Colin Brazier: It's time to reclaim heroic Lord Nelson's legacy

Happy Trafalgar Day

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Thank God for Billy Railton. He was the Victorian architect who came up with the plan to put a statue of Admiral Lord Nelson, not on the ground, but on top of a 169-foot-high Corinthian column.

A handy perch for pigeons, but as it’s turned out, very useful for another reason. Up there it can’t be reached by those who believe Horatio, far from being a hero – was, in fact, a slavery-supporting racist.

Or, as Angela Rayner would now doubtless call him, “scum”. It’s a different story elsewhere in London.

In Deptford, students at Goldsmiths University have tried – ineffectually - to pour paint over Nelson’s statue. It’s a pathetic, depressing image of cultural decline. A beautiful carved image, the fruit of hundreds of hours of patient toil, labour and skill – a degree of dexterity now largely lost – vandalised with red paint.

Just like the puritans who defaced statues of saints in churches, iconoclasm is what it’s always been; a chance for talentless morons to undo, in a moment, the work of ages.

Well, I mention this because today is Trafalgar Day, the date set aside, like the eponymous square in London, to honour our nation’s greatest naval victory in 1805.

For those of you whose history is rusty, Nelson’s tactical genius secured victory for the Royal Navy, off the Cape of Trafalgar. It confirmed British naval supremacy at a time when our country was being menaced by a French dictator – Napoleon – whose armies had threatened to invade Britain and were running amok across Europe. During the battle, Nelson was mortally wounded by a musket ball on the quarter-deck of HMS Victory.

Of course, such a straightforward depiction of courage and history-changing judgement is no longer unequivocally the stuff of our national self-image. As those students at Goldsmiths said, Nelson is now “problematic”. Well, he was certainly a problem for a tyrant like Napoleon, but that’s overlooked by the statue-topplers of Black Lives Matter, for whom slavery is the only measure of a historical figure’s moral worth.

It doesn’t matter that Nelson never owned slaves, nor had shares in a plantation. They point to a letter apparently supportive of the slave trade, but which many historians say was doctored after his death by those who wanted to use his reputation to help their pro-slavery cause.

But, you see, there I go. Drawing myself into a spurious debate about how somebody who died on this day 216 years ago should be judged according to one narrow, and very contemporary, criteria. Even if Nelson had owned part of a plantation, he would still be the man who probably saved Britain from imperial subjugation and the man who made the Royal Navy the only force in the world capable of implementing a global ban on slavery, a ban, let us not forget, introduced by Britain and enforced at the cost of 28,000 Royal Navy lives.

None of this matters to those who want to eradicate heart-warming memories of Nelson. Those professional activists, part of our booming race relations industry, who want to topple his statue – including the one in Trafalgar Square - and remove his image from pubs or, even, his name from the map. Only this month we learned that the Welsh government had put a village named after Nelson on a list of places tainted by association with slavery.

For those of us who recoil from this grotesquely skewed reading of our history, who fear that our national story is being rewritten under our feet and against our will, is there anything to be done? Or is this cause as hopeless as the odds faced by Nelson on his flagship at Trafalgar?

How about you take your children or your friends to see HMS Victory? And, as they stoop between decks of oak, perhaps you’ll see a flickering of understanding. As they imagine what life was like in that claustrophobia-inducing, stinking, heaving, and smoke-filled space and how impossible it is to judge those who lived then, by the standards of today.

Oh, and, raise a toast tonight. To Admiral Lord Nelson and his Royal Navy. To the deliverance of our island nation from the yoke of tyranny.

Happy Trafalgar Day.