NELSON LETTER A FORGERY
It was announced in today’s Daily Mail that a letter written by Lord Nelson, to wealthy slave owner Simon Taylor in 1805, had been forged by the anti-abolitionist movement to support its case against the abolition of slavery. That article by Martyn Downer draws on research undertaken in conjunction with The Nelson Society into the matter and its findings are published in the article below.
DECEIT AND DEFAMATION: THE NELSON-TAYLOR LETTER
In the Manuscript section of the British Library in London is a little researched collection of nine volumes of ‘pressed copy’ letters (1). These are direct copies of original letters written by Admiral Lord Nelson which form part of a Nelson archive known as the Bridport Papers. There are nearly 1100 letters in the collection and one of them is at the epicentre of the current debate surrounding Nelson’s reputation. That letter was written on board HMS Victory on 10 June 1805 when Nelson was pursuing the French fleet under Admiral Villeneuve, across the Atlantic in the hope of bringing it to battle.
That letter was addressed to Simon Taylor, a wealthy plantation and slave owner on the island of Jamaica, a long standing friend, whom Nelson had met in 1779. A transcript of the letter is reproduced below. The content of this letter is alleged to support claims that Nelson was a racist and pro-slavery (2) but, as this article will demonstrate, the letter was later embellished and tampered with by the anti-abolitionist movement after Nelson’s death, in an attempt to use Nelson’s burgeoning reputation to influence the debates in Parliament on the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
The Nelson-Taylor Letter
Below is a transcript of the pressed letter (3) contained in the Bridport Papers (original spelling maintained). The original letter appears to have been lost and consequently this is the earliest extant and true copy of the letter. The Bridport pressed letter is reproduced on paper bearing an 1802 watermark and its authenticity is not in doubt. The letter details Nelson’s actions in seeking to protect the West Indies, and then he re-affirms his commitment to the protection of the colonies. The meaning of comments made in the letter is assessed later below.
“Victory June 10 1805
My Dear Sir
I was in a thousand fears for Jamaica for that is a blow which Bonaparte would be happy to give us, I had no hesitation in forming my judgement, and I flew to the West Indies without any orders, but I think the Ministry cannot be displeased. Information at Barbadoes from St Lucia told us that the enemys squadron had sailed with 5000 troops on May 28th: and were seen standing to the Southward, therefore Tobago, Trinidad or Grenada was supposed their object, I went to those islands but now I find it was the whole a fabrication for that the enemy did not leave Port Royal till the night of June 5th on the 6th were under Dominica, on the 7th under Guadalope, standing to the North, and supposed either to try and carry Antigua or were trying to escape from me. The Carthegena squadron was at sea but returned on hearing I was close to them, therefore they had no troops on board that would make our Jamaican friends alarmed, when I am satisfied that they are on their return after sending some of the Spanish ships to the Havannah I shall push hard to get off the straits mouth before them and kind providence may some happy day bless my endeavours to serve the Public of which the West India Colonies form so prominent and interesting a part, I ever have been and shall die a firm friend of 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 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 against the damnable cruel doctrine of Wilberforce and his Hipocritical allies and I hope that my birth in Heaven will be as exalted as his, who would certainly cause the murder of all our friends and fellow subjects in the colonies, however I did not intend to have gone so far but the sentiments are full in my breast and the pen would write them
I shall as soon as I have done with their fleet go to England for a few months and if you have time and inclination I should be very glad to hear from you, we are nearly thirty years acquaintance and am ever my dear Mr Taylor your faithful and obliged friend & servant
Nelson & Bronte
The Revd Dr Scott Rector of St Johns Jamaica is a most staunch friend to Jamaica and I am sorry to find he has lost his living by some new law. The Dr desires his best remembrances and good wishes to you. He is a worthy good man and a very old friend of mine,
If any of my Jamaica friends are near you I beg to be kindly remembered to them”
At the time that Nelson wrote this letter, he was being publicly attacked for neglecting the interests of the West Indies and possibly laying them open to attacks by the French, hence his pursuit of the French fleet. The letter was aimed, in part, to allay public fears in the West Indies on this point.
This letter is carefully worded (4). The first part of the letter, which deals with naval matters, is couched in Nelson’s usual vainglorious terms: ‘trying to escape from me’ and ‘on hearing I was close to them’. In the second part of the letter Nelson affirms his support for the colonial system. He does not expressly support slavery. In writing this letter Nelson would have been aware of the rising tide of abolitionist feelings and would have been cognisant of proposals to retain the colonies whilst reforming the system of slavery to provide rights to enslaved peoples, and of his own support for one such proposal, by Lieutenant Layman RN (see below Interpretation and Understanding the Letter, and Note 15). In addition, he asserts his defence of the ‘just rights’ of the West India possessions. Those ‘just rights’ would be circumscribed by law, and Nelson would be duty bound to protect those rights. A more detailed analysis of the content of the letter is set out below.
