Nelsons Early Naval Career

The Carcass with the Racehorse trapped in the ice


HMS Raisonnable had been commissioned during a period of tension with Spain, but when this passed, Suckling was transferred to the Nore guard ship HMS Triumph and Nelson was dispatched to serve aboard the West Indiaman Mary Ann of the merchant shipping firm of Hibbert, Purrier and Horton. In order to gain experience at sea, he sailed from Medway, Kent, on 25 July 1771 to Jamaica and Tobago, returning to Plymouth on 7 July 1772. He twice crossed the Atlantic, before returning to serve under his uncle as the commander of Suckling's longboat, which carried men and dispatches to and from the shore. 


Nelson then learned of a planned expedition under the command of Constantine Phipps, intended to survey a passage in the Arctic by which it was hoped that India could be reached: the fabled North-East Passage. At his nephew's request, Suckling arranged for Nelson to join the expedition as coxswain to Commander Lutwidge aboard the converted bomb vessel HMS Carcass. The expedition reached within ten degrees of the North Pole, but, unable to find a way through the dense ice floes, was forced to turn back. By 1800 Lutwidge began to circulate a story that while the ship had been trapped in the ice, Nelson had seen and pursued a polar bear, before being ordered to return to the ship. Lutwidge's later version, in 1809, reported that Nelson and a companion had given chase to the bear, but on being questioned why, replied that "I wished, Sir, to get the skin for my father".

Nelson briefly returned to Triumph after the expedition's return to Britain in September 1773. Suckling then arranged for his transfer to HMS Seahorse, one of two ships about to sail for the East Indies.

Nelson sailed for the East Indies on 19 November 1773 and arrived at the British outpost at Madras on 25 May 1774. Nelson and Seahorse spent the rest of the year cruising off the coast and escorting merchantmen.

With the outbreak of the First Anglo-Maratha War, the British fleet operated in support of the East India Company and in early 1775 Seahorse was dispatched to carry a cargo of the company's money to Bombay. On 19 February, two of Hyder Ali's ketches attacked Seahorse, which drove them off after a brief exchange of fire. This was Nelson's first experience of battle. The rest of the year he spent escorting convoys, during which he continued to develop his navigation and ship handling skills.

In early 1776 Nelson contracted malaria and became seriously ill. He was discharged from Seahorse on 14 March and returned to England aboard HMS Dolphin. Nelson spent the six-month voyage recuperating and had almost recovered by the time he arrived in Britain in September 1776. His patron, Suckling, had risen to the post of Controller of the Navy in 1775, and used his influence to help Nelson gain further promotion. Nelson was appointed acting lieutenant aboard HMS Worcester, which was about to sail to Gibraltar. Worcester, under the command of Captain Mark Robinson, sailed as a convoy escort on 3 December and returned with another convoy in April 1777.

Nelson then travelled to London to take his lieutenant's examination on 9 April; his examining board consisted of Captains John Campbell, Abraham North, and his uncle, Maurice Suckling. Nelson passed, and the next day received his commission and an appointment to HMS Lowestoffe, which was preparing to sail to Jamaica under Captain William Locker. She sailed on 16 May, arrived on 19 July, and after provisioning, carried out several cruises in Caribbean waters. After the outbreak of the American War of Independence Lowestoffe took several prizes, one of which was taken into Navy service as the tender Little Lucy. Nelson asked for and was given command of her and took her on two cruises of his own. It gave him his first taste of command and the opportunity to explore his fledgling interest in science. 

Young Admiral Nelson, Horatio Nelson as a young man


During his first cruise, Nelson led an expeditionary party to the Caicos Islands, where he made detailed notes of the wildlife and in particular a bird – now believed to be the white-necked Jacobin. Locker, impressed by Nelson's abilities, recommended him to the new commander-in-chief at Jamaica, Sir Peter Parker. Parker duly took Nelson onto his flagship, HMS Bristol. The entry of the French into the war, in support of the Americans, meant further targets for Parker's fleet and it took many prizes towards the end of 1778, which brought Nelson an estimated £400 in prize money. Parker appointed him as Master and Commander of the brig HMS Badger on 8 December.

Nelson and Badger spent most of 1779 cruising off the Central American coast, ranging as far as the British settlements at British Honduras (now Belize), and Nicaragua, but without much success at interception of enemy prizes. On his return to Port Royal he learned that Parker had promoted him to post-captain on 11 June, and intended to give him another command. Nelson handed over the Badger to Cuthbert Collingwood while he awaited the arrival of his new ship, the 28-gun frigate HMS Hinchinbrook, newly captured from the French.

While Nelson waited, news reached Parker that a French fleet under the command of Charles Hector, comte d'Estaing, was approaching Jamaica. Parker hastily organized his defenses and placed Nelson in command of Fort Charles, which covered the approaches to Kingston. D'Estaing instead headed north, and the anticipated invasion never materialized. Nelson duly took command of the Hinchinbrook on 1 September. Hinchinbrook sailed from Port Royal on 5 October 1779 and, in company with other British ships, proceeded to capture a number of American prizes.

On his return to Jamaica in December, Nelson began to be troubled by a recurrent attack of malaria, but remained in the West Indies in order to take part in Major-General John Dalling's attempt to capture the Spanish colonies in Central America, including an assault on the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception, also called Castillo Viejo, on the San Juan River in Nicaragua. Hinchinbrook sailed from Jamaica in February 1780, as an escort for Dalling's invasion force.

After sailing up the mouth of the San Juan River, Nelson, with some one thousand men and four small four-pounder cannon, obtained the surrender of Castillo Viejo and its 160 Spanish defenders after a two-week siege. The British blew up the fort when they evacuated six months later after suffering many deaths due to disease and Nelson was praised for his efforts. Parker recalled Nelson and gave him command of the 44-gun frigate HMS Janus. Nelson had however fallen seriously ill in the jungles of Costa Rica, probably from a recurrence of malaria and was unable to take command.

During his time of convalescence he was nursed by a black "doctoress" named Cubah Cornwallis, the mistress of a fellow captain, William Cornwallis. Nelson was discharged in August and returned to Britain aboard HMS Lion, arriving in late November. Nelson gradually recovered over several months, and soon began agitating for a command. He was appointed to the frigate HMS Albemarle on 15 August 1781.