Nelson: Admirable Lord

Colin White uncovers a more complex and liberal side to Nelson than was previously appreciated.


The French have made it understood in Sicily as well as in Sardinia that the feudal System and the Oppressive Laws of Vassalage attendant on that system shall be done away with when they take Sicily … Turn this over in your Enlightened Mind.


Mankind have more enlarged ideas than in former times. I will not say more but that something must be done, or those Countries where the feudal System prevails will be lost.’

Those are not the words of an English Liberal politician, but of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, in a letter dated March 28th, 1805. At that time he was commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean and his correspondent was Sir John Acton, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, then one of the most repressive states in Europe. And Nelson was urging nothing less than a change in the political system.

Such sensitivity to the ‘more enlarged ideas’ of the post-Revolutionary era is not usually expected of Nelson. Some modern historians, notably Terry Coleman, have highlighted his relentless opposition to what he called ‘Jacobinism’ and his involvement in the ruthless repression by the King of Naples of the French-backed Parthenopean Republic in Naples in 1799. How can such a reactionary man have written those thoughtful words to Prime Minister Acton?

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