The Intervention of the Anti-Abolitionists
As noted earlier, the original letter appears to have been lost (or destroyed). However, shortly after Nelson’s death, a doctored copy of the letter (not in Nelson’s handwriting) was in circulation. That copy letter, which is now in the possession of the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth (NMRN), has a fabricated Nelson and Bronte signature and portrait seal, presumably for public display. It is reproduced on paper watermarked 1798. The NMRN copy letter is reproduced in Appendix 1.
The handwriting of the Bridport pressed letter and this copy is obviously different. The NMRN copy of Nelson’s letter differs in several subtle but none the less significant ways from the Bridport pressed copy. Indeed some 25 or so changes and additions to the letter can be detected, some of them seemingly minor ‘editorial’ changes although other changes appear designed to influence the reader’s interpretation of Nelson’s views. For example in the Bridport letter Nelson states he was ‘in a thousand fears’ for Jamaica. The NMRN copy changes the word ‘fears’ to ‘cares’. At first sight this does not seem important, but it has the effect of making Nelson’s concern seem more personal, the implication being that if Jamaica were important to Nelson then it should be to the politicians and public at large. Another example of the embellishment of the letter can be found where Nelson states he would not see the ‘just rights’ of the West India possessions infringed. In the NMRN doctored copy of the letter this is changed to ‘interests’, an amendment which clearly widens the scope of issues to be defended.
In the Bridport pressed letter, Nelson refers to the ‘damnable cruel doctrine’ of Wilberforce. In a letter of October 1802, Taylor had graphically described to Nelson events that had occurred in French Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in which not only white people but also enslaved people were ‘butchered, massacred and murdered’. If this, as a consequence of Wilberforce’s doctrine, led to the ‘murder of all our friends and fellow subjects’ in the British colonies, Nelson would indeed have seen this as cruel. The sentiment hints strongly at sympathy for all people in the colonies including enslaved people as well as the colonists and free people of colour. The anti-abolitionists, on the other hand, saw the end of the slave trade as disastrous to their interests and hence the change from ‘damnable cruel doctrine’ to ‘damnable and cursed doctrine’ in the doctored letter, a phrase embodying more than just a hint of bitterness.
A final significant change is that Nelson signs off the Bridport letter as ‘Your faithful and obliged friend and servant’. This is amended in the NMRN copy to ‘Your faithful obliged servant’. The removal of the word ‘friend’ has the effect of making the letter seem less a sharing of private views between friends, and rather one written for a wider audience.
A substantial addition to the text of the Bridport pressed letter, dated 12 June, appears at the end of the NMRN doctored letter. This reports that the enemy squadrons passed Antigua on 8 June and that ‘Jamaica is safe on which I congratulate you most sincerely’. It is known that Nelson put into St John’s, Antigua on 12 August, but given that the enemy fleet had long passed, there would no longer be any reason for Nelson to confirm to Taylor that Jamaica was safe. The addition of this codicil by the anti-abolitionists, however, creates an impression of the continuing importance of Jamaica in the eyes of Nelson.
It is likely that all changes to the original letter by the anti-abolitionists were regarded as important, as otherwise they would have produced the original letter (or an accurate copy) without changes. A full transcript of the doctored and embellished copy letter can be found in Appendix 2.
The embellished copy of the original letter was sent to Taylor’s friend, and fierce anti-abolitionist, William Cobbett, for publication in Cobbett’s Political Register (5). Given the content of the version which appeared in the Political Register, it is likely that Cobbett also had sight of the original letter. For example, the Political Register version of the letter retains amendments such as ‘interests’ rather than ‘just rights’ but reverts back to ‘fears’ rather than ‘cares’. It also retains the other amendments identified above, but adds one further significant change. Nelson refers to the West India colonies forming a prominent and interesting part of the ‘Public’. In the Register ‘Public’ is altered to ‘Empire’. The intent is clear. The anti-abolitionists have upped the stakes – any threat to the West Indies is a threat to British Empire.
A copy of the version of the letter printed in the Political Register is reproduced in Appendix 3. Cobbett’s version of the letter excluded one of its prime purposes which was to seek Taylor’s assistance in restoring an ecclesiastical living in Jamaica for the Rev. Alexander Scott, then naval chaplain aboard HMS Victory, and a close friend of Nelson. The embellished copy was further annotated by noting that Scott had been killed at Trafalgar, which proves that the copy was made after news of the Battle reached Jamaica on 28 December 1805, but before it could be confirmed that it was Nelson’s Secretary John Scott, and not his chaplain Alexander Scott, who had been killed.
