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Listen to The Battle of Trafalgar

Updated Monday 13th September 2010

Nelson's victory may be famous; but what did it lead to? Michael Portillo explores the less glorious aftermath for the BBC/OU series The Things We Forgot to Remember

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Michael
With the sound of fountains behind me I’m at the heart of the capital city in that place which famously commemorates the Battle of Trafalgar. But here there’s no National Gallery and Nelson’s Column is strangely absent. The cafés aren’t selling coffee and sandwiches, they’re selling café con leche and bocadillos. And that’s because I’m in the Calle de Trafalgar in Madrid. Like Trafalgar Square in London this street reminds us of that patch of ocean on which was fought one of the most heroic naval battles of all time. A story in which victorious Nelson defeats a tyrannical Napoleon and thus saves Britain from invasion. But like many good stories this one isn’t quite what it seems.

Augustin
Always we have been talking about the struggle between France and Britain and not paying attention to Spain. Spain has been the forgotten ally in the interpretation of the Battle of Trafalgar.

James
Outside of Spain I think the real consequences of the Battle have been overlooked.

Colin
I do find that people find it difficult to come to terms with the idea that the Spanish would be our enemies. It’s often forgotten they were even there.

Michael
That Horatio Nelson defeated the French at Trafalgar was probably the first thing I learned about British history – our island story. Even though I am half Spanish – perhaps because I am half Spanish – the fact that Spain lost that battle too scarcely entered my consciousness. The leading characters that we know of are, as our enemies often were, French. The self-proclaimed emperor Napoleon Bonaparte carrying the French revolution across a subjugated Europe, and his timid naval Commander – Admiral de Villeneuve. But nearly half the enemy fleet facing Nelson that day was Spanish. And the outcome of the battle would place Spain’s vast empire in jeopardy.

Michael
Driving through Madrid, it’s clear that what the British have forgotten the Spanish have remembered. Their fallen admirals are immortalised in the street names – Gravina, Churruca and Bustamante. I was in Madrid to visit the Museo Naval – the naval museum - to look at some of the key documents from the period.

Michael
Hola Agustin, que tal?

Michael
Augustin Guimera had ordered up some historic leather bound inventories from the archives. They record at first hand Spain’s doomed involvement at Trafalgar.

Augustin
You can see they have not enough gunners for the service of the guns. They need more sailors. They need more seamen.

Michael
Fantastic documents. Absolutely amazing. It’s a great privilege to see them actually.

Augustin
These inventories were made before leaving Cadiz Harbour for the sea. Signed by the commanders in the other side of the page you can see there, the commanders. It’s Churruca.

Michael
That’s Churruca.

Augustin
Perhaps one of the last signatures of Churruca. He was killed in the battle.

Michael
It’s perfectly evident that these ships had too few crew.

Augustin
That’s right.

Michael
It’s poignant to realise that those bald statistics written precisely in a firm hand foretell the end of Spain’s prominent role on the world stage. Had Napoleon heeded the warnings of the Spanish admirals, who drew on their country’s long experience as a maritime power, the Battle of Trafalgar might have been avoided, or at least the defeat of the combined French and Spanish fleet need not have been so catastrophic.

Augustin
Spanish admirals knew quite well the way of fighting of the British. And they were warning Napoleon that they should play a different game. Attack him by surprise. Not give the British the possibility of the decisive battle in one day. But Napoleon didn’t follow his admirals’ advice.

Michael
Spain found itself in this humiliating position because by 1805 it had renewed an uneasy alliance with France, having broken its ties during the French revolution. Professor Nicholas Rodger of the University of Exeter.

Nicholas Rodger
I think very foolishly the Spaniards returned to that alliance even with republican revolutionary France which of course was politically the polar opposite of Catholic royal Spain. And increasingly as the wars went on the Spanish position became less and less that of an ally and more and more that of a kind of subservient power.

Augustin
They didn’t trust each other. Because France were using Spain for their own purposes. Trafalgar was the end of the long road of misinterpretation and misunderstanding. It was a very bad decision because they were facing the very high risk on the sea.

