Lord Nelson’s Monuments
Nelson’s Column: Trafalgar Square, London
Nelson’s Column stands in Trafalgar Square as a testament to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s achievements at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the greatest naval victory in British history. However, with the emergence of movements to remove statues of historical figures with controversial pasts, the column has come under recent scrutiny as glorifying a man who used his status to preserve the global slave trade.
Nelson’s Pillar: Dublin, Ireland
Nelson’s Pillar was erected in Dublin, Ireland with the intention of commemorating one of Britain’s greatest military heroes. The only issue was, he was not one of Ireland’s heroes. In 1966 the statue was destroyed by an operative of the Irish Republican Army for representing the oppressive British Empire.
Nelson: Hero or Villain?
Nelson has ascended to an almost mythical status in British history. For his military success he has been compared to the God who made him, and many Britons view him as a symbol of national pride, someone all Britons can aspire to be. That is precisely why calls to bring down Nelson’s Column are so controversial. It is also why the placement of Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin, so shortly after his death, caused such an uproar among Irish republicans- he was a British hero, not an Irish one.
The column was completed in 1843 and its surrounding square was named after Nelson’s most famous victory. The square has a central location in London and is a point of pride for many Britons as a symbol of triumph. Nelson himself is a figure of transcendental status in British history. He was an unconventional leader and he snatched victory from the French at Trafalgar against overwhelming odds. His multiple victories against Napoleon’s menacing empire cemented his place in history as a British legend. He was, however, an extremely powerful opponent of the movement to abolish the slave trade.
Nelson was a member of the House of Lords and he used his position in parliament to fight growing efforts to abolish the global slave trade. A recent article published in The Guardian describes Nelson as a white supremacist due to his views of blacks and other minorities within the empire as lesser and subservient. The article, written by Afua Hirsch, calls for the removal of the statue from Trafalgar square as a consequence of Nelson’s reprehensible actions. Naturally, this contention was met with great criticism within Britain. The question of whether or not to tear down the monument brings to light an important discussion: What does it really mean to be British?
Hirsch’s argument to bring down the statue is an attempt to remind us that the British empire consisted of more than just white English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish citizens. The empire spanned across the globe from Canada to Australia and South Africa to India. Nelson’s belief that citizens of color within the empire existed to serve native Britons undermined the importance of the roles those people played in upholding the empire, and indeed their humanity. Britain today, although it has lost its once vat empire, is still an incredibly diverse country with large African, Indian, and Pakistani populations, and the majority of them are British citizens. Is Nelson’s column therefore just a monument of nostalgia for a time when Britain controlled vast portions of the globe and subjugated the native populations of its colonies, or is it something more? Is it a reminder of Britain’s past victories and sins, as well as a point of pride moving into the future?
Nelson’s actions in the slave trade are a black mark on his legacy, but they do not completely define his life. The debate over Nelson can be compared to that in the United States over its founding fathers’ and their pasts as slave owners. Do their past transgressions outweigh the good they did as servants to their country. Of course Nelson played no part in England’s founding, but he played an integral role in protecting it from one of the most powerful empires Europe has ever seen. He possessed many admirable traits such as leadership, intelligence, resoluteness, and a can-do attitude. It is for these reasons that Nelson’s column has been admired for so long and will likely continue to be in the future because Britons of all ethnic backgrounds can aspire to achieve a similar status.
Nelson’s Pillar was constructed in 1809, four years after Nelson’s death at Trafalgar. The key difference between the pillar and the column is that the pillar was placed in Ireland, a country that the British had occupied and oppressed for hundreds of years.
Nelson was by no means Irish. He was born in England and was a member of the British House of Lords. He was a representative of a Protestant occupying country in a majority Catholic land. The political landscape of Ireland meant that emotions about the statue were split. Many within the Protestant, loyalist North felt that the statue represented them, as well as Ireland’s role within the empire. Catholic, republicans felt that the pillar was a reminder of how the British conquered and subjugated Ireland. To add insult to injury, the pillar was located directly across from what would become the site of the 1916 Easter Rising, what many Irish view as the birth of the Republic. This location meant that the pillar’s days were numbered.
On March 14, 1966 a member of the Irish Republican Army detonated multiple explosives at the base of Nelson’s figure at the top of the pillar. The operative, Liam Sutcliffe, recalls the incident saying that, “Nelson was great hero- but he wasn’t a hero for Ireland” (BBC).
Hero or Villain?
Admiral Nelson was without a doubt one of the greatest military heroes in British history, and certainly its most legendary naval officer. His past as a proponent of the slave trade has drawn recent scrutiny in an ever-evolving United Kingdom and whether or not his Column in Trafalgar Square will remain is yet to be seen. The popular sentiment within the UK seems to be in favor of keeping the statue due to Nelson’s God-like status in British history.
Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin has already been destroyed, but it remains a great example of how statues serve the people around them. The Pillar was a mark of British pride for a British hero on Irish soil. Many Irish Catholics viewed it as a metaphorical middle finger to the country. Nelson will remain a contentious figure in Britain and Ireland, and it will be interesting to see how future generations judge the incredible figure.
-Afua Hirsch, “Toppling Statues? Here’s why Nelson’s column should be next”, The Guardian (2017), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/22/toppling-statues-nelsons-column-should-be-next-slavery
– Diarmaid Fleming, “The man who blew up Nelson”, BBC (2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35787116
– JSTOR: P. Dixon Hardy, “Nelson’s Pillar”, Dublin Penny Journal (1835), https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/30004110.pdf?refreqid=search:81dec35d3068e6c696802e09074de8f8
– JSTOR: Andrew Lambert, “The Glory of England: Nelson, Trafalgar, and the Meaning of Victory”, The Great Circle 2005, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/41563204.pdf?refreqid=search%3A06fb0a1335c441f3dbb223fc60c997b1
– Leo McKinstry, “Nelson’s Column: The Left’s purge of statues is absurd- who’s next?”, Express 2017, http://www.express.co.uk/comment/columnists/leo-mckinstry/845142/nelson-column-trafalgar-square-left-agenda-absurd