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
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
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
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
3) Old Montpelier Estate. Fanny’s home and where the couple were
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
With thanks to John ES Guilbert,
Executive Director, Nelson Historical and Conservation Society