Michael
Whilst Napoleon had crushed resistance across Europe with his formidable land forces - la Grand Armee – Spain’s might had been built on its navy – la armada – which secured the transfer of vast quantities of silver from its colonies to Cadiz. Professor Andrew Lambert of King’s College London.

Andrew
Spain is not like France. Spain is not a great European power. Spain is a great imperial power. The Spanish Empire controlled most of South and Central America from Mexico all the way down to the bottom end of Argentina. The only exception to that of course is Brazil which is Portuguese. The Spanish also owned the Philippines and chains of islands in the Pacific. Spain is a major player.

Michael
With their Empire looking fragile those Spanish commanders wanted to avoid a destructive confrontation with that other imperial power Britain. They needed to shore up their colonies, not gamble with them. Professor James Dunkerley of the University of London.

James
The Spanish Empire was huge but it was already weak. The Spanish under the reforms of the late eighteenth century had succeeded in increasing the wealth that they were extracting from the Americas. But it was a race against time.

Michael
In the Museo Naval in Madrid, Augustin Guimera showed me mementoes of the commanders who had defended Spain’s far-flung colonies, men today revered as tragic heroes because their leadership and experience perished with them at Trafalgar.

Augustin
You have here in front of you the personal belongings to Admiral Gravina. His hat, his medals and his sword. And they was used during the Battle of Trafalgar.

Michael
Yes. Amazing.

Augustin
And also we have Gravina’s battle flag. You can touch the history.

Michael
Wonderful exhibits.

Augustin
You can see here Churruca was a very handsome young officer. And also if you turn around you will see the third commander...

Michael
Bustamante.

Augustin
Francisco Alcedo Bustamante.

Michael
Recent research shows that Admiral Nelson had huge professional respect for these Spanish commanders. Doctor Colin White from the Royal Naval Museum.

Colin
With the French there was really no connection at all. He didn’t know who they were. They were, they’d all been junior officers when he’d had anything to do with the French during the peace. With the Spanish he knew the senior officers. Gravina for example, he was a Sicilian because of course Spain and Scilly in the eighteenth century had been united. Nelson of course was Duke of Bronte in Sicily created by the King of Scilly. And he referred in a letter in 1805 to Gravina as “my countryman”. He also, in letters, referred to admirals who he knew and asked for his regards to be sent to them.

Michael
Given their understanding of the Royal Navy’s strengths, the Spanish commanders favoured waiting for a moment when the fleet could slip out of Cadiz without meeting Nelson in a decisive battle. But the Spaniards couldn’t persuade Napoleon to be patient.

Colin
There’s the story of the famous Council of War in Cadiz before they sailed where there was, they almost came to blows. There’s the story of one of the senior Spanish officers looking at Villeneuve’s rather ineffectual attempts to stop Nelson’s attack and he just said “perdidos” - we are lost.

Nicholas Rodger
What was in it for Spain? Why were they doing it? The level of officers, there were few people in the Spanish Navy who could think of a convincing reason why they were fighting to support Napoleon’s ambitions because it was extremely obvious by this point they were ultimately fighting not for Spain, not even for France, but for Napoleon personally.

Michael
Ask British people why Trafalgar was important and many might say that Nelson saved us from invasion. But that is a misunderstanding. French historian Admiral Remy Monaque

Monaque, talking through a translator
Well before the battle, the Emperor decided to abandon his grand plan of invasion. Therefore the battle was completely useless. It was a great folly on the part of the French and it served no purpose whatsoever. It didn’t therefore save England from invasion. At the moment when Napoleon orders his French and Spanish fleet to leave Cadiz it’s absolutely not to go and invade England. It’s to return to the Mediterranean to Toulon for a completely secondary mission.

Michael
So for what sort of military campaign did the Spanish commanders lay down their lives? Professor Nicholas Rodger.

Nicholas Rodger
He wanted the fleet to sail into the Mediterranean, to take on a frankly rather trivial role against the Austrians to attack the Austrian satellite of the two Sicily's. That’s the to say Southern Italy and Sicily. The kingdom of the two Sicily's was historically not an Austrian but a Spanish satellite ruled by a Spanish monarch until recently. And Gravina himself was a Sicilian. He was being asked to attack his own native land. And naturally he wasn’t very keen.

