in-chief of the Neapolitan navy, immediately ordered the senior Neapolitan officer then present to assemble a court-martial to try him on charges of ‘rebellion against his lawful sovereign,’ and of ‘firing at the king's colours hoisted on board the king's frigate Minerva.’ The court assembled, found him guilty, and sentenced him to death. Thereupon Nelson ordered the sentence to be carried into execution the same afternoon, and the man was hanged at the foreyard arm of the Minerve. The Jacobins and their friends raised a violent outcry, and by their clamour succeeded in persuading many that Nelson had been guilty of a breach of faith and of murder; that he had treacherously obtained possession of the forts by means of a capitulation, and in violation of its terms had put to death Caracciolo and many others. On a careful examination it is difficult to see that Nelson could have acted otherwise. He had been appointed by the king commander-in-chief of the Neapolitan navy, and he had ordered a court-martial on Caracciolo, as an officer under his command guilty of mutiny, desertion, and rebellion. As to the other executions, which seem to have been justly called for, he had no further responsibility than that of restoring and maintaining the civil power which carried them out—services which were officially recognised by his being created Duke of Bronté in Sicily, and in the following year knight grand cross of the order of St. Ferdinand and Merit. It was, however, alleged against him that he allowed himself, for love of Lady Hamilton, to be made the instrument of the queen's vengeance. Current scandal had indeed for several months accused Nelson and Lady Hamilton of an undue intimacy, but it is well attested that with the annulling of the capitulation and with the death of Caracciolo Lady Hamilton had absolutely nothing to do.
A much more serious imputation on Nelson's conduct, because it is one of which it is impossible wholly to acquit him, is the charge of having been unduly influenced by his passion for this woman to disobey the orders of the commander-in-chief. On 19 July Nelson received a letter from Lord Keith, who had succeeded St. Vincent, acquainting him with the movements of the French. Keith had reason to believe the French had no design of attempting anything against Sicily, and he ordered Nelson to join him at once at Port Mahon with the whole of his force, or at least to send him the greater part of it. Nelson deliberately and distinctly refused to obey. ‘I have no scruple,’ he wrote, ‘in deciding that it is better to save the kingdom of Naples, and risk Minorca, than to risk the kingdom of Naples to save Minorca.’ At the same time he wrote to Lord Spencer, the first lord of the admiralty, explaining and defending his conduct; dwelling—as he had dwelt to Keith—on the danger that Naples and Sicily would run by the withdrawal of the squadron. In the face of orders from the commander-in-chief this was a consideration with which he had no concern; but it was thought then, and may be fairly supposed now, that very great social pressure was exerted at Naples to persuade him that the matter was one for him to determine, and that, perhaps unconsciously, he yielded to the influence. There can, indeed, be no question that at this time he was infatuated by his passion for Lady Hamilton, and was extremely likely to have his judgment warped on any measure which would separate him from her. His disobedience, however, was not to produce any good or ill effects. In due time he received a letter from the admiralty expressing grave disapproval of his conduct; but long before, on a second and more stringent order from Keith, he had detached a strong squadron to Minorca, against which, indeed, the French do not seem to have entertained any hostile intentions.
When Keith withdrew to the Atlantic, and to Brest, Nelson was left for a while commander-in-chief; but he displayed no marked enthusiasm for his duties. With the exception of a fortnight in October, in which he visited Mahon, he remained at Naples or Palermo, in close attendance on the Neapolitan court. Whether it really was for the good of the service that he should remain at Palermo, with or without his flagship, may very well be doubted. It is certain that his best friends felt that it was not; that Troubridge urged him to exertion; that Admiral Samuel Granston Goodall [q. v.], in an affectionate letter from London, wrote on 15 Nov.: ‘They say here you are Rinaldo in the arms of Armida, and that it requires the firmness of an Ubaldo and his brother knight to draw you from the enchantress’ (Nicolas, iv. 205 n); and a couple of months later Suvorof wrote from Prague, on 12 Jan. 1800: ‘Je vous croyais de Malte en Égypte pour y écraser le reste des surnaturels athées de notre temps par les Arabes! Palerme n'est pas Cithère’ (Athenæum, 1876, i. 396). Whether Nelson was offended at Suvorof's frankness or not, he did not reply to the letter, and Suvorof died in the following May. But to friends and foreigners alike he paid no attention in this matter, and continued to give his directions to the station, and to regulate the blockade of Egypt and Malta, while himself remaining on shore at Palermo.