In Nelson’s Wake: Reconsidering the Battle of Trafalgar

March 9, 2017

On Tuesday, March 7, Dr James Davey of the National Maritime Museum visited ISS to discuss his latest book, In Nelson’s Wake: The Navy and the Napoleonic Wars (Yale UP, 2015). According to Davey, historians have misunderstood the battle of Trafalgar. Not only did Trafalgar not end the invasion threat from Napoleon’s army, which was well on its way to its great victory at Austerlitz at the time of Trafalgar, but it was also not the end of the war at sea. In fact, there were ten more years of desperate combat, and French fleets made regular sorties into European waters. The Royal Navy made an essential contribution in those years to the defeat of Napoleon–supplying Wellington, protecting trade, and defeating the Continental System–but it did so without the advertisement of a great fleet battle. Trafalgar’s significance instead lies elsewhere. From the naval perspective, the capture or destruction of nearly twenty enemy ships of the line helped the British redress the growing imbalance in fleet capacities caused by the Spanish declaration of war. From a cultural perspective, Trafalgar is immensely significant. By boosting British morale, elevating Nelson to the status of national hero, and shaping the perception of British naval invincibility, Trafalgar’s echoes could be heard not only at Jutland in 1916 but in the massive celebrations on the Thames in 2005.