Michael
But Spanish objections fell on deaf ears. Gravina’s French superior Villeneuve had irritated Napoleon by lingering in port against orders. Now he learned that he was to be relieved of his command. When Villeneuve heard that Nelson had dispatched six ships to North Africa, he saw an opportunity to rescue his honour. He ordered the combined fleet to sail.

Michael
And this painting?

Augustin
It’s wonderful. For me, it’s my favourite painting in this museum.

Michael
Which moment are we looking at here?

Augustin
Was the first second of the battle.

Michael
How extraordinary. And such a beautiful actually and detailed drawing. Ships fillet from side to side.

Augustin
You see this ...

Michael
Yes it’s terrifying.

Augustin
That’s right.

Michael
Despite their misgivings – and understanding that Spain’s position in the world is at stake - the Spaniards are resigned to their fate.

Andrew
The Spanish go out in many cases because their honour has been impugned by the French. Admiral Gravina and several of his captains are personally offended by the way in which Villeneuve communicates his orders to them. They go out to prove that they can fight and die like gentlemen.

Nicholas Rodger
On the day of the battle there are twenty seven British ships at the line against thirty three of the combined fleet.

Andrew
Ships were between a hundred and twenty and sixty four canon designed to produce the maximum amount of fire power on the broad side.

Michael
The superiority of Nelson’s British fleet is another thing we remember from school days. But the Spanish fleet was far better than we’ve remembered.

Nicholas Rodger
In particular they had two new three deckers which were probably the most powerful war ships in the world.

Michael
And we’ve tended to forget that their seamanship was excellent too.

Nicholas Rodger
British historians always assume that the French are the only enemies that matter. And therefore the Spaniards have a kind of walk on part. But I’m afraid I think that professional quality and ability of the Spanish Navy at this period is markedly superior to that of the French.

Andrew
The Battle is decided shortly after dawn on the twenty first of October. Nelson has clear sight of the enemy formation. He can see that Villeneuve has reversed course during the night. Instead of sailing for the straits of Gibraltar he’s now sailing back towards Cadiz. Basically his will has broken. Nelson is going to close in for the kill.

Nicholas Rodger
Nelson commits the fleet to this very dangerous attack more or less head on. And at the moment at which the two columns, Nelson’s column and Collingwood’s cut into the line of the combined fleet at two points they are at the point of maximum vulnerability and maximum risk.

Michael
So if the enemy fleet was better than we’ve remembered and had numerical superiority, what gave Nelson the advantage?

Augustin
It was the tactical use of the gunnery. Using the guns at the right time at the right place to attack the enemy.

Nicholas Hall
This is a twelve pounder cast iron gun. There were thirty of these on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

Michael
To find out more about the gunnery which gave the British the edge over the combined fleet, I went to Fort Nelson with its commanding position above Portsmouth to meet Keeper of the Artillery, Nicholas Hall.

Michael
What was the secret of British gunnery?

Nicholas Hall
The gunners were very keen to shoot at the enemy. They weren’t frightened of the terrible destruction coming towards them. And they practised their gun drill to a very high degree of efficiency. So all accounts seem to agree that the British rate of fire was very good.

Michael
I hate to ask but is there any chance I could fire this?

Nicholas Hall
I’d be delighted if you would pull the ...

Michael
Thank you.

Nicholas Hall
Jim will now prime the gun.

Jim
Use your body weight. Pull into it making sure your head and eyes are facing that way. Do not look at it because it will spark and flash.

Michael
Okay. Ear defenders on. I’m ready for my duty.

Jim
Stand by. Fire!

Michael
I’d only got a few feet from the gun when the fire penetrated the charge and the gun went off. And I was immediately enveloped in a thick cloud of foul smelling sulphurous smoke.

