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Horatio Nelson in Rattan

Portrait ( with Fort San Juan , Nicaragua in the background ) of a young 21 year old Captain Nelson completed in 1780 when he was back from Central America recovering from life-threatening Malaria.
Nelson’s first Command , The brig HMS Badger

It is a little known fact in these parts that the illustrious naval career of that hero of Albion , First Viscount Admiral Horatio Nelson , whose statue sits above a 170ft high column in central London is inextricably linked to the Bay of Honduras ( Belize Cays and Rattan ) and the Mosquito Shore. Some 26 years before his heroic , agonizing death on board his flagship HMS Victory at Trafalgar , shot through the spine by a French sniper and his legacy forever embroidered into the fabric of British history he was sure to have stretched his legs strolling around Fort George Cay and Fort Frederick at Port Royal , Roatan or Rattan as it was known to the Royal Navy at that time.

On 8th December at Port Royal in Jamaica ,1778 Lieutenant Horatio Nelson was made Master and Commander of the Brig , HMS Badger and whose first orders were to provide protection to settlements of log cutters and shipping in British Honduras ( Belize ) , the Mosquito Shore and Rattan Island from American and French privateers and in the event that the Spanish Armada should join in the war . The fair haired , slight ( 5’6″ )teenage Captain seemed inexperienced to most of the 90 men on board but his self confidence , courage and skill soon earned him their respect but not after some initial setbacks. Low morale was affecting the Royal Navy as a whole at that time and the crew of HMS Badger was no exception ; in all , 21 of the crew deserted during Nelson’s six months at the helm. The defectors even included a midshipman , Henry Lee who fled at Rattan in March ,1779 a day before Horatio set sail on the HMS Badger’s return to Jamaica on the 2nd of April via St.George’s Cay in Belize.

In 1779 , the epicentre of life on Rattan was at Port Royal . A garrison of Navy and Royal Marines were stationed here between Fort Frederick ( on the bluff where Anne Jennings’ house was located in the 1970’s ) and George’s Cay ( or Fort George Cay ) after King George the Third ( the reigning monarch ). There were eight cannons positioned in a hemi-circle around the Bluff at Fort Frederick and 17 on Fort George Cay positioned defensively facing Westwards towards Fort George Cay Channel. There were civilian settlements at Augusta ( situated on the high ground 500 yards from where Eric Anderson’s house is today ) , the Litchfield settlement 100yards west of Augusta and a Cooperage in the Bight ( situated where the old Port Royal Lodge once stood in the 1960’s to early 1980’s ). Due to the abundance of freshwater in Port Royal , the young Captain Nelson was very likely to have had HMS Badger’s water storage barrels built and repaired at this same cooperage. More significantly was the wide shallow bar east of Fort George Cay adjacent to Careening Cay (so named on Henry Barnsley’s 1742 chart) and known to all today as Cay Comfort ( the wreck of The Rambler salvage vessel is located west of this cay ) . It is noted in the Badger’s log and muster records that prior to his departure for Jamaica her 14 guns were hoisted out and she was careened on this bar ; algae , barnacles and shipworm was scraped away and perhaps a layer of sulphur , tar and tallow applied to prevent leakage. The some 150 civilians in Port Royal scratched a living from logging ( mostly centred around the Lignin Vitae variety which was indigenous to the east of the island and much sought after by boatbuilders for its extreme hardness used in boat stems and sterns ), farming and green turtle fishing. It was very likely that among these settlers that the young deserter , midshipman Henry Lee would have laid low in the hours before HMS Badger set sail for Jamaica in March , 1779.

This was not the last that the western Caribbean and The Mosquitia had seen of the future British Icon , he was to return to the Nicaraguan Mosquitia as commander of a small Royal Navy fleet of several vessels seeking to join the Atlantic to the Pacific via the San Juan river and Lake Nicaragua ( the ill-fated plan of Major General Sir John Dalling , then Governor of Jamaica ) . Horatio Nelson was aboard his new command at this time , the frigate HMS Hinchinbroke a larger vessel with 200 on board ………. but this is a story for another blog !

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