What Was the Context Behind the Battle of Trafalgar?

In 300 years (1500 – 1800) the nations of western Europe had gone from peripheral players on the world stage to global hegemons, thanks to their mastery of maritime technology.

Rapidly evolving methods of ship building, navigation, gun founding paid for by new financial instruments saw British, Portuguese, Spanish and French traders span the globe. Soldiers and settlers followed, until large swathes of other continents were dominated by European powers.

Squabbles between European neighbours became exacerbated by the vast rewards and resources of these American, Asian, African and Australasian empires.

A series of giant wars in the 18th century were waged with ever greater intensity.

A clash of superpowers

‘The Plumb-pudding in danger – or – State Epicures taking un Petit Souper’, published 26 February 1805.

By 1805 Britain and France had emerged as twin superpowers – both locked into a decades long struggle for mastery. In France Napoloen Bonaparte had seized power, revolutionised the state, conquered much of Europe, and now threatened to descend on southern England with a mighty army of veteran troops to destroy his greatest enemy.

But that enemy was fortified behind the Channel, and more importantly, the wooden walls that ploughed its waters: the battleships of the Royal Navy.

On 21 October 1805 the British Royal Navy defeated the combined battle fleets of the French and Spanish empires 20 miles northwest of a promontory of rock and sand in southern Spain. This is the story of the Battle of Trafalgar.Watch Now

The road to Trafalgar

In the summer of 1805 Napoleon Bonaparte was determined to strike directly as his greatest enemy.  His army waited on the channel coast as he tried in vain to get his fleet, combined with that of his brow beaten Spanish ally to join him, they would then protect his invasion barges as they crossed the channel.

But by October the combined fleet was still bottled up in distant Cadiz, while British battleships prowled just out to sea.

Britain’s greatest fighting admiral was Horatio Nelson, in August he returned to Britain after two years at sea. His stay would last just 25 days. As soon as HMS Victory was provisioned and equipped he was sent to Cadiz to deal with the combined fleet. While it was in being, it represented an existential threat to Britain.

Nelson was ordered south to destroy it.

Vice Admiral Lord Nelson by Charles Lucy. Great Britain, 19th century.

On 28 September Nelson arrived off Cadiz. Now he had to wait, keep his distance and tempt the combined fleet out.

Quality over quantity

The French admiral Villeneuve was desperate. Cadiz could not supply the thousands of sailors in his fleet. His ships were short of experienced crew and he could not train the novices because they were bottled up in port.

He and his captains knew what awaited them outside the harbour but when an order arrived from the Emperor Napoleon, they had no choice but to put to sea.

Villeneuve’s combined fleet was impressive on paper. They outnumbered Nelson in battleships by 33 to 27. They had some of the biggest and powerful ships in the world, like the Santisima Trinidad with 130 guns aboard. That’s 30 more cannon than HMS Victory.

But they were no match in practice. British sailors had been brought to a perfect pitch by a generation of war at sea. Their ships were better built; their cannon were more advanced.

Nelson knew that his crews had a clear edge in experience.

Nelson knew this inherent advantage and his battle plan was ambitious to the point of arrogance. But if it worked it might deliver the crushing victory, that he, and Britain wanted.

An innovative strategy

The orthodox way of fighting a fleet battle was in long lines of battleships. This avoided a chaotic melee. Ships in a long line could be controlled by the admiral, and if one side chose to break away and escape they could do so without losing their cohesion.

This meant that sea battles were often inconclusive. Nelson wanted to annihilate the enemy and came up with a shockingly aggressive battle plan:

He would divide his fleet in two, and send them both like dagger thrusts into the midst of the enemy.

Contemporary map of the Trafalgar battle.

Nelson gathered his captains together in his cabin on HMS Victory and laid out his plan.

It was bold to the point of arrogance. As his ships approached the combined fleet they would be exposed to all the cannon arrayed along the broadsides of the enemy while his ships would be unable to bring their own broadsides to bear. The lead ships could expect to take a terrible beating.

Who would lead the British line, and expose himself to suicidal danger? Nelson would, naturally.

Nelson’s plan meant there would be a stunning victory or hopeless defeat. The Battle of Trafalgar would certainly be decisive.

Spanish oil painting, depicting the Battle of Trafalgar.