years Horatio Nelson come under a cloud with accusations that he was a white supremacist and supporter of the slave trade.

The claims around the Burnham Thorpe-born lord admiral have led to the repeated vandalism of his statue at Norwich Cathedral, a call for the county council’s Nelson division to be renamed and even a proposal that Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square should be torn down.

But supporters have high hopes new research into Nelson’s views will be enough to restore his reputation.

A group, including Nelson Society vice-chairman Chris Brett and writer Martyn Downer, say a letter Nelson wrote in 1805 was doctored by anti-abolitionists.

The statue of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral was fenced off by

The statue of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson in the grounds of Norwich Cathedral was fenced off by Norwich City Council contractors after two separate graffiti attacks. Picture: Daniel Moxon - Credit: Archant


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Mr Brett, 68, said the letter - addressed to slave owner and plantation farmer friend Simon Taylor - was the basis for much of what we know of Nelson’s views on slavery.

Mr Brett, who is from Norfolk but now lives in Berkshire, said: “We think the original has been lost, but Nelson astutely kept copies of his letters and they’re known as ‘pressed’ letters. They’re lodged in the British Library.

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“We were unable to check the degree of alteration until we compared [the commonly-accepted letter] with the pressed letter. We were only able to do this about a month ago, because of Covid.”

Mr Brett said at least 25 changes had been made to the letter by supporters of the slave trade.

The doctored copy of Nelson's 1805 letter to Simon Taylor, showing seal and forged signature. Image:

The doctored copy of Nelson's 1805 letter to Simon Taylor, showing seal and forged signature. Image: M Downer - Credit: Archant

Mr Downer, who is based in Cambridge, added: “After he was killed at Trafalgar the anti-abolitionists seized upon his fame to further their cause.

“That document would have then been passed around the coffee houses of London and probably at Westminster in an effort to exploit the dead man’s fame.”

Mr Brett said part of the debate around Nelson also stemmed from a 2017 article by writer Afua Hirsh, who called Nelson a “white supremacist” who used his influence and seat in the Lords “to perpetuate the tyranny, serial rape and exploitation organised by West Indian planters, some of whom he counted among his closest friends”.

But Mr Brett said Nelson only spoke in the Lords six times, an only ever addressed naval and military matters, and did not touch on slavery.

The doctored copy of Nelson's 1805 letter to Simon Taylor, showing seal and forged signature. Image:

The doctored copy of Nelson's 1805 letter to Simon Taylor, showing seal and forged signature. Image: M Downer - Credit: Archant

Mr Downer added: “Nelson was aware of the great influence he had on public opinion and tried to stay out of politics as much as possible.”

In June, Jess Barnard, county councillor for Nelson division in Norwich, called for the division to be renamed amid the growing Black Lives Matter movement and the removal of slave-owner, Edward Colston’s statue, in Bristol.

In August, 19-year-old Jae Ikhera of Braithwait Close was given a 12-month conditional discharge at Norwich Magistrates’ Court on two counts of criminal damage to the Nelson statue in the city’s cathedral close.

And earlier this month some national newspapers claimed the Greenwich Maritime Museum was going to change its displays about Nelson in light of Black Lives Matter.

Nelson's Column has loomed over Trafalgar Square since 1844, but in recent years there has been some

Nelson's Column has loomed over Trafalgar Square since 1844, but in recent years there has been some calls for it be removed. Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire - Credit: PA

But Paddy Rodgers, Royal Museums Greenwich director, dismissed these claims, saying: “We have just completed an intervention in one of our galleries to bring a more current perspective, that was planned over a year ago.

“Nelson’s enduring appeal is his complexity as both vulnerable and heroic, weak and strong, clever and naive. We have no plans to change our presentation or interpretation of him at present, but inevitably will do so in the future, to ensure his continuing interest to future generations.”

MORE: ‘Norfolk won’t allow his statues to be toppled’ - Nelson defended amid racism row

Mr Brett said criticism of Nelson should be backed up with facts.

Norfolk county councillor Jess Barnard, who represents Nelson division, who called earlier this year

Norfolk county councillor Jess Barnard, who represents Nelson division, who called earlier this year for the division to be renamed. Picture: Danielle Booden - Credit: Danielle Booden

He said: “Our view as a society is that any decisions have to be based on proper history.

“We’ve had these wild accusations, which were unjustified, but tend to stick.”

“I’m relieved that we were able to show that a lot of the allegations that have been levelled against him are just not true.”

Ms Hirsch and Ms Barnard have both been approached for comment.

A 1799 portrait of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott. Image: Public domain

A 1799 portrait of Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, by Lemuel Francis Abbott. Image: Public domain - Credit: Archant

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