- Goldrick, James, Commodore, RAN
- 19th century wars, Biographies and personal histories
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 2009 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
At HMAS Penguin on Friday, 17 October 2008
I am not here to talk about a battle but to reflect on just what it is that makes Nelson the ‘immortal memory’. There is one word that explains it – leadership. It was the nature of Nelson’s leadership that made him a man to follow and the nature of his leadership which makes him into someone who transcends nationality, who it is right not only for the Royal Navy to celebrate, but for all navies who value professionalism, who are determined to be able to fight and win at sea and who know that it is the person behind the gun who will count in battle – and in meeting the countless other hazards that seafarers face in keeping the seas.
But although Nelson was, in his way, unique, he was also a man of his system. Indeed, he could be described as being the finest product of that system, unique only in the extent to which he excelled, not in the way that he excelled.
It was a Navy in which there were more similarities to the present day Service than many realise. The film Master and Commander conveys something of the atmosphere of the Navy of 1800 – a film which the director, Peter Weir, did not base only on Patrick O’Brian’s series of historical novels, but also on Nicholas Rodger’s outstanding study of the eighteenth century Royal Navy, The Wooden World.
In Nelson’s Day
At its best the Navy was a community based on mutual respect and confidence – a community whose survival depended absolutely upon the professional competence of every single member. And it was this professional competence at all levels which marked the Navy of the era – just as it should now. It has been said that patriotism, prize money and promotion were the three pillars of the Royal Navy. Class was not a rigid divider. There was potential to go from the bottom to the very top. People joined the Navy to make their fortune – you did not find rich aristocrats in the naval service, although you found them often enough in the Army – only poor ones – and you could not make that fortune or get ahead if you were not professionally competent. You might be well connected, and well connected people certainly got ahead more quickly, but such connections could take you only so far. An officer had to prove himself and keep proving himself. In Nelson’s day, there was an admiral flying his flag at sea who had been flogged around the fleet for deserting his ship as an able seaman. ((Vice Admiral Sir William Mitchell)) Nelson’s Navy was the navy of James Cook, whose father was a Yorkshire farmer and who went to sea as a boy in colliers. Nelson’s navy was the navy of Arthur Phillip, whose father was a German musician.
Indeed, people used to complain about how the Navy was a way in which men of no background or family could attain rank and fortune. One of Jane Austen’s novels even has an aristocrat bewailing this fact to his lawyer. ((See Persuasion. As one of Jane’s brothers died an Admiral of the Fleet and another a Rear Admiral, it is fair to say that she was a qualified commentator on this issue.))
After Nelson’s time the navy did change – and not for the better – as increasingly rigid class structures and other developments largely closed off the officer ranks to the lower deck. Would-be applicants for a commission not only had to prove their professional competence, they also had to ‘pass for gentleman’. For well over a hundred years, no sailor reached flag rank from the lower deck. ((The first to break the drought was Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Spence Lyne. But he was a special promotion on the retired list as he had to retire by age as a Captain. King George V personally awarded Lyne a KCVO in recognition of his achievement. His autobiography Something about a Sailor was published in 1940.)) Only in the last century has real social mobility returned – a return to what was best in the navy of Nelson. Only in the last century have we got to a situation in which it is your professional competence and your personal qualities which are weighed in the balance and not your social background as well.