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Nelson and the bear: the making of an Arctic myth

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2005

Huw W.G. Lewis-Jones
Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Lensfield Road, Cambridge CB2 1ER


Recent biographers of Horatio Nelson (1758–1805) have begun the job of attempting to differentiate the man from the ‘myth.’ A necessary stage in the assessment of any historical figure is the identification of the legendary aspects that make up that figure's reputation. The tale of the young Nelson engaging a huge polar bear on an ice floe off Spitsbergen in 1773 has been met with varying degrees of delight and dismissal through the years, and is one of the events an examination of which could improve an understanding of Nelson and his reputation. This paper draws upon a study of primary and secondary materials: original manuscripts and correspondence, early nineteenth-century popular biographies, souvenirs and pamphlets, periodical reviews, and a wide selection of adult and juvenile literature. This paper examines the developments of Nelsonian biography and hagiography. In a broader sense, an extended examination of the literary and visual manifestations of Nelson's encounter with the bear becomes a useful historiographical exercise into the genesis of a myth.

2005 Cambridge University Press

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