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When the Story Finds the Author – the inspiration behind Nelson’s Lost Son

When I had completed by first novel, Nelson’s Folly which is about Horatio Nelson and his wife Fanny in the ten years 1792 to 1801, I turned my attention to Josiah Nisbet, Horatio’s stepson and Fanny’s son by an earlier marriage. He too is my ancestor. Young Josiah featured in the first book as a young ambitious boy who Horatio took to sea. Having fought in most of his battles, Horatio helped Josiah to achieve his own command. However when he returns to England in 1801 after ten years away, Josiah’s career has taken a turn for the worse.

Image: A painting believed to be from Nevis of Josiah aged 3.

The Mysterious Josiah

In contrast to the volumes of excellent secondary information about Horatio and - to a much lesser degree- about Fanny there is very little material available about Josiah Nisbet. He seemed to have disappeared off the face of earth in 1801. Admiralty records show that he remained on half pay until the end of the war. Glimpses are seen of him sailing an early yacht, getting married and eventually becoming a businessman in post war France.

Most comments about him, after his parents’ separation in 1801, are negative. This is not surprising. As time went by and Horatio’s immortal memory and god-like stature became the historical canon, writers attended to their self-appointed duty of cleansing the narrative. In consequence it was hinted that he took his mother’s side in the separation, had a drinking problem, was surly and made unforgivable mistakes and so on.

The Struggle for Glory

Actually the truth was far more mundane. None of the young officers around Horatio did particularly well after his death in 1805. An exception can be argued for William Hoste who reached commodore rank, commanded a squadron in Greek waters and was knighted but even he reached the apex of his career without becoming an Admiral.

Image: Captain Hoste of HMS Amphion by Henry Edridge (London 1768)

The war had produced hundreds of talented youths struggling to use their connections to advance. After Trafalgar in 1805 there were other battles but the main battle was done. Britannia did “rule the waves.” How was anyone to distinguish themselves if they were not already in a senior enough position to do so?

Time for Creative Thinking

Yet I felt my story about Fanny and Josiah was incomplete. I asked myself what happened to young Josiah Nisbet between 1801 and 1805. The war had continued and the navy still needed captains. Reading between the lines and researching the record, a strange possibility occurred to me. It seemed from the secondary sources that Horatio did push to have Josiah become Thalia’s captain again once she emerged from her refit at the Chatham dockyard. On the other hand, the record shows that Thalia was converted to become a troop ship, having been considered too old and “weak at the knees” to be a fighting frigate again. Putting two and two together I can imagine Josiah’s chagrin when he found this out and I can imagine him rejecting the position out of hand.

At the time, there was a lull in the fighting. A new government came to power which made peace with France – the Peace of Amiens. St Vincent, Horatio’s patron and bete noir became First Lord of the Admiralty and immediately began a campaign to downsize the fighting fleet and to root out corruption – as he saw it – in the naval dockyards. This stirred my writers’ imagination.

I can see Josiah rejecting the offer of his old ship, dishonoured and disfigured to become a Troop carrier. And I can see he might well try to earn his way back into the Admiralty’s favour through a covert operation in the dockyards. We know that the effect of St Vincent’s reforms was not what was intended. When war resumed, the navy was short of fighting ships – though not captains. What would become of Josiah now?

It was then that the muse took over. I recalled that Josiah was born on Nevis, a Caribbean sugar island. Fanny too. What about an adventure there? Then I thought about the Napoleonic war’s Great Chase – when Horatio pursued the French fleet from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean and back. Perhaps they might meet? Perhaps they reconciled?

As I worked on this idea, a strange story came into my mind – a story of a slave ship, a slave revolt and a young idealistic man with adventure in his heart. Perhaps he might turn these events around to Britain’s advantage. His partner in the adventure emerges from the depth of the hold on the slave ship. He is a unique and engaging individual called John Jefferson and he and Josiah are destined to become firm friends.

When the Story Finds the Author

Sometimes the author struggles to create a story and sometimes the story finds the author. This is what happened in Nelson’s Lost Son. It is marvellous when this happens and I hope you like rollicking adventure which follows!

Image: Some of the locations of Josiah’s challenging adventures

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