The timing of events is also significant. The Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had its first reading in the House of Lords in January 1807. The Bill was passed at its second reading on 5 February 1807 by 100 votes to 34 and was, after a third reading on 10 February, returned to the Commons. On 21 February 1807 Cobbett’s Political Register published the doctored copy of the Nelson-Taylor letter, two days before the Bill was debated in the Commons, presumably in a last-ditch effort to use Nelson’s considerable posthumous reputation to influence the outcome of the vote. A reference was also made to the letter in the Annual Register (6) for February 1807. (However the 1807 Annual Register was not published until 1809 and could not have affected the passage of the Act). Notwithstanding the Bill was approved by the Commons, receiving Royal Assent on 25 March 1807.
There is no doubt that the anti-abolitionists sought to exploit Nelson’s heroic and patriotic reputation to influence the abolition debate. To this end they took a private letter (7) written to a friend and altered the content of that letter in an attempt to make it seem that Nelson was pro-slavery and would have been opposed to the Bill. The meaning of the content of the letter is examined further below.
Subsequent Versions of the Letter
Subsequent versions of the letter appeared in Clarke and M’Arthur’s ‘The Life and Services of Admiral Lord Nelson’, second edition 1840, (it did not feature in the 1809 edition), in Nicolas’ ‘The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson’ (first published between 1844 and 1846) and in ‘The Naval Miscellany’ in 1901. As none of these is an accurate transcription of the original letter, they should not be cited in the current debate, although together with the version which appeared in the Political Register they appear to be the only versions that have been available to historians. (See, for example, Christer Petley ‘Lord Nelson and Slavery: Nelson’s Dark Side’ (8)).
A timeline showing the dates of publication and use of various versions of the letter in the progress of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and subsequently, is shown in Appendix 4.
Interpreting and Understanding the Letter
To understand the meaning of the letter it is necessary to set it in the context and background within which it was written.
There is no doubt that during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries Britain was a colonial power and that during the 18th and early 19th century particularly the slave trade was an essential component of that colonial system. The West Indies were critical to the Atlantic economy in the 18th century with sugar central to imports from the Caribbean to Britain during that period, accounting for some 18.5% of British trade from 1758 to 1817 (9). The value of the sugar industry was such that protection of the West Indian colonies was vital to the safeguarding of the British economy and consequently meant the region was under constant threat from other (colonial) powers. Clearly only the Royal Navy could protect the Caribbean island colonies from external threats, the largest and most valuable of which was Jamaica. If the Royal Navy lost command of the seas then the colonies could be lost, as was so critically demonstrated at the loss of Yorktown during the American War of Independence.
During the global Seven Years War (1756-63) the Caribbean became the focus of much naval activity and battles, and ‘the myth of British naval supremacy became a reality’ (10) during this period. The Seven Years War established the Royal Navy as the dominant European naval power and sealed the Navy’s role as the main protector of the Caribbean islands. Without the colonies, Britain did not have the wealth to maintain this and subsequent wars. The naval officer became a role model as the exemplar for Britishness with the virtues of loyalty, honour, liberty, grace and courage (11). This is the ‘old school’ into which a youthful Nelson was introduced. It is inevitable that he would have been inculcated with these values during his years of education in the Navy, having finished his formal education at the age of 12. Indeed, in his own account of his services (his autobiography) Nelson concludes that ‘perseverance in any profession will most probably meet its own reward … I have received all the honours of my profession … and I may say to the reader “go thou and do likewise” ’.
Nelson clearly placed the old school values at the centre of his being. To these values can be added ‘duty’, even more so after the Admiral Byng affair (12). That duty was the over-riding driving force of Nelson’s career is exemplified in his final signal at the Battle of Trafalgar – ‘England Expects That Every Man Will Do His Duty’. Indeed, amongst his final words, repeated several times were ‘Thank God I have done my duty’.
The American War of Independence had a serious effect on the West Indian colonists with whom reciprocal trade was significant. The Navy’s role after the war was to enforce the Navigation Acts. Nelson was stationed in the West Indies 1784-87 and strongly upheld the Navigation Acts which prevented trade with North America, whilst other naval officers turned a blind eye, and this put him in direct conflict with the islanders who wished that trade relationship to continue after the war. Nelson’s world view was clearly at odds with that of the islanders and, as he noted in his ‘autobiography’, he put into practice his professional (‘old school’) views: “.… I proved … that a captain of a man-of-war is in duty bound to support all maritime laws, by his admiralty commission alone, without becoming a custom-house officer”. Again this express statement of his philosophy showed he felt duty bound to support the (colonial) system which he was sent to defend, and in which significant resources were expended, reflecting the value of the colonies to Britain’s global power.
