Antigua & Barbuda Dockyard Museum
We are most grateful to Desmond Nicholson, Curator of the A&BDM, for sending us these documents relating to Captain Nelson’s time in the West Indies. These are contemporary documents and are an interesting “snapshot” of the lives of naval officers and civilians working in these newly emerging countries.
THE TIME OF CAPTAIN HORATIO NELSON, 1783-1787
1783 – BACKGROUND HISTORY TO NELSON’S ANTIGUA PERIOD – By the Treaty of Versailles the War of American Independence ended and England acknowledged the independence of the United States. The crowning defeat of the French was Admiral Rodney’s crushing naval victory at the Isles des Saintes in 1780. By the treaty, France was compelled to give up Grenada, Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Kitts and Nevis.
AMERICAN COLONIES NOW A FOREIGN NATION
France’s spirit, however was by no means broken, it was just a breathing space for the next onslaught which began in 1793. During the peace after the Treaty of Versailles the British colonies developed their sugar islands to an enormous extent. It was estimated that in 1788, 2 1/2 million acres were under cultivation tended by 560,000 slaves. It was the Royal Navy’s duty to patrol and defend these valuable sugar islands. Meanwhile during this time of peace, it was Nelson’s responsibility to enforce the Navigation Act. This law prevented foreign ships trading with British territories and America had just become a foreign nation.
1783 – By the TREATY of VERSAILLES the WAR of AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE ended.
1784 June 25 – EX-FRENCH SLOOP FOR SALE. The hull of H.M’s Sloop RENARD (18) was advertised for sale in Antigua’s public papers, (ANYC VI:25.6.84).
1784 July 28th – NELSON THE SENIOR CAPTAIN. The frigate BOREAS of 28 guns, 125 ft. long and beam 34 ft, under the command of the 28 year old Captain Horatio Nelson, arrived at English Harbour as Senior Captain and second in command of the Station. He thus declined to take orders from Captain Moutray, the Commissioner of the Dockyard, a civilian who had hoisted a Commodore’s broad pennant on HMS LATONA moored to a dockyard wharf. Nelson claimed that though the Commissioner was twenty-one years his senior in rank, that officer was only on half-pay and was not entitled to hoist a broad pennant. Nelson accordingly gave orders for it to be struck. However to show that he bore the Commissioner no ill-will personally, he dined with him that same night. Moutray and his wife (especially) became among Nelson’s few valued friends, (Aspinall 1912:179).
1784 Sept 24 – VERY, VERY GOOD AT AN INFERNAL HOLE. Nelson wrote to his uncle saying were it not for Mrs. Moutray, who was very, very good to him, he should almost hang himself at this infernal hole, (Aspinall 1912:180).
1784 – NELSON UNPOPULAR, HATED THE SIGHT OF ENGLISH HARBOUR. With Captain Cuthbert Collingwood of the frigate MEDIATOR, Captain Nelson immediately made himself very unpopular with the Antiguans by enforcing the Navigation Act. This law prevented trade between British islands and the new foreign nation of America. It was to the bad feeling engendered by his determination to enforce that Act that Nelson’s dislike of the Leeward Islands was largely due. “English Harbour I hate the sight of” he wrote in one of his letters. Later Nelson was sued by the merchants for disrupting their trade. Damages of £40,000 being claimed. He was defended at the expense of the Crown. Nelson was finally freed of all charges, for he had enforced the law, (Aspinall 1912:181).
At English Harbour Nelson:-
- Had six pails of salt water poured over his head at dawn
- Walked a mile at night without fatigue, but was “housed’ all day
- Took a quart of goat’s milk each day
- Was “most woefully pinched” by mosquitoes in spite of his net.
- Established a mess for the officers. On August 3rd 1784, to start it off, he ordered to be sent from St. John’s by the sloop FURY, a hogshead of port and one of the best white wine, 12 dozen porter in bottles, 50 lbs. loaf sugar, a firkin of butter, 2 baskets of salt and 2 lbs. black pepper.
- Encouraged amongst his men during the hurricane season, music, dancing and cudgelling.
- Organised amateur theatricals. Some of the plays were:- The Orphan, King Henry IV, Lethe, The Lying Valet, King Lear, The Fair Penitent and Jane Shore, (Aspinall 1912:182+).
1784 Nov 22 – SURPLUS WAISTCOATS AND HAVERSACKS. Surplus stores were destined for England. These included fifty bales of linsey (linen and wool) waistcoats and breeches, thirty eight bales of haversacks and two iron fire hearths. The Armed Storeship “Cyrus”, Lt. .Johnson, sailed after watering at the end of December, (ANYC VI:22.11.84,12.84).
1784 Dec 16 – HOOD’S ANCHORS SALVAGED. In this first year of peace, anchors left by Lord Hood’s fleet off Basseterre, St. Kitts, were recovered. To surprise an enemy near at hand, Hood’s fleet had quietly sailed at night by slipping their anchors and cable.
The ADAMANT (50) had been unable to raise the CENTAUR’S (74 gun Flagship) anchor for not having grapnels of “sufficient size and strength to bear the purchase of the weight.” The cable had, however been buoyed. On this date, two of the largest grapnels in the yard stores were issued to the RATTLER (16) for the purpose of sweeping for the CENTAUR’s anchor, (ANYC VII 6.12.84).
