Tomorrow, exactly 211 years ago, one man managed to change the course of history, and shape the world that was to come. But first, let me set the stage – the year was 1805. The First French Empire had been established by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte a bit more than a year ago. Napoleon’s Grande Armée was marching across Europe, scoring streaks of historic victories that gave Napoleon an unprecedented grip on power over the entire continent.
Off the coast of Europe, however, was a group of small islands that viewed the events on the continent with some concern. King George III, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, knew that should the Grande Armée make it to UK soil, they could not expect reinforcement from opposing continental forces, and the British Isles would fall.
Already during the French Revolution, the Royal Navy had enacted a successful naval blockade of France, and after the Peace of Amiens was broken, Napoleon was determined that such a blockade should not stand. For his invasion to succeed, the Royal Navy must not be able to intercept the invasion flotilla – which meant Napoleon had to gain control on the English Channel.
His plan was for the French and allied Spanish Armadas in the Mediterranean to converge and join forces, then return to Cadiz, breaking through the British blockade, and clear the channel of Royal Navy ships. Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve was in charge of the fleet, and broke through the British blockade, setting off to the Caribbean, to add those ships to his fleet, with the British in pursuit.
In August, Villeneuve set off for Europe once again, but that same month, another man finally returned to the British Isles after two years at sea. The Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson. Nelson was a veteran of the Royal Navy, well-known for his unconventional battle tactics, as well as his battlefield injuries. He had lost his right eye at the Battle of Calvi in Corsica and his right arm in the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, but had, sans the arm and eye, won decisive victories against the French at the Battle of the Nile and over the Danes at the Battle of Copenhagen afterwards.
On 2 September, Villeneuve’s fleet had reached Cadiz, but the HMS Victory, Nelson’s ship, was not ready. Villeneuve’s fleet was resupplying, however, and Nelson set sail on the 15th of September, to take command of the Royal Navy Fleet on 28 September. The French and Spanish Armada had 41 ships, of which 33 was ships of the line, while the Royal Navy fleet had but 33 ships, with 27 being ships of the line. On 18 October, Vice-Admiral Villeneuve received word that six British ships had docked at Gibraltar – and assuming the British fleet was weakened, prepared to set sail.
By 20 October, the fleet was organised, and set sail for the Strait of Gibraltar. British frigates noticed, and notified Nelson – he set off in pursuit. That same night, the French noticed the British were in pursuit, and began preparation for battle. At the time, the traditional battle plan was to approach an enemy fleet in a single line, firing broadside in parallel lines – with the entire fleet in line, signalling could be done in battle, improving control. But it also allowed any side to disengage by breaking away, and the other side had to break formation to pursue.
Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson was having none of that. He wanted a conclusive battle, and so instead he decided to cut the opposing line in three, approaching perpendicularly with two lines of ships. This would interfere with their signalling, and well as surround a third of their ships. At 8 am of 21 October 1805, Villeneuve ordered his ships to turn around to face the Royal Navy. By 11am, the two fleets could see each other, and off the coast of Cape Trafalgar the fight drew close. Villeneuve was concerned about the two parallel columns, but Nelson was outnumbered and outgunned. The French had nearly 30,000 men and 2,568 guns to England’s 17,000 men and 2,148 guns.
At 11h45, Nelson sent his second-to-last signal, “England expects that every man will do his duty.” A great cheer went up across the fleet as the message was relayed. Then he signalled, “Engage the enemy more closely,” and the battle was joined. At noon, the first shots were fired. Vice-Admiral Collingwood on the HMS Royal Sovereign said to his officers, "Now, gentlemen, let us do something today which the world may talk of hereafter." The Battle of Trafalgar had begun.
The HMS Victory herself was under fire for 40 minutes from the Redoubtable, who had a strong infantry corps – and who tried to board the HMS Victory, but as a second British ship approached and fired on the French crew, their casualties became insurmountable. Unfortunately, they had dealt stunning damage – shortly after 13h00, a marksman from the Redoubtable had fired on Nelson, and stuck him in the spine. He said, “You can do nothing for me. I have but a short time to live. My back is shot through.” And was carried below decks.
By 13h55, the Redoubtable had surrendered. Another two ships surrendered shortly thereafter, as more and more British ships entered the battle. Nelson was informed of the ships surrendering shortly afterwards, and begged Captain Hardy to pass his possession to Lady Emma Hamilton, his mistress. After three hours of battle, the outnumbered British fleet had captured 22 ships of the Franco-Spanish Armanda, and lost none. Nelson, whose strategies had handed them a spectacular victory, lay dying. His surgeon heard him say the words, “Thank god I have done my duty,” and became weak. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson, 1st Duke of Bronté, died 3 hours after he was shot.
In the aftermath, the French Empire no longer had a significant navy to deploy, and any plans the Emperor Napoleon had for invading the British Isles were permanently scuppered. Instead, he turned his attention eastwards, to Russia – a costly mistake that would result in his final defeat by the Duke of Wellington on 18 June, 1815. The Royal Navy was not seriously challenged at sea again for more than 100 years, and their prowess on the oceans gave way to the Pax Brittanica, with their unchallenged sea power.
The British Empire grew to become the largest empire the world had ever seen, with at its height covering 24% of the world’s surface, and comprising 23% of the world’s population. Their culture was exported to the world, and their norms became world norms. Nelson’s victory is the reason we here in Namibia have a Parliament, speak English and play sports such as soccer, rugby and cricket. And as for Nelson himself…
In the UK, in the city of Westminster, there is a square, 110m by 110m, known as Trafalgar Square – commemorating his battle. In this square, you’ll find a 52m tall column, with a statue at the top, of an officer in Naval uniform, missing an arm – a statue of Nelson, atop Nelson’s Column, looking out over the city and country he had loved so much. So whenever someone tell you that they are unimportant, and that they cannot change things, tell them his story. Because the right man or woman, at the right time, doing the right thing, can change the course of history.