The Young Nelson

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 08-08-1980

From the archives, Chelsea writer uncovers an exciting new story about the young Nelson...

By Christopher Long

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After all the hundreds of books that must have been written about Nelson, one would hardly expect there to be anything very new to say about England's greatest naval hero. But amazingly, Chelsea author and journalist Tom Pocock has unearthed a fascinating new story about Nelson's part in a doomed British expedition in Central America which, had it succeeded, would have transformed the world.

The Young Nelson is the third book Tom Pocock has written about his hero, Nelson, and came about almost by chance when it occurred to him to investigate documents in the Colonial Office archive at Kew, rather than the more obvious hunting ground among old Admiralty papers.

Mr Pocock already knew a little about Nelson's part in the combined naval and military expedition up the San Juan river which was intended to capture and control Nicaragua, the city of Granada and act as the launch-pad for assaults on North and South America.

Had it been successful, as it so easily could have been, the British Empire might have controlled the major part of the Americas, despite the contemporary War of Independence in the north and thereby transformed world history.

Mr Pocock's meticulously researched history of the disaster that developed out of this grandiose plan forms the basis of the first real study of Nelson's vital, formative years in the Americas.

As the publisher's blurb says, Nelson's most famous and immortal victories were won in the seas around Europe; but it was the many years he spent in the West Indies and along the east American coast that formed him as a sea officer and fighting commander.

As a midshipman, lieutenant and later captain, he learned his 'trade' and made vital friendships with his closest friend, Cuthbert Collingwood and the Duke of Clarence, who later influenced his career as King William IV; and with the woman who later became his wife.

But it was the Governor of Jamaica's daring and ill-fated plan to invade Nicaragua and cut the Spanish Empire in two that dominated his early years.

"The San Juan river flowed from Lake Nicaragua, a great inland sea whose farther shore was a mere ten miles from the Pacific, out into the Caribbean. There were few settlers at its mouth and a fort near its head. A small expeditionary force should suffice to seize it, after which naval supremacy could easily be achieved on the lake.

Such, at any rate, was the tempting prospect. Nelson, lately promoted captain of a frigate, volunteered to lead the naval party that was to support the soldiers. He was not in command of the expedition, but the colonel, who was, rapidly and generously acknowledged the genius for fighting leadership that first revealed itself amid the chaos and disaster of the San Juan expedition."

Chaos and disaster there certainly were. The indecisiveness, incompetence and confusion is staggering. The fact that the fort was actually taken can only be attributed to the skill of Nelson and his colleague Colonel Edward Despard who, later in the story, was hanged for subsequent treason.

The muddle and amateurish 'leadership' among the officers and political leaders must have amazed Nelson and the appalling death rate and suffering from disease among the British troops and co-opted local populations must, one imagines, have played a great part in developing the compassionate attitude that Nelson later displayed as a senior naval officer. He himself came close to death from tropical diseases.

Mr Pocock's narrative is vivid and his descriptions of local scenery, flora, fauna and the potentially lethal tropical climate bring the sorry tale to life.

As a travel writer and editor for the last five years (currently with the Evening Standard), he has an advantage here, and many of his descriptions demonstrate that while little has probably changed since Nelson was there, he visited and studied the locations with a practised eye.

On the other hand, there are parts in the book where Mr Pocock's proof-reader seems to have let him down, although fortunately the wealth of detail and tale itself make up for it all.

For Nelson fans and anyone interested in naval and political history of the time, this is going to be essential reading, while for those who love a good, exciting yarn of excitement and disaster, The Young Nelson in the Americas (published by Collins at £7.95) is strongly recommended.

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© (1980) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long

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