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Royal Naval Biography/Nisbet, Josiah


JOSIAH NISBET, Esq
[Post-Captain of 1798.]

This officer is the only son of the late Dr. Nisbet, Physician in the island of Nevis, by the accomplished Miss Woolward, niece of Mr. Herbert, the President of that Colony; who afterwards married the gallant Nelson. The subject of this memoir, when first seen by his future father-in-law, at that time Captain of the Boreas frigate, and senior officer on the Leeward Islands station, was only three years old: and from that time they entertained a mutual regard for each other, until Nelson became his legal guardian and instructor.

“There are three things, young gentleman,” said Nelson to one of his Midshipmen, “which you are constantly to bear in mind. First, You must always implicitly obey orders, without attempting to form any opinion of your own respecting their propriety. Secondly, You must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of your King: and, Thirdly, You must hate a Frenchman as you do the Devil.” With these feelings he engaged in the war of 1793, Mr. Josiah Nisbet accompanying him as a Midshipman on board the Agamemnon of 64 guns.

It would be superfluous, in this place, to recount the many services performed by our matchless hero, during the period he commanded this ship; we shall therefore be content with observing that his son-in-law was present at the whole, and completed his time as a petty officer under him. In the expedition against Teneriffe. we find Mr. Nisbet accompanying Nelson as a Lieutenant, on board the Theseus of 74 guns; and the affection entertained by him for his patron is strongly exemplified by his conduct on the disastrous night of July 24th, 1797.

Perfectly aware how desperate a service the attack upon Santa Cruz was likely to prove, before Nelson left the Theseus, he called Lieutenant Nisbet, who had the watch on deck, into the cabin, that he might assist in arranging and burning his mother’s letters. Perceiving that the young man was armed, he earnestly begged him to remain behind: “Should we both fall, Josiah,” said he, “what would become of your poor mother! The care of the Theseus falls to you: stay, therefore, and take charge of her.” Lieutenant Nisbet replied, “Sir, the ship must take care of herself; I will go with you to-night, if I never go again.”

In the act of stepping out of the boat, Nelson received a shot through the right elbow, and fell; Lieutenant Nisbet, who was close to him, placed him at the bottom of the boat, and laid his hat over the shattered arm, lest the sight of the blood, which gushed out in great abundance, should increase his faintness. He then examined the wound; and taking some silk handkerchiefs from his neck, bound them round tight above the lacerated vessels. Had it not been for this presence of mind in his son-in-law, Nelson must have perished. Lieutenant Nisbet then collected half a dozen seamen, by whose assistance he succeeded, at length, in getting the boat afloat, for it had grounded with the falling tide; and, himself taking an oar, rowed off to the Theseus, under a tremendous, though ill-directed fire, from the enemy’s batteries.

In a private letter to Sir John Jervis, the first which he wrote with his left hand, Nelson recommended his youthful companion for advancement, in the following terms: “by my last letter[1], you will perceive my anxiety for the promotion of my son-in-law, Josiah Nisbet. * * * * * * . If from poor Bowen’s loss[2] you think it proper to oblige me, I rest confident you will do it. The boy is under obligations to me; but he repaid me, by bringing me from the mole of Santa Cruz.” In his first letter to Lady Nelson, he says: “I know it will add much to your pleasure to find that Josiah, under God’s providence, was principally instrumental in saving my life.”

Lieutenant Nisbet, according to the wish of his father-in-law, was immediately promoted, and appointed to the command of the Dolphin hospital-ship, attached to the Mediterranean fleet. On Nelson’s recovery after the loss of his arm, and return to join his former chief, he received the following letter:

Earl St. Vincent, to Sir Horatio Nelson.

“My dear Admiral.– I do assure you, the Captain of the Dolphin has acquitted himself marvellously well in three instances: In getting his ship out and joining us off Cadiz soon after we arrived; in conducting a convoy of transports with troops from Gibraltar to Lisbon; and lately, in pushing out to protect the stragglers of the convoy from England in very bad weather; and he also improves in manners and conversation, and is amply stored with abilities, which only want cultivation to render him a very good character.”

Dec. 11, 1798. Nelson to his wife, from Naples. “The improvement made in Josiah by Lady Hamilton is wonderful; your obligations and mine are infinite on that score; not but Josiah’s heart is as good and as humane as ever was covered by a human breast. God bless him, I love him dearly with all his roughness.”

Captain Nisbet’s post commission bears date Dec. 24, 1798. He was promoted to that rank in the Thalia of 36 guns, which frigate he commanded on the Mediterranean station until the month of Oct. 1800. Previous to his return from thence, he appears to have given offence to his father-in-law, by remonstrating with him on his infatuated attachment to Lady Hamilton, an attachment which afterwards had the unhappy effect of totally weaning his affections from the wife he once loved so dearly. Captain Nisbet, we believe, has held no subsequent appointment.

Agent.– William Marsh, Esq.



  1. In a letter addressed to the commander-in-chief, a few hours before he set out upon the enterprise, he recommended Lieutenant Nisbet to the protection of Sir John, and of the nation; adding, “the Duke of Clarence, should I fall, will, I am confident, take a lively interest for my son-in-law, on his name being mentioned.”
  2. Captain Bowen, of the Terpsichore, killed in the attack, brother of the present Commissioner James Bowen, see p. 94; and Vol. 1, note †, at p. 391, et seq.