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Squaring Trafalgar

Updated Monday 14th January 2008

The forgotten parts of the story of Trafalgar could fill the fourth plinth in the square - and then some...

The Things We Forgot To Remember programme on the Battle of Trafalgar returns to a theme that we've explored several times in the series. 'What actually happened' doesn't get remembered when it doesn't fit into a nice simple story.

Recreation of the bringing of news of victory in the Battle Of Trafalgar Creative commons image Icon Kaptain Kobold under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
In 2005, the journey of the Trafalgar Dispatch was recreated - here, the chaise crosses a bridge in Staines.

It also shows up a large number of inconvenient truths. Here are some:

1) 'Spain was defeated in 1588. Then it just declined.'
We've already had a go at this one in series one, when we pointed out that 'the' Spanish armada of 1588 was followed up by three more, each equally large. But the Spanish Empire did not go away: as the Darien episode demonstrated, the Spanish dominated the Caribbean in the eighteenth century, in the face of hostility from many states and people who would have dearly loved to get control of the silver of the Americas. But by 1820, the Spanish state was impotent in the caribbean

2) 'The Battle of Trafalgar stopped Napoleon's invasion.'
The true story is rather more subtle, though if anything more impressive. Brilliant work by Nelson and his fellow-admirals in the Trafalgar campaign had meant that the French and Spanish fleets failed to out-thing their British enemies. There was no chance that they could bring enough ships together to gain the kind of victory that Napoleon needed. He had to have control of the Channel for at lest a week to get his army over - when it was obvious that this wasn't going to happen, he order the great camp at Boulogne to be dismantled, and marched off to defeat the Austrians again. Before Trafalgar was fought.

3) 'That was the end of French naval power'
1805 didn't spell the end of French naval power. In the nineteenth century, the French were able to build up a colonial empire in Algeria and in south-east Asia. Furthermore, they were periodically able to worry the Royal Navy. You can see the signs of this worry from orbit:

Portland Harbour and the breakwater at Alderney were constructed specifically to give the RN bases from which to fight the French. In addition, forts like Fort Nelson were built around the naval bases of Plymouth and Portsmouth in order to defend against a surprise landing.

Britannia may have ruled the waves, but it did not do so effortlessly, Trafalgar or no Trafalgar.

But because so much of our shared view of what's important in History has been defined as the conflict between Britain and France, we've tended to shoehorn our views about history into this easy to understand two-way struggle, at the cost of a broader understanding of what went on.

That's all for now - I hope you've found the series and the podcasts interesting. I have a number of ideas up my sleeve for any potential series 4: the Jarrow March and the battle of Thermopaylae need to be knocked off their perches, for starters. I'm off to persuade Radio 4 to commission a fourth series, and the OU to fund it. I hope you've enjoyed series enough to wish me luck.


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