Books October 2005

Triumph at Trafalgar

In his victory over the French and the Spanish, Admiral Horatio Nelson's biggest guns were the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism

That strategy was actually a brilliant one: to lure Nelson's fleet into thinking that a strike was being made in the West Indies, all the while rendezvousing with the Spaniards in the Atlantic and then dashing up the English Channel in sufficient strength to ferry Bonaparte's invasion force across from Boulogne. The British crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, and went almost the whole length of the Mediterranean and back, on a wild-goose chase, but the second of Villeneuve's tactics failed to come off (he did not succeed in combining all his ships under one flag in time), and he allowed himself to be bottled up with the Spanish in their major southern port of Cadiz. From then on it was certain that a confrontation between the two main fleets would occur, and that Nelson and his superb deputy Collingwood would be able to help determine the timing of it.

Nicolson's concept of the bourgeois radical, though well enough shaped to explain the prowess of Nelson's navy, will not quite do as a characterization of Nelson himself. The man was evidently consumed by ambition, highly interested in pelf and preferment, and a natural Tory who defended the slave trade and imperialism, which Adam Smith so much deplored. His period in Naples, where he put down a republican insurrection and hanged its leaders even after they had surrendered under a safe-conduct, introduced him to the luxury and vice of the Neapolitan and Sicilian courts. King Ferdinand even gave him an absurd operetta "dukedom," calling him Duke of Brontë, and Nelson, already an English peer, afterward signed his letters with the extravagant hybrid title "Nelson and Brontë." His affair with Lady Hamilton had made him even greedier. (The exoticism of this torrid interlude in southern Italy is very well caught in Susan Sontag's novel The Volcano Lover.) Yet what Nelson truly wanted was to be compared to King Henry V. He even suggestively misquoted the Saint Crispin's Day speech in a letter, saying of himself, "If it be a sin to covet glory, I am the most offending soul alive." (Shakespeare has Henry say "honor," not "glory.") He referred to his captains as his "Band of Brothers." And of course, like Henry, he sentimentalized the rougher elements of the lower deck, offering them a share in nobility as they fought for England.

In fact, it is Admiral Villeneuve who seems to me to merit one of King Hal's finer lines—this time his defiant reply to the French herald before Agincourt: "We would not seek a battle, as we are; Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it." He knew that the morale of his fleet, and the condition of his Spanish allies, made it nearly impossible to match the toughened and disciplined English naval forces. That was why he had sought to send the English sailing off in the wrong direction. Once he came out of Cadiz he was, so to say, sunk. It occurred to me while reading Nicolson, as it has struck me when scanning other accounts of this extraordinary battle, that some historian ought to have inquired by now whether perhaps Villeneuve wanted to lose. His contempt for Napoleon's bombast was evident, and he had been living under the threat of arrest for cowardice. Finally, he took his vulnerable navy to sea in one great herd, and allowed it to be penetrated by two parallel British lines coming straight at him. He lost eighteen ships: one to explosion and seventeen to surrender. The British lost none, which made this one of the most decisive victories in history. But they did lose their hero.

The enduring romance of sea warfare, as depicted by C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian, must have something to do with the inherent democracy and solidarity of a ship's crew. Perhaps more solidarity than democracy: all are literally in the same boat and sharing the same fate, but an adamant command structure is necessary to keep the ship fighting and afloat. And unlike army units, ships cannot be commanded from bases in the rear. In the British fleet the commander was expected to be in full view on the quarterdeck throughout the whole of an engagement. "The more significant the man at Trafalgar, the more vulnerable he was," as Nicolson phrases it. Nelson typically intensified the bravura style of this by insisting on wearing stars and medals and decorations, flamboyantly sewn to his uniform in the best Ruritanian style. Whether or not he sought martyrdom is an open question, but at all events he did not shun it. The devotional oil paintings of his final hours, lying belowdecks at last with a shattered spine and in the arms of his companions, all consciously evoke the deposition of the Savior's body from the cross. Nelson has been an emblem for the salvation of Britain ever since.

Nicolson's effort to provide an English social context is occasionally rather hit-or-miss. We learn that this was an age of heavy drinking and theaters and boxing matches, and that "in Charlotte Street in London there was a brothel staffed by flagellants." It's difficult to think of any recent age in which these statements—especially the last one—would not hold true. Nicolson is much more successful in his attempt to connect the great contest at sea with the contemporary rhythms of English writing, especially of Romantic poetry. His title is taken from Blake's "The Tyger"—"On what wings dare he aspire? / What the hand dare seize the fire?"—which was composed only a decade or so before Trafalgar. He shows us Samuel Taylor Coleridge acting as secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, the British naval commander on the island of Malta. This old sea dog once anticipated Hemingway by telling Coleridge that "courage is the natural product of familiarity with danger." Byron himself referred to Nelson as "Britannia's God of War." Nicolson doesn't mention it, but a man named Patrick Brunty changed his name to Brontë at about this time, thus sparing his literary daughters at Haworth Rectory the later disadvantage of bearing an unromantic name. One of Nelson's favorite young officers was Captain Francis Austen, Jane's younger brother, who—like Nelson and the Brontë girls—was the child of a vicarage. Perhaps most surprising is to find the gentle, reflective William Wordsworth in the course of shedding his romantic illusions about the French Revolution:

I cannot at this moment read a tale
Of two brave Vessels matched in deadly fight
And fighting to the death, but I am pleased
More than a wise man ought to be; I wish,
I burn, I struggle, and in soul am there.

He would not in fact have relished the sort of scene that Nicolson describes, of the effect of a full discharge of cannon into the unprotected stern of a ship, "raking" its innards and leaving its crew in heaps of steaming viscera. Or of the "grappling" of two vessels so that one of them, and its sailors, must die in the embrace. (It's annoying in this context that the normally meticulous Nicolson repeatedly misuses the term "brutalize," only once getting it right.) I remember touring HMS Victory as a boy, and seeing how the walls of the surgeon's quarters were painted red in advance, to conceal the gouts of blood that would be splashed over them. Seeing, too, the place where they warmed the surgeon's knives to avoid the horror of being incised with cold steel. Byron's scornful advice to the Lakeland dreamers—that they should "change their lakes for ocean"—was, fortunately for Wordsworth, not taken up. Within ten years of Trafalgar, Napoleon Bonaparte was on board one of Nelson's old ships, HMS Bellerophon, en route to his final home, on the island of St. Helena. He is supposed to have said, as he watched the immaculate drill with which the crew manned and steered the ship, that now at last he understood the force that had brought his grand imperial design to ruin.

Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Vanity Fair.
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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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