Andrew
Ultimately it’s about killing people. Endless broadsides of solid iron shot to dismantle the ship, to kill the crew, and ultimately to leave the enemy vessels disabled, water-logged so that they can be boarded and captured. Ships don’t get sunk, they get taken. And they get taken when there’s nobody left to defend them. And the kind of fighting they engage in is literally a brutal battle of attrition.

Nicholas Rodger
Quite rapidly as the leading ships follow one another into the action the balance of forces at the key point is turning British favour. And of course that’s also the point at which Nelson is fatally wounded.

Nelson had twenty seven ships at the line. The allies thirty three. Of which they lost seventeen captured and one burnt and blew up.

Andrew
The Battle was a triumph and a tragedy. Like all of, all the best of history we’ve sort of short-handed all of that into French and Spanish fleet destroyed, Nelson killed. That’s all we need to know. But there’s much more to Trafalgar than that.

Michael
HMS Victory, lying in Portsmouth dockyard, is the nation’s symbol of triumph at Trafalgar. Because of her place in our national memory, to this day she’s a commissioned ship in the Royal Navy. I met her commanding officer John Scivier

John
This mighty ship is all that we have left really apart from artefacts scattered around the country of a time when the Royal Navy was absolutely great and all-defeating culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar.

Michael
But why has Spain’s role that day been erased from our memories?

John
I think there’s a general misconception amongst the public and indeed the Navy to some certain extent that we have always been at war with France, that every battle that we fought at sea has been with the French. And that is not the case at all. You know a quick trot through history – fifteen eighty eight the Armada against Spain. The mid seventeenth century we were at war with the Dutch. In fact the third Anglo Dutch war we allied with France. A couple of years later they allied with us against the Dutch. We’ve all constantly fought each other.

Michael
We think of Trafalgar as a decisive defeat for the French. But was it the pivotal moment for France that we seem to remember?

Nicholas Rodger
The official French line in 1805 and in fact to a considerable extent ever since has been Trafalgar was an embarrassing moment but essentially marginal, didn’t achieve anything, didn’t win the British anything of importance. Really what goes on at sea is of no consequence. It’s armies that win the war.

Colin
Napoleon was able to rebuild his navy. He was able to capture ships from other subdued nations such as Holland. And so he was able to pose a threat again.

Andrew
In the medium term and in the long term the losers of the Battle are not the French because for them it’s really not that important. That isn’t where they’re active. That isn’t where they’re winning a war.

Monaque, talking through a translator
It was indeed a heavy defeat but I’d remind you that at the beginning of the revolution we also lost thirteen ships to the English – and at the Battle of Abukir we lost eleven and we recovered. So it’s not on the material side that this plays out. I think from a material and manpower point of view, Trafalgar was not the ruination of the French navy. In fact it recovered and had other brilliant moments later on.

Nicholas Hall
Michael, if you just step up here with me we can have a look at one of our most impressive garrison guns, part of the armament of Fort Nelson.

Michael
That Britain later in the century constructed a series of coastal defences like Fort Nelson shows that our victory at Trafalgar didn’t end the fear of French invasion. A little more than fifty years later, once again we were worried about our continental rival. Nicholas Hall.

Nicholas Hall
The Fort was built in the 1860s due to an invasion scare, to fear of French aggression under a new Napoleon that was considered a real threat that with new steam powered oar ships French Navy could bring their sufficient large army across the Channel, maybe take Portsmouth and march on London in a lightning campaign perhaps reminiscent of the great Napoleon Bonaparte.

Michael
So a big piece of artillery like this, a sixty four pounder was put here in response to this perceived threat from the French?

Nicholas Hall
Yes. Because France traditionally, despite Trafalgar, they were the premier military nation in the world. So it wasn’t completely foolish to fear a very powerful neighbour building new ships, new weapons and only a few miles away across a stretch of water.

Michael
So, France remained a feared opponent. Our other forgotten enemy at Trafalgar did not.

Nicholas Rodger
The immediate effects of Trafalgar on Spain were catastrophic. And Spaniards have ever since understood Trafalgar as a kind of, a great national tragedy.

Augustin
Trafalgar is the end of the road. One of the final signs that something was going wrong. That the Spanish monarchy have not the resources to face the big challenges of the maritime empires of that time.

