Bar Man, by Jeff Hoyle, September 15, 2017
There have been campaigns to remove the statue of arch imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oxford University and to rename Colston Hall (named after a slave trader) in Bristol, but they seem to have become more high profile after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, triggered by the suggested removal of a statue of the Confederate General, Robert E Lee.
Back in this country, you may have come across an article by Afua Hirsch or the more intemperate commentaries on it, arguing that we should consider the removal of Nelson from his column in Trafalgar Square on the grounds that he was a supporter of slavery.
Here in Norfolk, which is styled as ‘Nelson’s County’ on the road signs his presence seems to be everywhere, not least in pubs.
You can drink in one of many Lord Nelsons, possibly filling your glass with a pint of Nelson’s Revenge or Nelson’s Blood. Perhaps you might pop down the Norfolk Hero, or just the Hero for a change. Far from dropping the name, the Flagship Brewery located in the historic dockyard in Chatham was renamed the Nelson brewery in 2003.
So, should these memorials to Nelson be removed, pubs and beers renamed and statues torn down?
My instinct is that most people here in Norfolk would say no, but then what do most people know about Nelson.
He was born in Burnham Thorpe, he lost an eye and an arm fighting victorious battles against the French, culminating in Trafalgar and that he had a mistress called Emma Hamilton.
Dig a little deeper and some less endearing facts emerge. Privately he might be described as a cad.
He deserted his wife, Frances, who was from a wealthy family on the Caribbean island of Nevis, when he took up with his mistress, Emma Hamilton.
Emma had used her feminine attributes to great effect to form liaisons with a number of rich and powerful men, ending up married to Sir William Hamilton, 34 years her senior who was the British Envoy to Naples, and it was here that she met Nelson, nursing him back to health after the battle of the Nile.
While living in their house Nelson fathered a child with Emma, and later lived with her, her husband and Emma’s mother in a house he had purchased at Merton Place, near Wimbledon, refusing even to read letters from his wife.
Publicly, he was a strong supporter of slavery, knowing many of the plantation owners in the Caribbean, and a letter of support for the slave trade written by Nelson to slave owner Simon Taylor was published in the Political Register. He also used his position as a Lord to take his seat in the House and speak and vote in favour of the slave trade.
A man of his time? So was Thomas Clarkson, of Wisbech, commemorated by both a statue and a pub named after him. Along with William Wilberforce he led the effort to end the slave trade, an act passed by parliament in 1807, just two years after Trafalgar.
Perhaps not the hero of popular imagination after all, but is this good enough reason to rename pubs, and topple the column? I don’t think so. I’m not sure there is any person who ever lived who was perfect and I don’t think our history should be airbrushed like a communist propaganda poster.
Let’s keep Nelson, but use the references to him as a starting point for education rather than hero worship. Still, it might be nice to see Thomas Clarkson on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.