Nelson at Trafalgar Copyrighted image Credit: photos.com

We all know that Nelson won at Trafalgar in 1805. But who lost? The battle didn’t keep the French from invading: Napoleon had already given up waiting at Boulogne and gone off to beat the Austrians. Nor did it end French world power: France bounced back after 1815, carving out a new empire in Africa and the Far East, and the French navy was enough to give the British Admiralty some sleepless nights for the rest of the century. The real loser was Spain, the other bit of the Combined Fleet. The Spanish Empire still dominated the Caribbean in the 18th Century and ruled all of South and Central America.

Trafalgar was a crushing blow for Spanish naval power, and the subsequent unchallenged British sea power negated that of Spain utterly. Not only that, but when Spain’s American possessions erupted into revolt, many key roles were played by British mercenaries – veterans of the Napoleonic wars. Spain, with no navy worth speaking of, could not intervene effectively.

The Spanish asked for support at the international Congress of Verona in 1822, only to be snubbed by the British, the naval superpower. Canning could ‘call the new world in’ only because of what Nelson had done 17 years before at Trafalgar.

First broadcast: Monday 16 May 2005 on BBC Radio 4