Nelson and the Walrus

January 2024

A special episode which explores the young 16 year-old midshipman Horatio Nelson’s exploits on the Phipps’ expedition in search of a Northeast Passage in 1773, in which he fought off a walrus. The episode is linked to an ongoing project run by St Paul’s Cathedral and the University of York ’50 Monuments in 50 Voices’ which showcases thought-provoking, individual responses to 50 unique monuments at St Paul’s Cathedral from artists, writers, musicians, theologians and academics. Of all of those monuments, Nelson’s tomb is the most significant. This episode presents an original piece of prose written by Dr Sam Willis inspired by Nelson’s tomb and his exploits fighting off a walrus when he was a teenager. ‘I Survived the Walrus’ is written in Nelson’s voice. It explores the myths that grew up around Nelson’s life; the curious mixture of inner strength and physical frailty that characterised his life and exploits; and his ability to inspire and comfort.

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    From the Society for Nautical Research in partnership with Lloyd’s Register foundation, I’m Sam Willis. And this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast and to this something of a Christmas special. I’ve been thinking of a good wintry and chilly theme and with maritime history, there are certainly plenty to choose from. And it just so happens that I’ve also been doing some work recently on the Arctic, and on one particular fascinating story, and that is the story of Horatio Nelson, being attacked by a walrus. This is part of a brilliant project being run by St. Paul’s Cathedral called 50 monuments in 50 voices. The idea is that it showcases thought provoking individual responses to 50 unique monuments in St. Paul’s Cathedral from artists, writers, musicians, theologians and academics. The project launched in October 2019 is a partnership between the Department of History of Art of the University of York and St. Paul’s, and it returns to centre stage this unparalleled and unprecedented collection of monuments that is inside one of England’s most iconic and significant buildings. It’s in fact one of the top 20 most visited sites in the UK. The project focuses upon the more than 300 monuments inside St Paul’s Cathedral. Those are the ones that have been erected there since the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in 1795 up to the outbreak of the First World War. Now the most important of those tombs is without any doubt that of Horatio Nelson. The sarcophagus itself seems slightly out of place in St. Paul’s, this is an early 19th century burial in an early 18th century building. But that’s because the sarcophagus was already nearly 300 years old when it was given to Nelson. It had been commissioned by Cardinal Wolsey in around 1524 before he fell from favour with Henry VIII. So where Nelson’s viscount’s, coronet stands there should and would have been Cardinal Walsy’s hat. There is however, no doubting the significance of the location. The sarcophagus undoubtedly has the position of honour in St. Paul’s, it’s in the crypt, and it stands on a mosaic floor in the middle of the central space surrounded by eight Tuscan pillars, and it is directly beneath the middle of the dome. I was asked to write a thought piece inspired by Nelson in this monument, and I decided to focus on the question of myth. Here clearly is a man of immense fame with a burial location far more significant than many English monarchs have ever received. At the heart of the story behind how Nelson came to be here, therefore, is the question of fame, which is, of course entirely linked to his exploits, but it is not necessarily linked to the historical accuracy of his exploits, but to the public perception of them. What matters more in the story of what led Nelson being here was what the public believed had happened, rather than what actually did happen. Now, if you look into Nelson’s long and fascinating life, one event stood out to me more than many others in this mythmaking, and it is the story of him fighting a polar bear and a walrus. This was all supposed to have happened in 1773 when Nelson was just 16. He was then a midshipman in the Carcass, captained by the brilliantly named Skeffington Lutwidge and Nelson was in the Arctic as part of an expedition to locate the North East passage a navigable route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The expedition was a failure but notable in Nelson’s life for two reasons. Firstly, he took command of one of the smaller boats of the ship, a four-oared cutter, manned by 12 seamen. In this he apparently helped to save the crew of a boat from a walrus attack. Also, in a bid to claim a bear skin for his father to bring it back as a present, he attempted to shoot a polar bear. Now this extraordinary event was later celebrated in art. There’s a magnificent oil by Richard Westall painted just after his death with Nelson head to head with a polar bear. It’s at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich if you wish to see it and I’d urge you to take the time to visit. Importantly, however great though this story is there are no prime resources that exist describing Nelson venturing alone onto the ice to shoot a bear. Now on the basis that Nelson’s antics with the bear had been dealt with by an artist I decided to focus on his apparent aleged fight with a walrus. This also has no primary source actually describing what Nelson was supposed to have done. And yet the two stories survived to be an important part of the Nelson story. Here are wonderful examples of him fighting not a human, but nature itself. And not only nature itself, but two of the most fearsome of all maritime creatures. And, of course, Nelson won. Now, these stories are brilliant, and I firmly stand against modern historians spending their lives rubbishing such fantastic tales. There are three options here, of course, one is that it didn’t happen and was entirely made up. Two is that it did happen, and we’re lucky to know about it. And three, well, it sort of happened, that there are some elements of truth and some elements of fabrication in the details. Now, one of the things that stands out incredibly strongly if you study Nelson, in any depth at all, is that he was a master of controlling the narrative; controlling his story. He was astonishingly brave. Yes, he was astonishingly successful, yes, but also, he was a PR genius. And whether or not this walrus attack happened is rather beside the point. What matters is the fact that Nelson would have loved the story, and he would have wanted us to believe it.

