If you enjoyed the article in our current issue about amputee naval officers in the 19th-century British Navy, here’s good news: The book on which the article is based is now available. It’s called Lame Captains and Left-Handed Admirals: Amputee Officers in Nelson’s Navy, and you can get it direct from the publisher or from Bookshop.org. It’s not a cheap book, so you might also see if your local library has a copy.
One way or the other, we recommend Lame Captains for its description of the surprisingly enlightened views of disability that prevailed in the Royal Navy three centuries ago. You’ll also recognize many points of similarity between that culture and our own. Many of that era’s challenges and adaptations to limb loss will feel very familiar to contemporary readers. So, too, will the role of wartime in increasing amputees’ visibility throughout the broader society and challenging stereotypes about disability.
The book’s author, Teresa Michals, is quoted several times in the magazine article, but we learned a lot more from her than we were able to fit into the print edition. Here’s a longer version of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
What got you hooked on this subject?
I think what struck me about the [amputee] officers was that this is not a historical representation I had ever seen before. I had seen amputees [of that era] portrayed as grotesque, foreign, monstrous. Yet here were these professional men with successful lives, public figures who were perfectly well known and admired. So I thought on that count they were stories that would be of interest.
How did you notice the pattern? What led you to realize these officers weren’t isolated cases but more of an actual trend with some historical significance?
I was trained as a literary critic, and the way we think is: “Here’s an idea we take for granted, but if you look closely there’s another side to it. There’s a deeper level of meaning.” With Horatio Nelson, he’s in his own category as a national hero, literally on his own plane on an enormously tall pedestal [in Trafalgar Square]. What gets taken for granted is that he’s an amputee. I had done studies on Horatio Nelson and I was working on another book that was set in the same time period, so I was just trying to do my homework and find out how unusual he was [as an amputee in the Navy]. And I couldn’t find an answer.
In Nelson’s letters, there were passing mentions of things like: “I took the carriage to the ceremony with another admiral, and he didn’t have a leg, and we were laughing about [our shared differences].” There were these casual mentions that made it sound like he was not the only one. So I started to look into it and do actual archival work. I had a simple question—how unusual was Nelson as an amputee?—that I thought would be easy to answer. But I couldn’t find a simple answer. So that’s how the book started.
Was disability of interest to you personally?
I don’t have a personal connection to the subject, but I teach at George Mason University, which has been a pretty accessible place for students with disabilities. I’ve been there for 25 years, and I’ve started to see disability as a normal part of everyday life. I have more students with visible disabilities going about their business and going about their lives. We also have a good number of veterans, so we’ve had young men in the gym who’ve lost part of a leg, coming back from a long war. That was in my mind too. I knew the Napoleonic Wars were long wars, and the war in Afghanistan was a long war. So it raised this question of: What do you do when you get injured, you’ve lost part of your body, and the war’s still going on?
How were you able to identify all these officers who’d become amputees? How did you ascertain which limb they lost, the circumstances of their loss, and so forth? This is all three centuries ago. It sounds like a monumental research job.
There are two answers to that. One is that the Royal Navy was a relatively modern bureaucracy, so getting pensions was a huge business. There were lots and lots of records. They’re called the Admiralty Records. It’s an abundance of riches. You can dive into these things and never come out. The circumstances of the injury, that fact it was incurred in actual combat—not while drunk and brawling—that’s all recorded. Everyone on the ship, from the captain and the medical officer on down, had to sign for that. They’re great records. They’re rich.
But before I went to Greenwich to look through the archives, I started with John Marshall’s multi-volume naval biographies. Marshall served as an officer toward the end of the [Napoleonic Wars], and he saw it as his mission to put all these little biographies together, because he thought people were forgetting already—this very long war had finally ended, and everyone was eager to move on. [Marshall’s] volumes are digitized, so you don’t need to go to an archive to look at them. They’re available on Google, and they’re searchable. You can type in “arm,” and you can type in “leg,” and you can see what comes up. That was the first thing I did. It was incredibly simple. If an officer lost an arm or a leg, that was likely to get mentioned in Marshall’s one-paragraph or two-paragraph or two-page biography. It was a great starting place.
There’s very detailed personal information about some of these men. Where did that come from?
Family memoirs. These officers’ families were very proud of them. James Alexander Gordon’s daughter got his papers in order and got them printed up for the family. It wasn’t published, but it was in print. That book is available in the archives, and there were other sources of that type.
As you dove into the project, did you have a set of specific patterns you were looking for, or did they just emerge as you did your research?
I went into it focused on the representation [of limb loss], because I come from literary criticism. There was this whole debate about the heroic statue of Nelson [at the time it was commissioned]. People said, “You can’t depict a hero without two arms.” There were paintings as well. Nelson was one of the first and one of the few [amputee officers] who insisted on full frontal poses—“My arm’s not there, but I’m not turning sideways.” It seemed like a very deliberate choice, and that really interested me.
But when it became clear that losing an arm or leg, under these specific circumstances, was part of a whole career path—an unusual one, but not a unique one—I thought I had to establish that part of the story before I delved into portraits or statutes. Among military history buffs, the Royal Navy has this deserved reputation of being a ruthless fighting machine. It defeated Napoleon. So the fact that this ruthless fighting machine needed and valued amputee officers should tell us something.
With respect to representation: As you describe in the book, there was a performative element to it. These men weren’t passive objects of public perception. They played an active role in shaping how they were perceived, and specifically how their limb loss would be perceived.