Nicholas Rodger
What Trafalgar does of course is to knock out the Spanish Navy and effectively Spain from that date on has no good way of holding onto its status as a great power.

Andrew
There’s nothing they can do about it. At Havana, their last great imperial bastion in Cuba, they’ve got half a dozen battleships lying on the bottom of the harbour. They can’t even keep them afloat.

Nicholas Rodger
The economic situation, the political unity, the general strength of Spain herself is in precipited fall and in the nineteenth century Spain is prey to repeated political revolutions and several civil wars.

Andrew
And all of their efforts and all of their money and all of their treasure go into fighting in Spain. So the Spanish Navy loses its ships, it hasn’t got any money to build any more. Its officers all abandon the Navy and go ashore, join the army and fight as soldiers and many of them never come back. A global empire without a navy very quickly finds it doesn’t have an empire any more.

Michael
So defeat at Trafalgar prevented Spain from sustaining its colonies. Professor James Dunkerley.

James
We can see that it forms part of a chain of events that accumulated into a process that was virtually uncontainable in the Americas. The destruction of the fleet, the incapacity, the military incapacity either to control a rebel elite or indeed the masses or to extract safely bullion, the money that upheld the Spanish Empire.

Nicholas Rodger
And what makes things worse is that the following year an ill-conceived and unauthorised British attack on the River Plate colonies is disastrously defeated, not by the Spanish Navy because it wasn’t there, not even primarily by Spanish royal troops, but predominantly by the local Spanish settlers, the local Spanish leaders and the local militia.

James
And again they would do so in 1807. These two events demonstrate very, very clearly indeed the weakness of the Spanish Empire within a year of Trafalgar. Now the crown is unable to protect its subjects abroad, outre mar, overseas. And they will have to protect themselves. This of course leads immediately into a sense that they can govern themselves, that they could have self government. You can see it moving up the agenda month, almost month by month between 1806 and 1809.

Michael
The two key figures in the independence story were Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar. Miranda, living in London, had long pressed the British government to support Latin American nationalism. His argument, that it was in the British interest, eventually proved persuasive.

James
Miranda then left Britain for the United States. He came back and was involved in operations towards Venezuela with his homeland where you could already see that the absence of Spanish naval power was unlocking ambitions from the local elite. And of course with Britain now in its Caribbean naval bases able to offer tacit support that cause developed.

Nicholas Rodger
When rebellions break out in Spanish America lots of demobilised British soldiers and sailors, sailors especially, go out to South America and fight against Spain to gain independence. And a number of British officers, British admirals in particular play a very prominent role in the independent struggles. Above all Lord Cochrane. In fact the navies at the South American states to this day are full of ships with names like Almirante Cochrane which reflect this contribution.

James
1815, the Jamaica Letter, the Foundation Declaration of the independence of Spanish America and then 1825 the final expulsion of Spanish royalist forces from the Americas and the establishment of a country named after Bolivar – Bolivia. That’s the end of the independent struggle and the beginning of an independent what we now call Latin America.

Michael
The British hero, Horatio Nelson laid down his life in the cause of victory. But the Spanish commanders died because of Napoleon’s folly. The twenty first of October 1805 is etched in Spain’s memory as a tragic day. It lost not just a fleet but a continent.

Colin
It’s clear now that the real losers of the Battle of Trafalgar were the Spanish. The French of course suffered a heavy defeat but they were able to restore their navy bit by bit over the future years. But for the Spanish it was a disaster.

James
Within twenty years of the Battle of Trafalgar Spanish possessions in the Western Hemisphere were reduced to Cuba and Puerto Rico. It had lost effectively its overseas empire the Western Hemisphere. And even by eighteen fifteen it was clear that Span could never restore the empire that it had had since the early sixteenth century. Trafalgar forms a key element in the whole equation.

Nicholas Rodger
If you have to choose a single day Trafalgar is really the day that sounds the death knell the Spanish Empire and Spain’s status as a great power.

This edition of The Things We Forgot To Remember was originally broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 14th January 2008

 

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