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Looking for Admiral Nelson in London
When I visited London a couple years ago, I kept bumping into a name that was unknown to me at that time - Horatio Nelson. Who was this man? If you asked that question of any school children in England, they would stare at you as if you were an alien. "You don't know who Admiral Nelson is?" they would ask, incredulity written on their faces. Well, every American kid knows who George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are. They are, after all, some of the most influential presidents in America. And to the British, Admiral Horatio Nelson is on the same level - a symbol of the country, perhaps even more so than the monarchy.
Nelson is one of the greatest war heroes in the history of Britain. He led the empire to victory innumerable times, and today, lays at rest in St. Paul's Cathedral in London. Nelson joined the navy when he was only 12. He gradually climbed up the ranks, and became celebrated at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, where he boarded and captured two enemy ships in succession. That was where he said his most famous line, "Victory or Westminster Abbey." Westminster Abbey, of course, is the place where the most important people of Britain including kings and queens are buried.
However, his most famous success was in Trafalgar, on the southern tip of Spain. At stake was the fate of the British Isles, since Napoleon would almost certainly invade Britain should he fail. Though he was outnumbered by Napoleon's "lean, mean, fighting machine" - the combined French and Spanish navy, Nelson led the British to victory. Not only did he sink and capture many of Napoleon's ships, but also laid the foundation of supremacy for the British Navy, which lasted 150 years.
Sadly, Nelson was fatally injured during the battle. A bullet pierced his left lung. Though he eventually died of the bullet, he lived until he could see the complete defeat of the French-Spanish fleet. He ended his life with the phrase, "Thank God, I have done my duty."
Ironically, Nelson's body was preserved in a barrel of French brandy captured on enemy ships. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Nelson had pre-made his own coffin with the mast of L'Orient, the French flagship destroyed in one of Nelson's early victories: the Battle of the Nile. (Talk about well prepared!)
He didn't get his wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey, but I'm sure that he would have been quite happy with St. Paul's where his contemporary, the Duke of Wellington, who gave Napoleon the final blow at Waterloo, was also buried. Unfortunately, while we were in the Cathedral, Nelson's tomb was closed for remodeling.
Admiral Horatio Nelson was such a hero that he had a very elaborate state funeral. The Londoners dedicated Trafalgar Square to Nelson, featuring bronze lions, water fountains, and a popular place for visitors. At the center of the square is the huge "Nelson Column" with his statue on top. An extremely realistic full-size wax effigy of him was shown in Westminster Abbey, where he had long wanted to be buried.
In the British Library, we found more traces of Nelson. Kept safe from all the elements in library's treasure room, a letter by Nelson is housed there. This is the famed "Nelson Memorandum" which he wrote days before the battle of Trafalgar, outlining his strategy.
On the 200-year anniversary of the victory at the battle of Trafalgar in 2005, the British people reenacted Nelson's funeral. As the flotilla moved down the Thames River, I am sure that a patriotic spark came to each Londoner's heart. Since the London bombings of June 7, 2005, Britain has faced ever-increasing threats from terrorists, mostly homegrown. Just a few days ago, a car bomb exploded at Glasgow airport. Britain's hero in war is the perfect icon in this troubled time.
Nelson's elaborate funeral was definitely something to celebrate. Not to celebrate his death, but more the fact that he will forever live on, in the hearts of the British people.