November 6, 2008

The Friday Record - Trafalgar

I found a great new book at Boarders a couple of weeks ago: The Handy History Answer Book second edition, by Rebecca Ferguson. And it's just what the title says....a question and answer book. Ms. Ferguson has divided the book into sections: Eras and Their Highlights, Religion, Exploration and Settlement, War and Conflict, Government and Politics, Law and Famous Trials, Economics and Business, Political and Social Movements, Natural and Man Made Disasters, Medicine and Disease, Philosophy, Science and Invention, and Culture and Recreation.

In each section, she asks questions and gives brief answers. They are short, concise and great jumping off points for further research.

I decided to use one of her questions in War and Conflict for today's post. Ms. Ferguson asks: What happened at Trafalgar? The answer is three paragraphs long, not even an entire page. For those who don't know off the top of their heads exactly when, what, and where - Cape Trafalgar is in Spain and the naval battle happened during the Napoleonic War in 1805. To quote Ms. Ferguson, it was "the scene of a decisive victory for Great Britain over Napoleon Bonaparte's navy."

Napoleon Bonaparte had been conquering Europe for over 10 years at this time and he was determined to conquer England as well. The Brits, of course, had other ideas.

I'm going to step out of this discussion on Trafalgar for a moment and ask you you think the fact that most of our history comes from the British POV shapes the way we think of Napoleon? We see him as a villain in these wars, but he actually was a great leader, a man who actually fought for the little guy (no pun intended here, because Napoleon was not that short of stature). So, that's the question of the day...what is your opinion of Napoleon and is it shaped because we see Britain as being the victim? (I think I might write a paper on Napoleon one to find a history class where I can use for a grade.)

Okay, back to Trafalgar....This was a naval battle between Britain, led by Lord Horatio Nelson (left), against France, lead by Admiral
(right) and Spain, lead by Admiral Cisternas (I couldn't find a picture of him).

So, for two years, Nelson blockaded Villeneuve's fleet and kept it trapped in the Mediterranean near Toulon, France. Villeneuve finally managed to escape the blockade and headed out to sea. Nelson chased him all the way to the West Indies and back to Spain, where the showdown took place.

The British had 32 vessels while the French had 23 and the Spanish 15, for a total of 38 vessels.

On October 21, 1805, the French and Spanish fleets attempted to sail out of Trafalgar. Nelson formed his fleet into two columns, wanting to divide and conquer. Below, the British are to the left in two columns; the French and Spanish to the right in the long line.

As they prepared to do battle, Lord Nelson made one of the most famous commands in naval history: "England expects that every man will do his duty." And that's just what Lord Nelson did, his duty to England. He was shot during the battle and fell backward onto the deck and broke his back. He was carried below deck and continued to ask about the progress of the battle. He had vowed before the battle to take 20 of the ships, shortly before his death, he was told the British had taken 15. He knew he'd won and uttered the famous words, "Thank God, I have done my duty."

The website has an excellent (and I assume accurate) accounting of the battle, as well as descriptions of the ships, the guns and the pictures of ships, the battle and the above map. It says, "The battle reached its climax in the hour after Nelson’s injury. [The ships] Neptune, Leviathan and Conqueror, as they came up, battered Villeneuve’s Flagship Bucentaure into submission and took the surrender of the French admiral. Temeraire while fighting the Redoubtable fired a crippling broadside into the Fougueux. Leviathan engaged the San Augustino bringing down her masts and boarding her." It goes on to give the casualties: British casualties were 1,587. The French and Spanish casualties were never revealed but are thought to have been around 16,000.

And here's a "follow-up: Following the battle a storm blew up wrecking many of the ships damaged in the action. Of those captured only 4 survived to be brought into Gibraltar.
The consequences of the battle were far reaching. Napoleon’s plan to invade Britain was thwarted. He broke up the camp at Boulogne and marched to Austria where he won the great victory of Austerlitz against the Austrians and Russians. Trafalgar ensured that Britain’s dominance at sea remained unchallenged for the rest of the 10 years of war against France and continued worldwide for a further 120 years."

Admiral Villeneuve was taken a prisoner to England. On his release he travelled back to France but died violently on the journey to Paris. (I'm not sure what that means, "died violently.") Lord Nelson’s body was brought to England and the admiral given a state funeral. His body is entombed in St Paul’s cathedral in London. (I saw this tomb while in London).

So, here's a very short explanation of the Battle of Trafalgar. But if you want a more detailed one, check out It looks pretty thorough to me.

Don't forget to comment - how well do you think history has portaryed Bonaparte? Was he a villain or a hero?

~Anna Kathryn


Paisley Kirkpatrick said...

You ask a great question on how history is portrayed about Napoleon. I'm not sure, but I can say this. I had my penpal from Romania stay with us for three weeks during which time my high school aged daughter had open house at school. Cristache looked through her world history book and decided everything he read was wrong. From the point of view of the Americans who wrote the history book Romania's history had been printed in a way that he had not been taught. I've never forgotten the lesson I learned (and by the way we did not take him to the school that night to confront the teacher). We all have our own point of view which is based on lessons we've learned. His country proudly presented their beginning the way they thought it to be, our country presented it the way they'd learned - opposite sides of the coin. Who is right? I'd say probably the Romanian historians. I'd say historians who portrayed Napoleon in a bad way probably were biased to think that way.

