The 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar takes place on 21 October this year. Lord Nelson’s great victory, commemorated by his grand and intimidating column in Trafalgar Square at the heart of London, has become a touchstone for heroic endeavour. With its stirring narrative of the undaunted hero vanquishing superior forces, in this case the combined Spanish and French fleet, it is central to the mythic elements of “our island story”. It also, incidentally, delivers a blow to “multiculturalism”, that curious and very politically correct notion that a country can retain its particular identity while surrendering its particular culture.
Adam Nicolson, author of several books on nautical subjects, is well placed to write an account of Trafalgar and its charismatic admiral. He is a romantic, always responsive to an imaginative interpretation of events and with a highly developed awareness of the subtle and complex forces and ideas at play behind historic occasions.
His theme in this book is that deeper forces are at work in Trafalgar than merely daring strategy and good fortune. For him the “apocalyptic tradition” and millenarian fever at the dawn of the 19th century combined to mould in the English consciousness the idea of “a conjuring, wise, intuitive, violent and triumphant leader”. Lord Nelson, whom Nicolson unashamedly reveres, conveniently fitted this description. The portrait Nicolson paints of him in these pages is a compelling one, deeply attractive to those who believe that history is more often than not the story of great men.
Nelson is recklessly brave – “I have not been brought up in the school of fear” he announces loftily to a critic, and Earl St Vincent, his commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, spoke of his “animal courage”. He also has an unswerving sense of his own destiny. Aged only 17 he wrote, “A sudden glow of patriotism was kindled within me… I exclaimed: ‘I will be a hero and… will brave every danger.’” Alongside this was great attention to every detail required to make the English man-of-war supremely efficient for its purpose; and a fraternal devotion to his fellow-officers. “Kiss me, Hardy”, spoken to one of his captains and closest friends, was his dying request, now immortalised alongside his message before battle commenced: “England expects that every man will do his duty”. Like Alexander the Great, Nelson also cared about his men – though he could be as brutal towards mutineers as the next captain – standing godfather to the children of those wounded under his command.
In support of his thesis Nicolson quotes to persuasive effect the Romantic poets of the age, Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge. It is certainly an original notion that Blake’s Tyger, tyger somehow encapsulates the violence, mystery and self-belief of the nation that shaped a naval commander such as Nelson. Trying to describe a shift in national consciousness – in this case from the rational, Apollonian 18th century to the passionate, Dionysian early 19th century – requires many intuitive leaps in the argument, and Nicolson is more than happy to provide an endless flow of fascinating and stimulating conjecture, such as suggesting that Jane Austen’s arrogant and saturnine Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice symbolises the Nelson-type hero, superseding the more elegant 18th century-type of Mr Bingley.
This being stated, the book is not merely fanciful. There is a huge wealth of detail – much of it culled from the Naval Records Society – which makes it an enthralling and informative story. For instance, the Spanish gun crews could only fire one round every five minutes from their cannon, whereas the best British crews could fire a round every 60 seconds. The British sailors were called “limeys” because they had plentiful supplies of lemons and limes to counteract scurvy, a dietary addition disdained by their enemies. By 1805 the Royal Navy was “the most efficient maritime killing machine in the world”.
Midshipmen had to have seen active service for 6 years before sitting an arduous practical exam to be promoted to the officer class, in contrast to the French naval school which laid more emphasis on mathematics and navigational theory than seamanship. Perhaps all this accounts for the British confidence at Trafalgar. Nicolson suggests that the battle was won before the engagement: each member of the crew knew his task and was skilled at it; their officers were encouraged to take their own initiative (rather than following orders, like the Combined Fleet).
“Zeal” was what mattered, rather than obedience; unlike the French and Spanish commanders, who had an archaic sense of honour that remained intact in defeat. The English naval officers needed to win in order to achieve honourable status in the mind of the public at home. Captains who were too cautious were severely censured by John Bull. “Navies reflect the societies from which they come”, observes the author, and English society in the early 19th century was mercantile, bourgeois, entrepreneurial and dynamic, again in contrast to their more hierarchical neighbours.
The structure of the book is the day of battle. Divided into two parts, the first describes the morning of 21 October 1805 and the second the battle itself. Here Nicolson’s imagination is at its strongest and he gives a heart-stopping account of the brutal realities of naval warfare: the surgeons ready with their warmed instruments (Nelson never forgot the coldness of the steel when his arm was amputated in the Canaries some years before) yet looking “more like butchers than doctors”, the blood and guts swamping the decks (every ship carried in its stores the paint necessary to efface the gore), the crews singing “Hearts of Oak” before the fight began, the officers dressed in silk stockings and deliberately exposing themselves on deck to show an example to the men – all the elements are here for the making of the Trafalgar myth of later years.
Nicolson’s verdict on the battle is that success was due to the “independent ferocity and fighting aggression of each British ship” and to Nelson’s own example of leadership. Nelson wanted, in his own words, “a pell-mell Battle” in which he could demonstrate “the Nelson touch”: sudden, violent, daring and unpredictable aggression, not decorous, 18th century, face to face combat in a long line of ships but infiltrating the enemy’s lines, attacking the rear, causing havoc and expecting his captains to “do their duty” and imitate him in their initiative and “zeal”. Of particular interest is the chapter devoted to what happened when the battle was over: the storms, sinking of booty ships and the kindness and compassion shown by the English crews to their wounded and stranded opponents.
The book includes a number of portraits of Nelson, showing the evolution of the Romantic hero: glamorous, resolute and reflective. The famous “Death of Nelson” by Arthur William Devis deliberately adopts a Christ-like image with its faintly suggested halo, white shroud-clothes and mourning officers; this, even more than written history (his dying lasted for over two hours; long enough for many poignant remarks to be recorded) enshrines Nelson for ever in the national consciousness.
There is much here to absorb the general reader. Nicolson has immersed himself in the records of the period – diaries, letters, log books and journals as well as the official data – and tells his tale with fluent and poetical panache. I would have liked notes or references to the quoted passages, apart from the bibliography at the end. This omission seems deliberate, to make the story flow more seamlessly.
Given the detailed description of Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, it would have been helpful to have a visual diagram of this iconic ship which took ten years to build, for although I have visited the Victory at Portsmouth, along with the thousands down the years who have gazed in awe at the great oaks which gird her since she was towed to her final berth, my memory of parts is patchy. But this is a small omission in an otherwise fine book, well worthy of its subject. After reading it I was persuaded that on an October day 200 hundred years ago Britannia did indeed rule the waves.
Francis Phillips, who is married with eight children, lives in Bucks, in the UK. Her reviews often appear in British Catholic publications.