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History - Nelson in Nevis

While Nevis is popular among cruisers for the anchorage off beautiful Pinney’s Beach and the charm of Charlestown, it’s a treasure chest historically. One of the island’s most famous visitors is the focus of celebrations that begin next month.

From October 9 to 16, Nevis will be hosting Nelson Week, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the legendary Admiral’s death in the battle of Trafalgar. While Lord Nelson was killed in action thousands of miles away, it was his connection with the island of Nevis that was to change his life irreversibly. During two years around Nevis, from 1785 to 1787, the young Horatio both incurred the wrath of the local establishment, cemented his reputation for duty, and fell in love.

Nowadays, Nevis holds Nelson with considerably more affection than it did when he was an over-zealous officer enforcing unpopular trading laws. Nelson week events include Traditional Horse Races, a Maritime Serve, a performance of the play ‘Horatio’, a Gala Dinner and Dance followed by Fireworks, and a museum exhibition.

The latter is a particular gem – The Nelson Museum, which opened in 1992, is found in Belle Vue, Charlestown and houses the largest collection of Nelson memorabilia in the ‘New World’. The exhibition includes ceramics, enamels, figurines, paintings, prints and glassware.

Horatio Nelson arrived in Antigua in 1785 as the 26-year-old Captain of the 28-gun frigate HMS Boreas. Having joined the Royal Navy on January 1, 1771 aged 12, Nelson took command of his first vessel, the frigate HMS Hitchinbroke when he was just 20. His time in the Leeward Islands, then, was still at the early part of a fast-moving naval career.

Nelson was in the Leewards to enforce the Navigational Acts, which prohibited trade between the colonies and anything other than British ships. In short, his job was to stop the common and accepted practise of islands such as Antigua, Montserrat and Nevis trading with US ships. At the time, Nevis was a rich and fashionable colonial outpost. Nelson introduced himself by storming into Charlestown and impounding four American vessels at anchor. He was promptly sued by the ships’ captains who had the support of local Nevisian merchants. Nelson was obliged to stay on board the Boreas, except Sundays, until the case was settled, became very unpopular, and was barred from most European houses in the Leewards.

The case was eventually settled in Nelson’s favour, thanks to the intervention of the President of the Council of Nevis, Mr John Herbert, who owned the Montpelier Estate.

This was one estate Nelson was allowed to visit, and it was here he met Herbert’s niece, Frances Nisbett, a widow with a young son.

At that time, Nelson was far from the maritime icon he is today. In 1785, Nelson – a young captain - was still far inferior in the social hierarchy to Fanny, who was a wealthy heiress. Uncle Herbert insisted on a two-year engagement and their courtship was largely conducted by letter.

In December 1786, Prince William Henry of England (later William IV) came to the Caribbean as commander of HMS Pegasus. The Prince invited his friend Nelson to act as his aide-de-camp, a cheeky way of ensuring Nelson could accompany him on the Nevisian party circuit. When Nelson finally married Nisbet on March 11, 1787, it was Prince William Henry who gave the bride away.

Shortly after, Nelson and Fanny left for England, both never to return to Nevis. Although the wedding, with Royal patronage, had been an excellent public relations exercise (for a man who couldn’t care less), not everyone was delighted. Nelson’s friend Captain Pringle wrote, “The Navy, sir, yesterday lost one of its greatest ornaments by Nelson's marriage. It is a national loss that such an officer should marry; had it not been for that circumstance, I foresaw that Nelson would become the greatest man in the Service.”

The Nelson Tour

1) The Nelson Museum, Belle Vue, Charlestown. A must-see for any Nelson enthusiast.

2) Fig Tree Church (St John’s Anglican Church). Not where the wedding took place (it was too hot), but where you can find a copy of the original marriage certificate and the following entry in the register: “1787 March 11th – Horatio Nelson Esq, Captain of His Majesty’s Ship the Boreas to Frances Nisbett, Widow”.

3) Old Montpelier Estate. Fanny’s home and where the couple were wed.

4) Nelson’s lookout at Saddle Hill. At 1,850ft, this lookout allowed the Captain to survey Antigua, Redonda, Saba, St Kitts and Montserrat.

5) Nelson Spring, where his ships took water.

To find out more, contact

Nelson Historical and Conservation Society

www.nevis-nhcs.org

www.nevisisland.com

www.nevis1.com

With thanks to John ES Guilbert, Executive Director, Nelson Historical and Conservation Society

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