We left Ireland and moved to the English coast south of London – Southampton. Our first visit as a group was to Portsmouth to see the HMS Victory and the memorials to its vice admiral, Lord Nelson. Portsmouth is an old port city with a rich Royal Navy history, and its dockyards are now home to a number of different military displays, including an unusual World War II vintage diesel submarine. Obviously, as one local English person noted, the visit to the Portsmouth dockyards did not exactly fit in with our theme of C.S. Lewis and Celtic Christianity! On another level, it fit perfectly because it gave us a different sense, in contrast to Ireland, of how a nation tells its “story” to itself and others.
In the early 19th century, Napoleon had consolidated his power in much of Europe and was seeking to eliminate a key national obstacle, England. The British Navy stood between the great Napoleonic armies and an invasion of the English homeland. Britain had a commander like few others, Lord Horatio Nelson. He was known for his ferocity of command and had lost both an arm and an eye in battle. He once described the seaman’s duty this way: “Duty is the greatest business of a sea officer; all private consideration must give way to it, however painful it may be.” An officer in employ of the nation surrendered his personal interest for that of the nation.
In the early fall of 1805, the united navies of Spain and France gathered in an attempt to eliminate the British Navy from the seas. Napoleon hoped this would prepare for the possible invasion of England by the very successful French army. At the same time, Vice Admiral Lord Nelson was committed to bringing the French and Spanish navies into a climatic battle. On Oct. 21 of 1805, Nelson achieved his objective at what became known as the Battle of Trafalgar. Twenty-seven British ships of the line met 33 French and Spanish battle ships. The result: a dramatic British victory. No English ships were lost while the combined fleets suffered the destruction of 22 vessels. It confirmed the supremacy of the British Navy, limited the expansion plans of Napoleon and set the stage for the emergence of the British Empire.
The greatest loss of the battle for the English: Vice Admiral Nelson. He had been hit by a French sharpshooter while commanding the fleet. As he lay dying below deck he noted, “Thank God I have done my duty.” His sacrifice has been honored by the construction of monuments, by artists through painting and sculpture, and by historians who recognize his great achievement. He is one of the most significant modern British heroes.
Walking through the museums and monuments that day we were impressed with the fact that the English story focuses on concepts like “victory,” “glory” and “duty.” Its heroes are ones that chose to sacrifice personal well-being for the success of the national mission and its survival. The “story” emphasizes the fact that there are more important things than life and individual success. The true “patriot” focuses on the community, and it is his (or her) duty to ensure its vibrance and continuation.
Our experiences in Portsmouth were quite in contrast to those we had in Ireland. The Irish had come under the “heavy hand” of the English for centuries, and their stories were ones of oppression and sacrifice but told in an entirely different context. They had won no great victories against their “oppressor” on the fields of battle. Their heroes died often alone in prisons rather than in sacrifice in battle.
I have to admit that personally I am drawn to the British story of “duty, honor and country.” It is one that has been familiar to Americans until recently. Our monuments and great stories center most often on “battle” and our success against the enemy. Our nation’s capital and the streets of almost every major city are filled with monuments, like those of Lord Nelson, who honor men who have led well on the fields of battle and subordinated personal interest for those of the nation. It is a heroic story and one that is engaging if not triumphant.
On the other hand, as a nation, we are beginning to learn to tell the “Irish” side of our story. National histories are complex, and it is vital to tell the story more fully. Martin Luther King Jr., an African-American Christian, led a movement to overcome obvious oppression of his community in the country. His personal story ended with an assassin’s bullet and his death. The proclamation of a national holiday and recognition in January attempts to tell the important story of an American hero in a different context. Like Nelson, he set aside his own personal interest for the cause of freedom for his people. His sacrifice was not less than those who died in battle. His cause was great and his commitment greater. There are, of course, many others who fit into this narrative.
When you travel you begin to notice how others tell stories, and it has an impact on how you understand your own national history. The HMS Victory and Vice Admiral Nelson are important stories to celebrate and honor. The values that drive such men and women serve to sustain the nation. There are others as important, like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Irish men and women who proclaimed their cause in 1916. Each has something to teach us.