Nelson’s relationship with slave-owning planters in the West Indies was difficult. He complained that he was persecuted by planters and other islanders from one island to another; so “that I could not leave my ship”. He further noted in a letter to William Locker in 1785 (16) that ‘… I am not very popular with the people. They have never visited me, and I have had not a foot in any house since I have been on the Station, and all for doing my duty by being true to the interests of Great Britain’. He did, eventually accept the hospitality offered by some islanders and, of course, married Frances (‘Fanny’) Nisbet nee Woolward, who had close ties to the planters. However, Nelson and Fanny showed no desire to remain part of that group and proceeded to Europe, where Nelson pursued his naval career with full vigour. In addition, whilst in the West Indies, Nelson met and befriended Hercules Ross, a staunch and influential abolitionist, who gave evidence at the parliamentary enquiry which examined the slave trade. Ross, unlike Taylor, was a regular correspondent with Nelson. It is unlikely that such an affectionate relationship could have survived had Nelson held strong pro-slavery sympathies.
The role of the Navy was to protect Britain’s colonies and Nelson would have known (have been taught) the value of those possessions to the British crown. His comments to Taylor in the letter are therefore fully consistent with his perceived professional role. Seen in this context of a broad naval education and professional ethos, Nelson’s comments about Wilberforce are also hardly surprising. In addition, at that time Wilberforce, whilst promoting the abolition of slavery, stood against improvement of workers’ rights in Britain and supported William Pitt’s proposal for the removal of habeas corpus (13), hence Nelson’s assertion of his hypocrisy.
The colonies were seen by the establishment as essential to the economic well-being of Britain, and anything that would undermine that interest, the protection of which had been instilled in Nelson in his role as an officer of the Navy, would be seen as a serious threat particularly in time of war – the condition which existed at the time he wrote his letter to Taylor. In short, Nelson saw his role as the protection of the stability of the existing order.
That slavery and the slave trade underpinned the colonial system would, of course, have been known to Nelson. However that system existed before he was born, existed when he joined the Navy, and existed after his death. It was the context within which he grew up, lived and operated. There is no evidence that Nelson supported (nor particularly opposed) slavery as either an economic, philosophical or social concept: it was a system that existed and was part of the context within which he operated as a professional naval officer. His response when faced with specific issues touching on the subject was generally humane and pragmatic:
- Any West Indian slaves escaping to a Navy ship (including Nelson’s) were signed on, paid and treated the same as other crew members. At the end of their service they were discharged as free men;
- In 1799 Nelson intervened to secure the release of thirty North African slaves being held in Portuguese galleys off Palermo (14);
- In 1802 when it was proposed by Lt Layman that plantation slaves in Trinidad should be replaced by free industrious Chinese labourers, Nelson supported the idea (15);
- In 1805 Nelson rescued the Haitian General, Joseph Chretien, and his servant from the French. They asked if they could serve with Nelson and Nelson recommended that they be paid until they could be discharged and granted passage to Jamaica. The General’s mission was to end slavery, a fact of which Nelson was well aware. The General and his servant were well treated and paid;
- The Nelson family had a free black servant named Price. Nelson said of him that he was ‘as good a man as ever lived’ and he suggested to Emma Hamilton that she invited the elderly Price to live with them, an offer which Price declined.
These are not the actions of someone who was avidly pro-slavery or racist in the modern sense. It was entirely consistent for Nelson to support the colonial system, as an officer of an executive arm of the state – the Royal Navy – with its dependence on the slave trade, but still not be pro-slavery or a ‘white supremacist’ as he has been labelled.
It should be remembered that Nelson authored a substantial number of letters, of which it is estimated that over 7000 have been published or are known about. It is impossible to glean Nelson’s views on slavery from his letters, as it was a subject he rarely touched upon. He was clearly conservative and certainly supported the colonial system, but the evidence suggests that he would have supported that system had it been underpinned by paid rather than slave labour. His disparaging comments about Wilberforce, when seen in the context of a threat to the system in a time of heightened tension in the war with France, are entirely understandable. They should also be interpreted in the light of contemporary opinion. Wilberforce was, though revered today, a frequently divisive and mocked figure regardless of his abolition campaign.
Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar gave the Royal Navy control of the seas. After the abolition of slavery in 1807 the Royal Navy vigorously applied the new law. Nelson, had he lived, would have seen it as his duty to apply the law with his usual force.
The Nelson-Taylor letter penned aboard HMS Victory in June 1805, written privately to a friend, has been used in recent times to denigrate Nelson’s reputation, leading to accusations of Nelson being a racist and pro-slavery, and assaults on representations of the Admiral, for example the defacing of his statue in Norwich. Ironically, however, the original letter was embellished and doctored by the anti-abolitionists in a last-ditch attempt to use Nelson’s posthumous reputation to influence the outcome of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. The doctored letter shows some twenty-five changes and additions when compared to the original, and bears a forged seal and ‘Nelson & Bronte’ signature. The letter was further amended for publication in Cobbett’s Political Register in February 1807. Critics who have accused Nelson of being racist and pro-slavery have relied on these manufactured copies of the original letter which, two hundred years later, continues to sway public opinion.
Whilst the letter shows Nelson’s support for the colonial system, which critics have simplistically equated as support for the slave trade which underpinned it, careful analysis shows that Nelson’s support for that system was bred from a long established and over-riding sense of duty rather than any fundamental personal belief. Further, his actions demonstrated a humane and pragmatic approach when directly faced with the issue. The letter confirms Nelson’s concern for the stability of the system, which he saw as being undermined by Wilberforce, particularly at a time of heightened threat in the war with France. The use of the letter and Nelson’s posthumous reputation by the anti-abolitionists was intended to deceive politicians of the day and, more recently, has resulted in the unjustified defamation of Nelson’s character.
- Pressed copies of original letters were obtained by using a specially designed machine to press damp tissue paper on to the original letter, giving a mirror image. This was then reversed so the text could be read through the tissue paper. This impression was then stuck on to light grey paper so that the text could be more clearly read.
- See, for example, The Eastern Daily Press 22 August 2020 ‘Nelson Statue Vandalism Cost £2400 to Clean Up’.
- British library reference: Add MS 34959.
- Dr Colin White describes Nelson as a ‘wonderful wordsmith’ one ‘whose sense is almost always clear’. See ‘Nelson: The New Letters’ (Boydell Press 2005).
- ‘Cobbett’s Weekly Political Register’ was founded in 1802 by William Cobbett (1763-1835) and was a pre-cursor to Hansard.
- ‘The Annual Register’ (originally subtitled ‘A view of the History, Politicks and Literature of the Year’) was founded in 1758 under the editorship of Edmund Burke.
- Dr Colin White points out in ‘Nelson: The New Letters’ (Boydell Press 2005) that “ …. close examination of the British Library’s volumes of pressed copy letters …. and comparison of their contents with those of Nelson’s official letter-books kept by his secretaries, has shown that Nelson had recorded in them material that he regarded as secret, or private” (my emphasis).
- See Christer Petley ‘Lord Nelson and Slavery: Nelson’s Dark Side’ first published in BBC History Magazine Christmas 2018. Christer Petley is Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Southampton.
- Seymour Drescher ‘Econoside: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition’ 2nd Edition, Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press 2010 p19*
- NAM Rodger ‘The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815’ pp 272-290, Penguin in association with the National Maritime Museum 2004*
- *As 9 and 10 above, quoted in University of Southampton PH.D thesis ‘The Royal Navy in the Caribbean 1756-1815’ by Sian Williams, 2014.
- Admiral John Byng was court martialled for ‘failing to do his utmost’ to prevent Minorca falling to the French. Admiral Byng was found guilty and executed by firing squad on the quarter deck of HMS Monarch in March 1747. Whatever the merits of the case, a direct consequence of the sentence was to reinforce a naval officer’s need to perform their duty to the utmost.
- In summary Habeas Corpus is a recourse through law whereby a person can claim unlawful detention to a court and seek that the court determines whether or not the detention is lawful.
- See, for example, Martyn Downer ‘Nelson’s Lost Jewel’ p76.
- This proposal was made by Lieutenant Layman, RN in 1802. In 1807 Layman published a pamphlet entitled ‘Outline Plan for the Better Cultivation, Security and Defence of the British West Indies’. In that pamphlet he describes his proposal of 1802 for the ‘cultivation of that island (Trinidad) and the general improvement of the British West Indies’. The proposal, though specific to Trinidad, was intended for general application across the British West Indies.
- Letter to William Locker 15 January 1785. See ‘Nelson’s Hero’, Victor T Sharman, Pen and Sword 2005.
The doctored copy of the original letter showing seal and forged signature. (Copyright M Downer).