HMS Boreas was built by the firm of Blaydes and Hodgson at the Charlestown Shipyard in Hull in 1767. Boreas means ‘North Wind’ and she was constructed as a 142 foot long Mermaid class frigate with twenty eight guns. Although frigates like the Boreas were not heavily gunned, they were amongst the fastest ships in the Royal Navy, making on occasions up to 14 knots. They were built with an unarmed lower deck so that they could heel quite considerably and carry a fair amount of sail in strong winds and heavy seas.
In March 1784 Horatio Nelson assumed command of HMS Boreas when the ship was destined for a commission on the West Indies station. A principal task of his ship whilst stationed in the Caribbean was to suppress the illicit trade between the West Indies and the former North American colonies. The Treaty of Paris which recognised the independence of the United States had only been signed – on the British side by David Hartley – the previous year and under the terms of the British Navigation Acts, the former colonies were no longer allowed to trade directly with the West Indies. The Americans had formerly carried out much trade with the islands but were now to be excluded as foreigners. When Boreas arrived in the West Indies, many local officials, including the overall commander, Admiral Hughes, were turning a blind eye to this now illicit trade but Nelson, who found himself senior captain on the station, took his responsibilities seriously and was determined to suppress such activity. His actions brought him into confrontation not only with the American smugglers but also with local traders and officials. At one time he was sued by local traders on the Island of Nevis for the value of the trade they claimed he had lost them. The sum involved was claimed to be £40,000 and Nelson was earning just £260 a year. Although the Admiralty were somewhat displeased with Nelson for sticking so punctiliously to the rules, they backed him and he was eventually vindicated.
One of the most substantial reminders of Nelson’s time in the West Indies whilst commanding HMS Boreas are the buildings and dockworks around English Harbour, Antigua and now known as Nelson’s Dockyard. British naval ships had been using the harbour there since at least the late seventeenth century and work on the naval yard there had commenced in 1725; it was to become the headquarters of the British Leeward Islands fleet between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was during Nelson’s time in the West Indies, whilst he was based at Antigua, that the yard was greatly expanded. Today, Nelson’s Dockyard is regarded as one of the best preserved Georgian Dockyards in the world and a number of the buildings there still date from his time on HMS Boreas. Today, the Admiral’s Inn, built at the end of Boreas’s service in the West Indies is a focal point of Nelson’s Dockyard and behind the bar a framed plan of HMS Boreas has pride of place.
Whilst stationed in the West Indies, Nelson met his wife Frances Nisbet. She was a widow and keeping house for her uncle, a local politician and rich landowner on the island of Nevis. Nelson carried out much of his courtship by letter from HMS Boreas whilst on naval duties across the West Indies and they were finally married at Montpelier House on Nevis in March 1787, receiving his bride from the future King William IV, then Captain of HMS Pegasus on Royal Naval service in the West Indies. A few months Nelson and Boreas sailed back to England.
Nelson’s health seems to have suffered during his time in the West Indies, he was under the weather before his return and very concerned that he might not survive the voyage home. He had a particular dislike of the idea of being buried at sea and when Boreas left Antigua it is said that he had a barrel of rum put to one side in the hold so that his body might be preserved for burial at home. Later, of course, after Trafalgar, his body was brought back to Britain in a barrel of brandy.
After his West Indies’ Commission, Nelson had a few years ashore on half pay before gaining a new commission in 1793 and rising to a position of glory during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. By then HMS Boreas was nearing the end of its naval career. In 1797 she was converted to a slop ship and in 1802 she was sold out of the service. In the West Indies, little remains of Montpelier House on the island of Nevis, except the overgrown foundations, although a stone slab on one of a pair of surviving gateposts still marks it as the wedding place of Fanny Nisbet and Horatio Nelson of HMS Boreas. However, the island has commemorated Nelson’s Boreas voyages in philatelic form. Two stamps showing Nelson and HMS Boreas were issued by the island of Nevis in 1983. A timely reminder of Britain’s most famous admiral and his Hull built ship.
Terry Coleman, The Nelson Touch (UK: Oxford University Press, 2004)
David Howarth, Nelson: The Immortal Memory (UK: J. M. Dent, 1998)
Horatio Nelson, Colin White (ed.) Nelson, the New Letters (UK: Boydell Press, 2005)
William Clark Russell, Horatio Nelson and the Naval Supremacy of England (UK: G. P. Putnam & Sons, 1890)
A History of Kingston upon Hull from Bulmer’s Gazeteer, 1892.
All at Sea: The Caribbean Waterfront Magazine – September 2005. History – Nelson in Nevis