Yes, that’s something I read in contemporaneous accounts, and that’s a connection with [amputees] today. These officers knew, “People are going to stare, so what am I going do about that?” The fact that they were officers meant these men had gotten very good at being looked at. That was their job—to stand there and project confidence while bombs are falling all over and bullets are flying. Being seen in public and wearing the uniform was an extension of that, so there’s a very conscious act of self-presentation and managing how other people see them.
That’s different from what I’ve read about physical difference and visibility in 18th and 19th century England. The two ways I’ve seen people write about this before are the discourse of sensibility—the rise of pity and charity, where people think: “It makes me a better person by feeling sympathy for your terrible loss”—and the older idea of the monstrous, the strange, even evil—that you’re not the image of God, or not the way God meant you to be. But the idea that you could make this part of your professional image, that you could really say it’s like a medal, was new. “I’m Nelson: Here’s all my medals, here’s my empty sleeve, you may bow”— you know, he was giving people a new way to react. It was definitely self-conscious. There’s lots of evidence of him very deliberately controlling people’s perceptions, telling them how they’re supposed to react.
The other three officers who I focus on in the book all had family stories or anecdotes about this very self-conscious shaping of people’s perceptions. The friendship between Michael Seymour and James Alexander Gordon is an example. Gordon lost a leg, Seymour lost an arm, and they had set routines they would do in front of people. One would say, “I pity you,” and the other would come back, “No, I pity you.” It was very much about self-presentation in a very deliberate, conscious way.
Many amputees I’ve talked to feel a burden: “I have to put other people at ease with my limb difference.” They often feel as if it’s work they’re obliged to do—to dissipate tension, to break the ice. Did any of that come through in the stories you read?
It did. Every individual deals with it differently I’m sure, by in my book I’m looking at officers who had really successful careers. So I think they were OK with the idea that they were performing and people were looking at them. It is work. One of the contemporary scholars I cited, who is an amputee himself, used the term “performing able-bodiedness.” That is a really interesting concept. “I have a limb difference, but I will show you all the ways that I’m a competent to carry on my life as an adult. I’m performing able-bodiedness for you so you don’t make assumptions about me that would limit me.”
One clear example of this: Michael Seymour had lost an arm, and his wife liked to garden, so he would climb up a ladder and trim the hedge with shears using his one hand, and neighbors would come to watch him do that. His wife was probably used to it, but for other people it was a novelty. It was a performance. Another example—the most famous example—is Horatio Nelson himself. Right after the battle where he got his arm shot off, he reboarded his ship and climbed up the side with one hand instead of being hauled aboard. He was saying, “I’m still in command.”
Performing can be a burden, and it can be something other people impose on you. But because these men were officers who had a whole lot of authority, it seems more like a power move than an imposition. They were in control of most situations, so they were dictating how they were seen.
When we talk about “normalizing” limb difference, we often talk about positioning it on the same continuum as routine physical variations in human experience, alongside things like hip replacement or arthritis or back pain.
Right, instead of it being something that turns you into either a monster or a saint. What I tried to show in the book was how much a part of everyday life the amputee officers in the British Navy were. They weren’t set apart. I don’t want to imply that amputation was easy for them. It was a loss. It was painful. It created all kinds of challenges. But within the culture of the Navy, it didn’t take you out of the game. You could continue to rise as an officer and do the things you were good at, and that wasn’t unusual.
It’s a less rigid way of thinking about disability.
You can even see it in the phrase “Able Seaman” [which became a quasi-official naval rank in the 1700s]. It meant you had a certain number of years of service and a certain set of skills; it didn’t mean you had two arms and two legs. I’ve got two arms and two legs, but I could never have done what these [amputee] officers did. And most people couldn’t.
My book focused on officers, but there were definitely amputees among ordinary seamen. I’m not sure how many there were, but there definitely were many missing fingers and eyes. It was a long war, and it took a long time to train a sailor. Once you had that experience, you were very valuable to the Navy. It didn’t matter what your body looked like as long as you could do the job.
Nelson had lost one eye in addition to the fact that he was missing an arm. Yet this was the guy they kept sending out to fight the French. That’s part of what makes him so unique, the contrast between military masculinity—the indestructible body—and his body, which was so visibly different.
For people who aren’t familiar with Nelson, is there a modern-day figure who you could compare him to?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure there is a good comparison. The British were under threat of invasion [from France], and people were truly afraid. But Nelson provided this sense of security. He made people feel safer, just by the fact that he was out there cruising the Channel or cruising the ocean, blowing up and capturing French ships. I can’t think of any hero today who has that same immediacy.
He also exposed himself to danger, leading from the front. That was a [Royal] Navy thing—you were right in the thick of the battle. Our military today is so big and so complicated. There are lots of heroic people in it, and lots of great leaders, but as far as a leader who’s in the direct line of fire at that level . . . . I don’t know that there’s a modern comparison.
Maybe someone like Patton or MacArthur?
Maybe. They had the same swagger and the same genius for self-presentation. MacArthur had that corncob pipe, having a visual trademark. That’s the performative aspect again, like being an actor.
Having closely studied the normalization of limb difference in that culture, do you see any echoes in today’s culture that encourage you?
As a professor, I’m encouraged by the increasing visibility of people with different abilities and aptitudes. People with disabilities have always been part the community but they haven’t always been vocal about their identity. Today people aren’t keeping quiet, and I think that’s good. They’re much more assertive about shaping perceptions. People don’t want to be accepted “in spite of” a disability. They want to be recognized for who they are.
I also think [the book] supports the idea that disability is socially constructed. It’s not the limb difference that’s disabling, it’s society’s unwillingness to accommodate the limb difference. And where I least expected to find it—in this violent institution that offered no legal protections for anyone with a disability—they made accommodations to enable amputees.