Saturday, October 15, 2005

Nelson - his life and tradition, Part 1

The name Nelson - Horatio Nelson, is easily and unambiguously recognizable as the great British Admiral and victor of Trafalgar. It is amazing that he is still remembered, given that he lived more than 200 years ago, but then, he was, and I believe still is, hailed as Britain's greatest Naval hero.

Nelson's fame and exploits are well documented, but this is the first time I have read a full biography of the Naval hero. "Nelson - A dream of glory, 1758 - 1797", by John Sugden, is obviously a well researched tome. It weighs in at 794 pages, with a further 112 pages of notes and citations. My only complaint is that the book is so very heavy that bringing it around with me wherever I go was a non-starter. But don't let this scare you off. Although a scholarly work, it is highly readable.

In relating the subject of his book, Sugden looks at both the man's strength and weaknesses, neither glossing over one nor lingering over the other. Nelson's strength was in his competence, bravery and conscientiousness. Above all, according to Sugden, he was a driven man - a quality that allowed him, no, constrained him, to reach ever higher levels of achievements and fame in a Navy that he loved so much.

Nelson's leadership comes out very strongly in this biography. His was a lead-from-the-front type of leadership - a style that won him many faithful followers and many battles over the years, but also resulted in him losing his right arm and right eye before 1797 was out. One other quality in Nelson that students of leadership should take note of, is that he looks after the well-being of his subordinates and took every available opportunity to try to elevate the deserving ones.

What are the weaknesses of this hero of Trafalgar and Britain's greatest Naval Commander? Proneness to flattery, boastfulness and self-advertisement are cited as examples. His neglect of his wife is another. But having read the book, considering the times he lived in, and the betrayals he encountered, he can perhaps be forgiven for all except the last.

I have gained a new perspective on the history and traditions of the Royal Navy that goes back so many years. Though never a sailor nor a British, I once lived among the Royal Navy based in Singapore. I remember how children, including myself, ran across my school field to gawk at the helicopter that ferried the Admiral to and from his house just across from my school in the Naval Base. The Admiralty House, as it used to be called, and continues to be called, is still there, albeit used for a different purpose today. My school grounds, on the other hand, have disappeared.

Reading this book is time well spent, and this is only part 1 of of the narrative of Nelson's life. Sugden is following up with part 2, which dwells on Nelson's greatest victory yet - Trafalgar.

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