The Battle That Changed The World
Nelson's brilliant victory at Trafalgar shaped history and enshrined his name among its greatest warriors
This again raises the question about the importance of Nelson and Trafalgar: Did either truly shape the course of history? Can great people, or great events, ever matter as much as economic and demographic factors, climate and natural resources, structures of social and political organization--those big, impersonal forces that Karl Marx and others argued were the real engines of historical change?
Great timing. Roger Knight, author of one of the excellent new Nelson biographies, emphasizes an important fact: "Nelson was fortunate to reach senior rank at just the right time, on the crest of a wave of British naval superiority." Even more, though, Nelson's career peaked at a time when Britain's long-developing geopolitical ascendancy--territorial, economic, and military--faced one of its greatest challenges. For most of the 18th century, Britain had committed itself to strength at sea, not only to protect trade with its growing colonial possessions but also to control access to the western and eastern entrances to the channel that separated it from the Continent. The latter, crucial to national self-protection, also allowed Britain to interfere with other nations' trading ships that used the channel as passage to and from northern European ports, including those in the Baltic. After the Seven Years' War (1756-63), when it received territories in the West Indies and America from France and Spain, Britain had lowered its guard a bit and suffered some surprising naval setbacks in the American Revolutionary War. After that, the Admiralty devoted itself to making the Royal Navy the strongest, largest, and most ably manned navy in the world.
Napoleon's rise to power and near domination of continental Europe were built on ground force, but the emperor considered Britain--and particularly its sea power--his true nemesis, and he dreamed of one day invading it. The alliance he formed with Spain was part of that plan. But based on what he had learned from the Battle of the Nile, he knew that his dream was not without risk. He had no naval commander equal to Nelson. Unlike most other naval commanders, including British ones, Nelson never fought just to make a better showing than his foes, backing off when things got too bloody. Nelson fought to overwhelm and annihilate them, shedding his own blood if necessary. He fought at sea the way Napoleon fought on land--a sobering thought to the emperor. If he could keep Nelson occupied, however, Napoleon believed, he might be able to score a few success-es against British ships. Then he could swallow up Europe and take care of Russia. And then, finally, he could return to Britain.
Trafalgar dashed that dream by establishing Britain's unquestioned naval supremacy. That supremacy not only made invasion of Britain unthinkable; it allowed Britain to control the channel trade and use the profits from it to pay the continental coalition against Napoleon. "Sea power works like radium," says Palmer. "It takes time. It worked a slow death on France. And Trafalgar was part of that."
Was Britain's mastery of the seas, and the eventual demise of Napoleon, good for the world? That depends, of course, on whether one thinks the growing interconnectedness of the world--one certain consequence of the British Empire and the trade that moved throughout it--was a good thing. When Britain abandoned its restrictive Navigation Acts in the mid-19th century, it gave a strong boost to free trade among all nations across sea routes made somewhat more secure by the presence of British naval power--a further boost to globalization.