Britain’s rulers have reason to be grateful to Horatio Nelson for his victory at the Battle of Trafalgar 200 years ago this week, a victory that would be decisive for the creation of the British Empire.
France and Britain had been fighting a long war for control of the world. This started when the French had their revolution in 1789 and chopped off their king’s head four years later.
When they did that, Britain went to war with them. It was a war against revolution — a war for kings and to preserve the old power. Britain was allied with all the corrupt and repressive regimes of old Europe. The war started in 1793 and lasted, with a small break, until 1815. Trafalgar took place in 1805 and was the decisive sea battle.
The French had one advantage. They had recently had a revolution in which peasants had taken the land. They had the mass levy — mass conscription. It was the first time any government had the confidence to call up all of its young men into the army.
The French men called up were overwhelmingly peasants. They were fighting for the land that they had taken — and they were willing to die. That passion meant that the French army swept all before it.
But the British military had a decisive advantage — sea power. This was the product, not of passion, but of industry and technical knowledge.
The “man of war” sailing ship was the most complex and most incredible of all the machines that human beings had yet built, with thousands of moving parts. To work the sails and the guns required 300 to 600 men. Along with naval shipyards, these ships were the big workplaces of their day.
They were also extremely expensive. And a big imperial power might have 60 to 80 “man of war” ships. These great naval warships, with their tiers of cannon, were the cutting edge of military technology. Each was like a floating factory.
War for empire
Britain was edging ahead to become the leading power because it was the first industrial economy. But in 1793 it wasn’t that far ahead of the French empire in terms of naval power. British ships were badly constructed in comparison to their French counterparts.
Shipping was the most important industry in Britain. Many more people worked in merchant sailing and shipping than in textiles and mines. The sheer number of sailors and sheer wealth from the slave trade gave Britain a head start on France.
France had an army that could beat pretty much anyone. But Britain had a navy that had to defend the homeland and the empire from invasion. So Britain’s industrial power was directed into the navy — they built more and more ships at breakneck speed.
For the first seven or eight years of the war, Britain was hardly ever directly involved in fighting in Europe. The decisive battles were all in slave colonies in the West Indies and in India. This was a war for empire.
The French Revolution had exploded like a fire in the minds of people in the West Indies. It spoke over and over again of liberty — and it spoke of breaking chains. The slaves were the people who were kept in chains and who desperately wanted freedom.
They heard the news that was coming from France, which also spoke to the poor white people of the islands.
The most important place was Haiti, which rose up in 1791. The average life expectancy of a slave there was around five years — slave owners quite literally worked these people to death.
The sugar plantations in the north of Haiti were set on fire as slaves killed their masters. All through the islands slaves began to rise up and fight.
From the point of view of the British two things were necessary. First, they had to put down these risings. And second, this was an ideal opportunity to seize those islands from the French.
But the British came up against the courage of the slave resistance. The slaves were fighting for their freedom. And in Haiti, they won.
This was really the beginning of the end for slavery. So although Britain had taken control of the West Indies from France, it could no longer run the islands cheaply on slave labour.
Once the empire building was settled, the battle came back to Europe. At first the naval war was concentrated in the Mediterranean. French leader Napoleon and his generals were trying to seize lines of communication to India, and Britain was trying to stop them.
Nelson had won the crucial Battle of the Nile in 1798, which secured British control of the Mediterranean. This allowed the British navy to keep French ships pinned down in French and Spanish sea ports for many years. Spain was a reluctant ally of France at the time.
The French just couldn’t get out.The British tacked up and down in front of them endlessly, month after month keeping them penned in.
But the British were always fearful that the French might break through. For if the French navy could get to the open sea, they could bring an invading army that would surely conquer Britain.
In 1805 there finally was a confrontation. There were only six naval battles of any size during the 22 year period of the war. If you were a sailor, your chances of dying through warfare at sea were very small — disease, executions and floggings were a far greater danger.
If you look at accounts from the time everybody was “anti-war”. Captains of the “hang ’em and flog ’em” brigade said that battles were terrible things. There was bravery — but there wasn’t any denial of the cruelty of the war.
And people approached war with a much higher moral standard. During the Battle of the Nile one of the French ships exploded. Both sides stopped the fighting and sent out small boats to rescue everybody they could who was floating in the water. Can you imagine anyone doing that today?
Horatio Nelson was probably the single most creative imperial leader that Britain had. He does not sit on that pillar in Trafalgar Square for nothing — he truly was a hero to the ruling class. But he was also a truly horrible right wing man. This was the era of the French Revolution. This was the era of mass insurrections in the British navy. He hated all of it.
At Trafalgar the French and Spanish fleets escaped from port and the British navy trapped them just off the Cape of Trafalgar in southern Spain. Conventional naval strategy was that the opposing fleets approached each other in parallel lines, blasting away at each other as they passed.
At Trafalgar the British attacked side on, cutting the line and splitting the French fleet in two.
Half the French fleet was isolated and Nelson concentrated his firepower on destroying them, before doubling back and attacking the other half. After the victory at Trafalgar Britain was poised to be the major imperial power.
At the war’s end Britain had secured a global network of naval bases from which it could sally forth to crush any opposition. In a sense this is not dissimilar to US strategy today, which rings the globe with military bases.
Round those bases the British Empire expanded. But that also led to resistance and rebellion. It is worth restating that by the time of Trafalgar the former slaves of Haiti had defeated two empires to secure its independence.