History remembers October 21st 1805 not only as Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last day on Earth, but also as the day he won the naval battle off Gibraltar (Cape Trafalgar), ensuring his name would forever live in posterity, history books and in our collective memory. A simple stroll on Trafalgar Square in London or a quick visit in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral where he lies for eternity highlight how much this victory and the man who made it possible mean to British consciousness.
Standing at most five and a half feet and afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […].
Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis
During last spring’s confinement, I obtained and reviewed a copy of one of the best books I read this year Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character (The Penguin Press) by Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis. This motivating author devoted one of his chapters to the famous son of Albion.
“Born weak and sickly, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […] he stood at most five and a half feet in his stockings. Slight of built, and eventually missing both an arm and an eye lost in combat, he was also afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses on and off throughout his life.” He furthermore suffered from a boyhood insecurity complex that made him seek and revel in public recognition. Traits that would certainly be mocked by the likes of Donald Trump where he be alive today.
Whatever physical impediment he suffered from was vastly compensated by his character. To that effect, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO reminds us that the famous sea warlord was an adept team-builder who also knew how to take care of his men, “[…] ensuring that his sailors received the best possible treatment.”
How can this role model of the past inspire us today?
Seasonal depression is upon us as the days grow shorter, influenza is about to rear its ugly head and we are in the midst of a worldwide and deadly pandemic. Much to be depressed about and wither in self-pity. But we must not. Despite his condition and preconditions, Horatio Nelson was never one to cower or shy away from his duties. Were he alive today, he would certainly be one of the staunchest fighters against the current somber context, displaying his values of determination, discipline and goodwill unto others. We can do the same today by wearing a mask, keeping our distances, helping local foodbanks, getting in touch with the elderly just to name a few examples.
It is not at all difficult to imagine Admiral Nelson wearing a mask himself and caring for people around him, as any true leader should, because he did in his times. “He worked hard to make to make sure that food was fresh [for his sailors], water plentiful and unpolluted, and each ship had a competent surgeon.”
Despite his handicaps, Nelson trusted his judgment to achieve his goal. At the battle of Copenhagen, in 1801, “[…] he famously deliberately pressed a telescope to the eye that had been blinded earlier in his career, thereby ignoring the signals of his superior, and ended up winning an important victory over the Danes. The phrase “turning a blind eye” was reportedly inspired by the incident.”
A powerful testimony that our liabilities can be pivoted to become our greatest assets.
Today, more than ever, the victor of Cape Trafalgar – who clipped Napoleon’s sails and guaranteed Britain’s safety – has a lot to teach us. And we would all be well advised to learn from his school of character.
Want to read more about inspiring figures like Horatio Nelson who rode the waves of adversity and led the ships home safely? I strongly suggest you grab a copy of Admiral Stavridis’ excellent book.
Trust me, you won’t regret it.
Admiral James Stavridis, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, New York, The Penguin Press, 2019,336 pages.