    Also, as a historian, I think that so many modern researchers take disbelief as their starting point. They say, Oh, this never happened, because we can’t prove that it did. Well, that may be the case. But with things like this, I’m firmly of the opinion that, well, with stories that have the power to engage millions of people with their past, we should give our historical heroes the benefit of the doubt. I, for one, have chosen to believe that this story happened and will continue to do so until someone categorically proves that it didn’t happen. I think history is a bit more fun that way. We too often forget that. Even what we think we know about some history, particularly history, this old is based on fairly shaky foundations, regardless of the work of modern historians. I’ve also been fascinated by the discrepancy between Nelson’s frailness and his heroism. He was small, he was often ill, and he certainly received terrible wounds throughout his career that dogged him through his life. And yet, somehow, well, he was followed. He was even worshipped as the greatest naval warrior that had ever lived. And in particular, he had the power to inspire. I think he would have been simply magnificent not only at getting people to risk their lives for their country, or, more importantly, I think to risk their lives for him. But on a much more human level, I think he’d have been brilliant at simply cheering people up, and helping anyone even the frailest of us recognise and celebrate our inner strength. What follows then is a type of poem or a piece of narrative that I’ve written for the 50 monuments and 50 voices project, and I have written it in Nelson’s voice. Here then is Nelson in his tomb in St. Paul’s, you are a modern visitor, perhaps feeling down perhaps feeling weak, and Nelson has got something to say to you. The poem is called I Survived the Walrus and it is read by the brilliant actor, Elliot Cowan.

    I survived the walrus by Sam Willis, read by Elliot Cowan.

    Aha, a visitor. I love a visitor.

    The people who know me would say that I like the attention. They are right.

    But this visit is unbalanced. You see you’re not sure that I’m actually inside this tomb are you that I’m lying here like a like a walnut in a shell.

    But I am and I know for certain that you are there because I can hear you even if you are silent. You see I can hear your heart beating as regularly and as powerfully as cannon fire from one of my ships. And I can hear it through the marble.

    You probably know a little about me but that doesn’t mean you actually know me does it? It doesn’t help you know what you feel about me?

    Let’s put that right.

    Now what is it that makes us so different?

    Were you such a frail baby that no one expected you to live?

    Did your mother die when you were nine?

    Have you ever fought for your life against a wild animal? A walrus no less?

    Did the Spanish take your arm? Did they give you a hernia near the size of a fist? Did the French take the sight of one of your eyes? Did they take the skin off your forehead? Do you have malaria that will never leave you be. Has a sniper ever shot you in the back breaking your spine.

    Well it’s true.

    It’s all true. Even the walrus. The smell of that oily beast stayed with me and my dreams for the rest of my life.

    Too much for one life perhaps.

    But do not weep for me.

    Because we are similar after all, because none of this physical pain matters.

    What is your most powerful muscle?

    Aha. Now we are there.

    Mine was my heart. My body was literally taken from me piece by piece by my enemies. A mosquito here, a walrus there, a limb here, an organ there.

    Each year there was simply less of me than before. And there was never much to begin with.

    I can hear your heart beating in the silence. I can hear you through this stone and this wood and through these years.

    Your heart is strong.

    It is the strongest part of you.

    Do not weep for Me. Do not weep for yourself or for any of us. Be stronger than your body allows. Use your heart.

    How many brothers or sisters do you have?

    I had 10 and I was in the very heart of them all. Five older and five younger.

    Too many to love. No. And that is the point you have no choice but to love them all. Do not pick. Do not choose. Love everyone with equal measure and never forget to love and value yourself.

    Remember,

    I can hear your heart through this stone and this wood and I can hear your heart through these years. Your heart is strong.

    I am the frailest man that you have ever met.

    And yet I survived the walrus.

    You can too.

    You can’t deny my story far fetched as it seems. You don’t need a historian to tell you what happened. Here I am. Here is proof I am literally right in front of you and I can hear your heart.

    I am the frailest man you have ever met

    and yet

    I survived the walrus

    you can too

    Thank you all so much for listening I do hope you enjoyed being spoken to by Nelson we’ve got loads more Nelson related content on the podcast so please check out our YouTube page as one of the clever things we’ve done is to bring a plaster cast of Nelson’s face taken during his lifetime back to life using artificial intelligence and very clever it is to there’s also plenty of audio content to get stuck into including a multi part tour of HMS Victory each episode divided up according to which deck you’re on. It’s great fun.

    If you want to hear other examples of artistic responses to the monuments in St. Paul’s check out the project 50 monuments in 50 voices there is some truly wonderful and very creative stuff there. This podcast comes from both the Society for Nautical research and the Lloyd’s Register Foundation’s Heritage and Education Centre. So please do all you can to find out what those brilliant institutions are up to and please, please please please join the Society for Nautical research you can find us at snr.org.uk signing up helps support the podcast that helps us spread the word about maritime history and you get access to over a century’s worth of brilliant journal articles. It’s worth every penny and we’d really appreciate your support

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