‘If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the East. But wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way.’
Napoleon Bonaparte, 1815
On 21 October 1805, one of the most famous naval battles in history took place off the coast of Cádiz, Spain. Without losing a single ship, a British fleet under Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) decimated a combined French and Spanish fleet under the overall command of Pierre Villeneuve (1763-1806).
The nautical clash was recognised at once as both a significant win and a national tragedy. This article will look at why the Battle of Trafalgar was so important.
The run-up to Trafalgar had seen Nelson and his fleet sail over 10,000 miles while hunting for the combined French and Spanish fleets, which were finally engaged off the Cape of Trafalgar on that bloody and decisive Monday two centuries ago.
The British fleet that Nelson sailed into the big scrap at Trafalgar was huge. The force consisted of twenty-seven ships of the line [a type of naval warship] carrying a total force of around 20,000 men, with some of the larger British ships containing 900 sailors crammed into towering, creaking galleons.
This was to be one of the last major actions of the age of sail.
At around 6am on the day of battle the two giant armadas neared each other. The sailors were ready for a fight. On Nelson’s order to prepare for the attack, at 6.40am, each vessel became a furious hive of activity. Decks were sanded, guns readied, and even cows and goats were slaughtered and thrown overboard.
The battle began in earnest at about 11.50am and ended around 5.50pm.
Twenty-one French and Spanish ships of the line were captured and one was destroyed. The British suffered 458 deaths to the French and Spanish who lost 4,395 sailors.
Nelson was killed during the battle and his body was taken to London where he was the first commoner to ever receive a state funeral.
God of war
A vicar’s son from a small Norfolk village, Nelson was already a revered popular figure by the time of his death in 1805, but by dying while leading a victorious battle he became a British national hero.
A tactical genius adored by his men, he was unflinching in his pursuit of the enemy.
He viewed his campaigns in terms of ‘defence of the realm’, but he undoubtedly also had British territorial and commercial interests in mind when he went into battle.
Trafalgar was important therefore for the incalculable effect it had on the psyche of the British people. With their god of war buried in the crypt of St. Paul’s in London, the bittersweet victory at Trafalgar morphed into optimism and a renewed energy and commitment to British strength and the imperial project.
‘The emperor was beaten’
Even after 216 years, there is, however, still some contention among historians about Trafalgar’s place in the context of the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Napoleon’s downfall, and the subsequent course of British history.
Did Trafalgar save Britain?
Napoleon had, before Trafalgar, begun to assemble a mighty armada on the other side of the English Channel. Gathered at Boulogne, it consisted of 170,000 men trained to zip across the channel on landing craft and alight onto the beaches of Britain’s south coast.
Although this plan was shelved in August 1805 - and we will never know whether or not it would have succeeded anyway - it seems that Trafalgar almost certainly settled the question over whether Napoleon would be able to invade Great Britain. Britain’s overseas empire was safe, too, from Napoleon after Trafalgar, and indeed the Royal Navy annexed many enemy territories abroad following the 21 October win.
Did it help to end the war and finish the emperor?
Napoleon after Trafalgar continued to dominate the war on land for years to come, so how important could a sea victory ten years before Waterloo have been? Surely it was Wellington’s brilliance on the Iberian peninsular and his subsequent invasion of France, where he joined with a coalition that had exhausted all hopes of peace with Napoleon, marching on to Waterloo, that won the war?
This has certainly been a view held by many historians, some with an almost disparaging view of the navy as being merely a supply service for the army which sinks a few enemy ships now and again.
However, with years of cuts to the navy, Britain was actually in a precarious position by the time of Trafalgar. Despite Nelson’s excellent track record of naval victories throughout the war, Britain still needed a massive victory to ensure it remained on top. Losing Trafalgar would have left Britain vulnerable and with the prospect of waging a land campaign against Bonaparte incredibly bleak.
Things were going wrong for Napoleon, too, but the French and Spanish forces had more ships and were building more all the time. If the French and Spanish had won at Trafalgar, the consequences for Britain would likely have been devastating.
But the British did win at Trafalgar, and this spelt the beginning of the end for Napoleon. As French historian, Jean Tulard remarked: '[A]fter Trafalgar the emperor was beaten, though he did not yet know it.’
The Royal Navy after Trafalgar controlled much of coastal Europe, and this superiority enabled Britain to supply Wellington in Portugal and Spain unmolested.
Trafalgar was a vitally important victory for the British, therefore, because it enabled them to keep a foot in the door of Napoleon’s empire. The emperor had been and continued to be for several years after Trafalgar, blisteringly successful on land, so British mastery of the seas was a crucial counterweight to his dominance on terra firma.
It was not as simple as that, of course, and there were many other elements that worked both in favour of Britain and against Napoleon.
His economic, political, and diplomatic approaches did, for example, leave a lot to be desired, and though a brilliant battle commander Napoleon was in many ways his own worst enemy.
‘A nation of shopkeepers’
British victory at Trafalgar forced Napoleon’s hand. He had to try to wage war on another front: economic.
Famously calling Britain a ‘nation of shopkeepers’, he believed Britain’s modern export economy was its weakness, and that by denying the Brits a marketplace in Europe they would fold like a cheap suit. Napoleon, therefore, instigated a trade embargo against Britain across his empire. This was known as the ‘Continental System’.
This was bad news for many countries under Napoleon’s yoke. Trade with Britain was so important that it turned some of them against Napoleon, with fatal results. Bonaparte’s plan well and truly backfired, serving to incentivise Britain even more to expand its lucrative empire, and from this Britain was able to prosper and so subsidise allies in Europe, fund her armies, and see out Bonaparte’s embargo.
Napoleon was a dictator and not a diplomat. He believed his conquests and coronations would solve everything, but they were papering over the cracks of an unstable empire. War was expensive and France was stretched.
Napoleon, having lost his battle fleet at Trafalgar, was not only unable to combat Britain’s naval superiority in European waters but he was left unable to make territorial gains overseas which might have filled his coffers and saved his continental empire.
The Congress of Vienna
Although after Trafalgar Britain did not magically have the world’s oceans to itself overnight, Nelson’s victory brought an immediate British dominance of Europe’s coasts and a general British naval superiority for over a century.
Britain by the autumn of 1815 was certainly wealthier, more secure, and more powerful than it had been at the beginning of the 19th century – not just by virtue of defeating a foe, but from the winning position it put Britain in. Britain had been a banker to the beleaguered nations of the continent and was a great beneficiary of victory.
At the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), which concluded just before the Battle of Waterloo, Britain made significant overseas territorial gains from France and the Netherlands, embryonic of the British Empire’s monumental expansion in the early 19th century. In terms of the international relations of Europe, Vienna was to shape the following one hundred years. This is evident in the fact that an academic study of the Congress of Vienna was included in British preparations for the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.