By Janet Sloss
Britain’s Last Conquest of Menorca 1798 - 1802
© 2002 Bonaventura Press
Leaving Aboukir Bay after his devastation of the French fleet in August, 1798, Horatio Nelson had sailed north commanding a squadron to blockade Malta and protect the kingdom of the two Sicilies. In the lavish court of King Ferdinand in Naples, he renewed a friendship with the British ambassador, Sir William Hamilton, and something stronger than friendship with the ambassador’s wife, Lady Emma. It is perfectly clear from the correspondence between these three that the bonds were close, and that Nelson’s love affair with Emma was completely condoned by Sir William. In fact, Sir William seems to have been as devoted as his wife to the dashing admiral. Before the reader raises his eyebrows, he should know that Emma had lived with Hamilton’s nephew, Charles Greville, in England for five years as his chatelaine. In 1786, Neville sent her to Naples to be his uncle’s mistress in return for Hamilton’s paying his debts. Once in Naples, Emma proved herself a useful diplomatic link between her husband, the British envoy, and her confidante, Maria, Queen of Naples. Both Nelson and Emma were valuable assets to Hamilton’s career.
In October, Nelson was short of men for his blockade of Malta. To his mind, the island was of far greater importance than Menorca because “the harbour had more room than Mahon and the entrance was considerably wider.” (Depending on the wind, ships often found getting in to the Port of Mahon dangerous.) Portuguese ships had been recalled and he pleaded with Erskine to send him at least one regiment from Menorca. Erskine refused, saying that he could spare no troops without orders from London. Impatient, Nelson decided to go to Mahon in person to persuade him. He left Palermo in the Foudroyant on October 4th and arrived at Mahon on Sunday, the 12th, writing in his diary 26: “wind north east, moderate and fair. Tacked ship, stood in and anchored in Mahon harbour in 15 fathoms of water and moored ship”. In Mahon, he dined with Erskine on the 12th and again on the 13th “for a serious talk”, even offering Erskine command of the expedition if he released troops.
Erskine was adamant. He would do nothing without orders. To his mind, the blockade was useless because he had heard that the French had 5,000 men on the island and supplies sufficient for a year whereas there were less than 1,000 men on Nelson’s ships. He had also heard that Britain might withdraw two of the most efficient battalions from the Mediterranean but that France was sending reinforcements from Toulon. “Lord Nelson’s mind is strongly impressed with a very high opinion of the importance of the island of Malta, whether considered with a view to its political and military consequence, or the influence which the possession of its harbour may have upon the Levant trade; but I am sorry to add that the probability of its being reduced by the blockade is much less, and more distant than I had supposed it,” he wrote to London.
During the next three days moored in Mahon harbour, Nelson spent time
taking stores on board, carrying out repairs to his ship, holding two
courts martial and writing to his wife in England, “I am truly most
heartily tired of war.” On the 17th, he hove to off the harbour
for two days waiting for the weather to clear. On the 18th, although it
was still squally with rain, he raised anchor and sailed back to Palermo,
arriving on October 22nd.
Correspondence between Sir William, Emma and Nelson show the story to be a fairy tale. Nelson made only one journey to Mahon. Two days after his departure from Palermo on October 4th, Sir William wrote to him: “Lady Hamilton and I could not help laughing at the alteration your Lordship’s departure has made in Captain Morris. Reminded us of the tale of the frog that was endeavouring to blow himself up to the size of an ox. You cannot conceive how melancholy we are without you and we dare say you are not very merry… God send you soon back to us. I am too weak and low to write more, but ever with the truest affection, my dear Lord, your eternally attached friend and humble servant, William Hamilton. Emma writes herself, so need say no more. P.S. I have sent Graham a copy of the instructions Your Lordship left with me for the captains and commanders when you left us the 4th October.” 28
Three days later, he wrote: “There is not a creature in this house
that is not unhappy at Your Lordship’s absence and is not wishing
for your speedy return… My very dear Lord, be assured that no attachment
can be stronger than mine and that of all my family.” 29
Horatio Nelson had good reason to be heartily sick of war. He had lost his right arm two years before at Santa Cruz, and his right eye in the successful attack on Corsica. Broken teeth, scars, concussions and premature ageing were visible signs of war. In letters that remain, the struggle to sign his name legibly with his left hand is sad to see, but he was determined to master it. He wrote constantly, his diary, ship’s logs and letters, both official and private. (In those days, when they were not actively fighting, nearly everyone kept a journal, not only generals and admirals, but lower ranks, seamen and cavalry.) His friend, Captain Ball, wrote to him on October 10th: “I rejoice very much at Your Grace’s going a cruise, because I think the sea air, and an active employ which prevents your writing so much, will agree better with your health. Indeed, I feel concerned at your being so constantly employed in writing, knowing how very prejudicial it is to your health and sight. I think Your Grace might get a confidential secretary to write your private letters. I hope you will pardon my officiousness which arises from my admiration of your public conduct and my gratitude for your great friendship and marked goodness to me. 30
Nelson continued to oversee the blockades of Malta and Egypt from Palermo, and continued his relationship with the Hamiltons, until the French garrison on Malta surrendered in 1800 and he was given home leave. Back in England, he lived in the country with the Hamiltons and, after William Hamilton’s death, fathered Emma’s daughter, Horatia. He then went on to more victories at sea and was Britain’s adored national hero until, in recent years, the method of teaching history in English schools dropped to a less heroic level.
Entries in Nelson’s diary courtesy of James Maps,
Officer, Royal Engineers, 1802.
Governor Henry Edward Fox
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