Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole: an Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered, BBC Four, review


Emma Gosnell reviews Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole: an Eighteenth Century Navy Graveyard Uncovered, a documentary about a dark chapter of Britain’s imperial past.

The first thing to say about Nelson’s Caribbean Hell-Hole: An Eighteenth-Century Naval Graveyard Uncovered (BBC Four) is that its titillating title wasn’t so much a tease as a cheat. Like others, I suspect, I imagined Britain’s most famous naval commander facing terrible trials in a hostile land. But while Nelson did serve in the Caribbean colony of Antigua – and did dub it an “infernal hell-hole” – his reasons for loathing it were entirely personal.

As we discovered only at the end of the programme, Nelson had a futile crush on the young wife of the island’s resident commodore.

So what was the “hell” this rather confusing documentary actually portrayed? Much of the programme was spent describing the stifling conditions suffered by ordinary sailors and soldiers dispatched to the colony to protect British interests. In the late 18th century Antigua was a hotbed of tropical diseases, infamous as “the graveyard of the Englishman”. Why quite so many died in Antigua, compared to other Caribbean colonies, remains a mystery.

Could this programme solve that mystery? Human bones, yellowed with age, had been found on an Antiguan beach in 2010. We followed a live excavation of the area by a team of archaeologists. Skeletons were discovered, including those of children – who may or may not have been young boys serving on the tall ships. It sounds exciting, but it wasn’t and the results were inconclusive, in part because the bones couldn’t be tested properly in the time frame required by television schedules.

But there was, of course, another story here, one that was mentioned more intermittently. Life for the hundreds of African slaves set to work on the island’s vast sugar plantations was undoubtedly far, far worse than it was for the British sailors. Most of the island’s inhabitants are descended from slaves, but as Murray pointed out, their story hasn’t been told. A dig is currently underway on Antigua’s biggest plantation. Now that, 10 or even 20 years from now, would make a fascinating documentary.

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