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

The first of the world wars was what the British used to call—long before "The Great War" of 1914—"the Napoleonic war." And not even the carnage in Flanders or at the Battle of Britain has effaced its memory. As I was beginning to compose this paragraph, I learned of the death of the former British prime minister Sir Edward Heath, who devoted his political life to the fusion of the United Kingdom with the European Union. The idea was vetoed by Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, but Heath pressed on dauntlessly and was rewarded with Britain's accession to membership a decade later. The special seal on the new relationship was the agreement to build, at long last, a railway tunnel underneath the channel that divides the south coast of England from the European mainland. Sir Edward once told me that when he met Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle's successor, there was a certain froideur as they discussed the plan. The Parisian terminus of the undersea line was to be the Gare du Nord. The British terminus was to be Waterloo Station. Might it be possible, Pompidou inquired with extreme but feigned diffidence, to rename the British end of the line? It was for him a matter of national susceptibility. Heath's response was to the effect that France might as well demand the rechristening of Trafalgar Square. This was only to restate, to a wincing Pompidou, the problem as it had presented itself in the first place.

There are in fact some earlier tunnel diggings on the French side of the Channel, begun by Napoleon Bonaparte when he realized that his plan for a global empire could be assured of success only if he could invade and subdue the British Empire at its metropolitan source. The Corsican's many fits and starts of grandeur are well recorded, but this one example can stand for all the rest, because it involved a recognition that he probably could not defeat the British on their favorite element, which was water. His hopeless effort to be the mole under the seabed was perhaps a subliminal acknowledgment of this impermeable fact. His striking but weird summary of the combat with Britain—that it was a war "between an elephant and a whale"—was more a form of denial than a statement of reality. The big English whale would trounce the lesser French whale every time, which meant defeat for the pachyderm on land as well as on the high seas. The metaphor, in other words, was hopelessly mixed.

The bicentennial of the Battle of Trafalgar falls on October 21 of this year, but was commemorated early by the British in such a way as to minimize the effect on Gallic amour-propre. In June a mock sea battle with wooden ships was choreographed in the waters off Portsmouth rather than Spain, and the rival fleets were code-named "Red" and "Blue." The visit by British royalty to Horatio Nelson's old flagship HMS Victory, moored in Portsmouth Harbor as a floating museum, was the only reminder of the real thing. Adam Nicolson's book restores the real thing to the foreground.

Hegel's description of Napoleon as "history on horseback" has always had to be qualified by the shipborne nemesis who pursued him wherever he went. Did the French army muster in the shade of the pyramids to hear its leader herald the conquest of Egypt and boast of the future domination of India? Yes—but before this Orientalist project could take hold, Nelson was splintering and burning the French fleet at the mouth of the Nile, in Aboukir Bay, and Bonaparte himself was lucky to slip through the British blockade in a small and undistinguished surviving vessel. Did French ambition extend to the command of the Baltic? Only until Nelson sailed right into Copenhagen Harbor and set the ships and the dockyards ablaze. These and other actions cost Nelson one arm and one eye, and made him into the most recognizable celebrity in Britain, but he knew he could not rest until he had caught the main French fleet, with its Spanish allies, right out in the open and smashed it for good. The victories at the Nile and at Copenhagen, in 1798 and 1801, were only a rehearsal for Trafalgar, which took place within cannon's roar of the Pillars of Hercules, at the decisive junction of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.

Adam Nicolson's masterly reconstruction of this event stresses one thing above all: that it was a victory of the Protestant ethic, and to a lesser extent a victory of the spirit of capitalism. He might not wish to be described as a Weberian materialist (his last book was a beautiful account of the composition of the King James version of the Bible), but he devotes a good deal of space to the economic and religious substrata of the combat between Britain and its French and Spanish foes. Two weeks before Trafalgar, Nelson wrote a memorandum concerning strategy and circulated it to all his captains. In essence he instructed them to employ their own initiative, and strongly suggested that the most enterprising would be the most rewarded. "His captains," Nicolson writes, "were to see themselves as the entrepreneurs of battle."

The battle is founded on a clear commercial analogy. Trafalgar worked according to the basic principle enunciated by Adam Smith that the individual's uncompromising pursuit of the end that will satisfy him will also serve the general good. What is good for one is good for all and a fleet which promotes and relies on individual zeal will be more likely to achieve a productive end than one controlled by a single deciding government or admiral.

This analogy is very sound when one considers the nature of the foe. The Spanish fleet was made up largely of ships named for saints, crewed by men little better than serfs, and commanded by nobles who mingled their piety with fatalism. Their arsenal might include the only four-decker gunship in the world, the Santísima Trinidad, but Sir Francis Drake had proved as far back as 1588 that such lumbering platforms of antique hierarchy could be harried to death by smaller vessels with keener crews.

As for the French, their discipline and order had been fatally compromised by the opposite mistake: the Jacobinization of their navy. Veteran officers with hard experience had been cashiered by the revolution, and sailors were encouraged to put slogans and abstractions before obedience to orders. Again to quote Nicolson: "The anarchic and impassioned qualities which fuelled the rampaging French armies sweeping all before them in Europe, living off the land, bringing spontaneity and shock to the level of high military art: none of these things can sustain a navy which depends, in its deeper levels, on the far more rationalist, organizational virtues of steadiness of supply and practice, on orderly coherence and a sense of unquestioned mutual reliance." Nelson, in other words, could grant autonomy to his captains in the confidence that they also understood the limits. In sharp contrast, Villeneuve, the French admiral, was forbidden by Napoleon to inform his captains of what his overall strategy was.

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.