1785 Jan 13 – LEAKY MASTHOUSE – A spar from the masthouse was supplied to H.M’s Packet Boat “Tyne”, since her mast had sprung below the catharpins. At this time the mast house roof had been leaky. It was repaired in February to prevent the “valuable masts from suffering”.
In August, Daniel Scarville, Master Shipwright, made an inventory because there had been considerable decay there. The store contained pitch-pine masts from Norway, Riga and New England, (ANYC VI:13.1,20.2,29.8.85).
1785 March – The office of Commissioner was discontinued due to peace,
(Biographia Navalis 1798:333).
1785 March – SLOOP AUCTIONED
An auction was held in which H. M.’s Sloop EXPERIMENT (14, purchased in 1781) was sold together with unserviceable cordage
1785 March 10 – CAREFUL NEGRO WATCHMEN. Three careful negroes were selected as extra night watchmen. They were given an allowance to encourage faithful duty, for the paint store had been broken into, and a gallon of turpentine was missing, (ANYC VI:10.33.85).
1785 March 18 – NELSON LOSES A GIRLFRIEND. Nelson had often visited Mary (Belle) Moutray, the young wife of the Yard Commissioner, at their home on Windsor Hill. Before leaving for England at the end of his tour of duty John Moutray wrote a moving letter to his officers and men :- “I cannot, gentlemen, leave of you without signifying my hearty approval of your conduct respectively and the alacrity and assiduity with which you have presented His Majesty’s service…………Accept my best wishes and prosperity and allow me to remain, Gentlemen! Your affectionate friend, John Moutray
1785 Aug 1 – NELSON’S CABIN INFESTED WITH VERMIN. Admiral Sir Richard Hughes, C. in C. of the Leewards, ordered contrary to a Navy Board letter, that the cabins of the officers on ADAMANT, BOREAS, RATTLER & FALCON be painted. They were so infested with vermin, the officers had been put to great inconvenience., (ANYC VI:1.8.55).
1785 Aug 24 – WRECKED IN A GALE. The sloop EXPEDITION, a tender, was wrecked on the south coast. She had been sold to the Navy by Mr. Charles Kerr, the Naval Agent in St. John’s. (Redcliffe Quay), (ANYC VI:1.8.85).
1785 Sept – THE YARD TO BE EXTENDED WESTWARD. A general plan proposed a pitch and tar storehouse with encircling walls to be built. This building is now the Admirals Inn.
1785 Sept 17 – NELSON’S SHIP INSPECTED. It was found necessary for the frigate BOREAS to be hove down to inspect her bottom. Shipwrights were ordered to work three days extra for that purpose, (ANYC VI:17.9.85).
1785 OCT 9 – GREAT DELAYS DUE TO LACK OF NEGROES. The pilot, Domingo Figarella, was authorised to use some of the ten extra negroes employed in cleaning the harbour, for manning his boats. Due to a lack of men, the squadron had been subject to great delays and inconvenience in coming into and going out of English Harbour, (ANYC VI:9.10.85).
1786 Jun 20 – RUM IN HIS BELLY. A. B. William Clarke of the brig-sloop RATTLER (16) under the command of Wilfred Collingwood, deserted from the boathouse. “think of me tonight with a woman in my arms and a bottle of rum in my belly”, (Son-et-Lumiere:1966) Two weeks later, Clarke was found in St. John’s in a drunken state. His court-martial was held on 6 April 1787 aboard BOREAS, with Nelson presiding. He was sentenced to hang on the yard-arm, but Nelson agreed to a reprieve at the last minute, (Romance of Eng. Hr:22).
1786 – NOT A HUMAN CREATURE TO SPEAK TO. Capt. Nelson wrote to his fiancé,
Mrs. Nisbet:- “I am alone in the Commanding Officer’s House, while my ship is refitting, and from sunrise until bedtime, I have not a human creature to speak to; you will feel a little for me, I think. I did not be over fond of sitting alone. The moment old ‘Boreas’ is habitable in my cabin, I shall fly to it, in order to avoid mosquitos and melancholies.”, (Romance 1959:21).
1787 November – Captain Nelson took temporary command of the Station, whilst awaiting the arrival of Admiral Sir Richard Hughes successor. ROYAL VISIT – PEGASUS (28) arrived, commanded by Capt. Prince William Henry, later to become the Duke of Clarence and William IV of England. There was much merry-making on the island this Christmas, (Warner:55).
1787 March 11 – Nelson was married to the widow Nisbet in Nevis.
1787 April 6 – Nelson was President at the Court Martial of Seaman Clarke
1787 April 13 – GOVERNMENT ADVANTAGED.
It was reported to Capt. Nelson that William Whitehead, Agent Victualler to the Royal Naval Hospital at English Harbour, had embezzled Government Funds, (Oman 1950:70).
1787 May 29 – RUM FOR NELSON’S BODY.
Nelson left English Harbour, having enforced the Navigation Act fearlessly and rightly, having removed many of the abuses which were extant in the Dockyard and having shown that good discipline could maintain a ship’s company in good health and good spirits even under the unfavourable conditions in English Harbour. BOREAS left the Leeward Islands for England, and arrived at Portsmouth on 4th July. Nelson was so ill for this voyage that he had a puncheon of rum shipped for his body, in case he should die on the voyage.