Nelson at Naples

Nelson at NaplesNelsonAtNaples: Revolution and Retribution in 1799

Did Nelson commit a war crime at Naples in the summer of 1799? I think he did. And I hope this study of the revolution in Naples, and Nelson’s involvement with its destruction, proves it.

During the wars which followed the French Revolution, France’s armies turned on Britain’s last ally in Italy, the kingdom of Naples. The French chased out the Bourbon royal family and established a republic, governed by scholars and philosophers. It lasted six months before an Army of the Holy Faith, under Cardinal Ruffo, counter-attacked and reduced the republic to a handful of castles in Naples itself. In June 1799, their republican garrisons agreed to surrender when Ruffo promised to save them from his fanatical mob by offering them safe passage to France.

That treaty of surrender was signed and sealed when Horatio Nelson, sent by the Neapolitan royal family, arrived in the bay with his British fleet. The admiral, urged on by Lady Hamilton, objected to the treaty’s generous terms, then seemed to relent, permitting the republicans and their families to evacuate their forts. As they were disarmed and climbed aboard the waiting transports, Nelson struck and, in an act of singular treachery, violated the treaty by seizing the would-be exiles. Hundreds of Neapolitans now found themselves delivered up to a merciless court.

Nelson’s early biographer, Southey, called this act “a deplorable transaction, a stain on the memory of Nelson and upon the honour of England”. This was not a view, however, shared by Nelson’s Victorian biographers who, eager for heroes, neatly sidestepped the charge of perfidy by blaming his lover Emma Hamilton.

This book asks whether Nelson could have been capable of such a betrayal, and sifts the evidence surrounding the controversy. It makes use of accounts by Cardinal Ruffo, Lady Hamilton and Admiral Nelson himself, as well as by countless others caught up in those brutal events, to tell the story of the atrocity committed in Naples in the summer of 1799. From those words, from all those experiences, comes the drama. But to Naples alone belongs the tragedy.

You can see more of the research that went into the book here.

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