Kathy Otten said...

Great question. Love questions that make you think.
With regards to Napoleon, he may have been a brilliant millitary tactician, he may have had good intentions toward the people of his country who had been supressed by the greed of others, but to march an army in, and use force to subdue another country is wrong. Britian didn't want to be conquered and tried to stop it. That makes France the enemy an Napoleon a 'villian.'

Kathy Otten said...

Great question. Love questions that make you think.
With regards to Napoleon, he may have been a brilliant millitary tactician, he may have had good intentions toward the people of his country who had been supressed by the greed of others, but to march an army in, and use force to subdue another country is wrong. Britian didn't want to be conquered and tried to stop it. That makes France the enemy an Napoleon a 'villian.'

Kathy Otten said...

Sorry, I'm not sure how that posted twice.

Terry Irene Blain said...

Great blog – and as a history professor, really appreciate that you point out that we need to look at history, not only from when it was written but from where we’re standing today.

From the British point of view, of course Napoleon was a villain. In fact I’ve read that the term ‘bogie man’ is a corruption of Bonaparte – as Bonaparte was scary to the British children of that time. From the positive aspect, he did a lot to create a sense of French nationalism that included the middle and lower classes that who never really felt evolved with the Bourbon monarchy. Which is really funny since Napoleon ended up as a monarch/emperor.

Another interesting fact that this blog brought to mind – one of my undergraduate classes was on ‘great men’ – that is, ones who’d impacted history. And with the case of Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Hitler – they were all short, or with George Washington, Charlemagne, and William the Conqueror – they were all very tall. I’ve always wondered about that.

I guess average is average?

Terry Blain
Escape to the past with a romantic adventure…

Regencyresearcher said...

I think our Anglo centric history tends to make us view Napoleon as the villian.
He was quite popular among the liberals and the reformers in England until he crowned himself Emperor.
The liberals and reformers were in favor of the whole revolution until the reign of terror and the unnecessary deaths of aristocrats.
The reign of terror also tinged people's views of Napoleon even though he gained his fame elsewhere.
The French had helped the USA in their fight for independance so the USA was in favor of the revolution and Napoleon at first. later it was more that he was against the UK than that the USA approved of all he did.
Still, after the War of 1812, the USA generally aligned itself with the UK and against the other countries of Europe.
The victors write the history books.

Gwynlyn MacKenzie said...

I agree that "history" is in the perspective and the victors get to print the chronicles.

That Napolean was a brilliant tactician goes without saying. Books about his tactics are still in use in our various military academies. However, I think the old saw, "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely," probably comes into play here.

Napolean's initial egalitarianism struck sparks with many, but as his power grew, so did his greed. From his less than auspicious beginnings, he rose to a place he'd not dared imagine. With that rise came all the temptations of wealth and power--and the seeds of his downfall.

Great topic.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

Great comments. I do not by any stretch of the imagination, pretend to know a lot about this...only a little bit, which we know can be a dangerous thing.

So, I appreciate all the inside comments.


Skhye said...

Oh, don't get me started on the ridiculous terms used by historians to describe events. I think the day I was reading a World History text for World History in college and stumbled upon the aborigines as being trapped in their retardation was the day I almost blew a gasket. Excuse me, retardation. Apparently, there is the Law of Retardation. HUH? HUH? So, this culture operates in a way that we don't??? Let's call them retarded? You can see where my thoughts were going. I'll spare you all the rest. Needless to say, the professor was a bit miffed with my evaluation of his textbook's author being rascist. LOLOLLLLL

Anyway, yes, I've found most students sitting in classes with me, through the 300 hours of college/university credit I've earned, have proven to only learn what is taught to them--to never question what is being said. It's sad but true. Now, in studying anthropology, I've learned to question everything I hear anywhere and then question my own thoughts (that the poor world has been spared from hearing). ROFL

Anonymous said...

Oh, excellent point, Paisley! Sorry, I was so excited about blabbing that I didn't read the posts before commenting about ethnocentric brainwashing. LOL. You know there's the cool book on the shelves I sit near when writing at Barnes & Noble each week. It's called MENTAL GENOCIDE. Great concept for this discussion. ;)

Skhye said...

*^$#! That was me: anonymous. Sorry. Hit the wrong key.

Anna Kathryn Lanier said...

LOL...Skhye, I was reading that 'anonymous' post and thinking, hell, that sounds a lot like Skhye....she has a twin???? LOL.

Anna Kathyrn

PS, excellent points, everyone.

Ashley Ladd said...

Well, history is in the eye of the beholder and the one who writes the history account, usually the winner of the conflict, shapes the views of people thereafter.

Louisa Cornell said...

Great post and very thought provoking. As a former history teacher I can appreciate your question. History, for the most part, is written by the victor. However, that does not necessarily mean that it is wrong or biased.

Napoleon was a brilliant strategist and a forward thinking man. However, as in may cases, absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. Not to mention the fact that he may well have been a victim of poor advice from his advisers and alas, a victim of his upbringing. The concept of a dictator or emperor or king may be an anathema to us, but during his time that was not so.

I think perhaps his motives were good in the beginning, but ultimately he began to believe his own "press."

He was the villain of Trafalgar and his commanders and fleets paid the price. All too common, even today.

Thanks for a really thought-provoking post!