Life in Nelson’s Navy: An Account of Joseph Emerson, a Surgeon on board the HMS Agamemnon in 1793.

The wellbeing of the men in the navy, despite leading a rough and treacherous lifestyle, was considered superior to that in the army, especially now that scurvy was on the decline. Still, being out at sea for long periods increased the risk of disease and injury. Surgeons like Joseph Emerson were employed to aid the men during and outside of battle. The ship he worked upon, anchored at Spithead in the Mediterranean, was HMS Agamemnon which was captained by none other than Horatio Nelson. Launched in 1781, she was infamous for being in in constant need of repair but would participate in many battles, including Copenhagen 1801 and Trafalgar 1805. It is likely that she was only in operation for this long because Nelson was particularly fond of her, perhaps more so than HMS Victory.

While in dock at Portsmouth Emerson wrote to his brother at Swaffham (NRO, PD 337/161). Emerson starts his letter regretting that it could not meet his brother earlier. Depending on the amount of distance between the ship and land, letters could take weeks to get to their respective destination. He complains of mismanagement in the post service and that he has not heard back from his father ‘or anyone else’, likely because their letters had been detained. This was a frequent occurrence, possibly to stop potentially sensitive information from being intercepted by the enemy.

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Letter from Joseph Emerson to his brother at Swaffham (NRO, PD 337/161).

On the ship itself Emerson has ‘nothing to complain of’. There was currently no medicine chest on board, this is probably because the ship was away from the battlefield. In intense sea battles which defined the earlier stages of the Napoleonic Wars the surgeon would tend to the men around the clock, some of them with horrific injuries. Nelson’s right arm was famously put under the mercy of the bone saw during the disastrous battle of Tenerife and his surgical wounds would take months to fully heal. Outside of battle, nausea was commonplace and Emerson admitted to feeling ‘very sick for a day or two’. Nelson ironically, was also known to frequently come down with the seasickness.

Emerson reports the ship pursuing two French frigates and two brigs. They laid in wait for 3 days but did not venture out. Occasionally scuffles would break out between British and French vessels, such as the ‘Action of 22 October 1793’ in which Agamemnon was involved, but casualties were small. Ships spent time outside battle patrolling the waters, seeking out enemy vessels that could potentially cause trouble. With little to occupy him, Nelson’s depression would take its toll, as he felt his true home was on the battlefield. Being a man of pride and vanity, compared to the more down to earth Duke of Wellington, he wanted nothing more than to honour his nation, little of that was possible during these long and tedious cruises.

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Chasing two French Frigates and two Brigs. NRO, PD 337/161.

Nelson’s son in law messed alongside Emerson which as commented by the latter, resulted in many advantages. Captain Nelson is described by Emerson as a ‘worthy, good man, & much lik’d by men on board’ and ‘is much of a gentleman’. Nelson would later become a national celebrity and memorabilia related to the navy commander was all the rage, especially after his death. He was admired for his aggressive tactics, as was demonstrated at the Battle of the Nile 1798 and in the case of Copenhagen, his willingness to do the ‘greater good’ for the nation, even if it meant defying his superiors’ orders. Nelson’s surging popularity in British society and the navy would prove to be crucial to him at the Battle of Trafalgar. Despite many casualties, the love for their commander, even as he lay dying below deck, successfully motivated the British navy to secure a victory, albeit a bittersweet one, and Napoleon’s weaker and disheartened navy would no longer present a major threat to British waters.

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Well liked by his men. NRO, PD 337/161

Emerson mentions that two of the servants on board consist of a black man and a boy. It was not uncommon to see black men acting as either sailors or servants in Nelson’s navy. Contrary to what is often depicted in history related media, they are frequently depicted in various paintings and monuments, including Nelson’s column. They are shown to be proudly fighting alongside their white comrades, presenting a rare example of racial integration in the British military. Given the amount of racial prejudice back on land, those enlisting in the navy would have likely seen an opportunity to prove their worth and honour, and that they could fight just as well as white men. Food and accommodation would have been provided too, as was the case for the servants mentioned in the letter. Sadly however, navy life was not free from racial prejudice. Like many in his society, Nelson spoke against the British abolitionist movement as he was acquainted with various plantation owners, his wife’s family included.

Emerson was able to sleep ‘very comfortably’. Compared to rough terrain that men in the army often slept upon, seamen slept in hammocks which cheap, light and could be packed easily. Food provisions for Emerson were good too, describing meals consisting of a roast leg of mutton, a plum pudding, and a beef steak pie. Emerson and his mess companions would receive a pound of meat a day, a hearty amount for the time period. The men were properly fed too, compared to life at home and indeed, life in the army. They would also receive a regular dose of lemon juice in order to prevent the spread of scurvy which had proved devastating to sailors during the previous Seven Years War. By the time of the French Revolutionary Wars, in order to ensure ultimate fitness and prestige, the government and the navy felt an increased sense of urgency to stop the spread of scurvy once and for all.

Accounts like Emerson’s prove that Nelson even before his ‘glory days’ was popular with the men of the British Navy and was well respected as a commander. While Nelson himself now lies in St Paul’s Cathedral, next door to Britain’s other great Napoleonic war hero, the Duke of Wellington, his influence around Norfolk remains strong. Emerson’s letter be read at the Norfolk Record Office. The Britannia monument commemorating Nelson stands in Great Yarmouth. The Church in which his father worked as a preacher as well as The Lord Nelson pub where he dined for the men of the village before setting sail on Agamemnon can still be visited in Burnham Thorpe, his birthplace. Last year many important historical artefacts, associated with Nelson, including a captured French tricolour flag which had not been shown to the public for a century, were reunited for the first time after more than 100 years, at a successful exhibition in Norwich Castle. Considering how important Norfolk was to Nelson, and the fact that he personally wished to be buried there, it seemed the ideal place for such an occasion.

Compiled by Rebecca Hanley, NRO Research Blogger.

This entry was posted in NRO Research Bloggers, Snapshots from the Archive and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Life in Nelson’s Navy: An Account of Joseph Emerson, a Surgeon on board the HMS Agamemnon in 1793.

  1. bobread2 says:

    A fascinating article! Will now explore other items on this interesting website!


    • victoriadraper24 says:

      Thank you. Hope you managed to discover more of interest to you- there are still lots of posts in the pipeline too!


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