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Nelson & Empire, Episode 43 - 15/02/06


The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

The Death of Nelson
(Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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The building of the British Empire could not have happened without ships to carry goods, slaves and adventurers and other ships to protect them. The British always had to cross seas and oceans to get to their possessions. Colonies were at least hundreds and usually thousands of miles from Britain.

At the start of the 19th century the British felt vulnerable to naval attacks from the French and Spanish. This was the time of the wars against Napoleon. Therefore, world trade throughout the Empire and with increasingly rich America relied entirely on protected sea power. Peppers, spices, sugar, ores and wools and wheat would have to come to the British Isles by ship. Everything the British made or re-exported would have to go by ship. The all-but unbroken progress of the Empire relied entirely on the sea-lanes being kept open.

On 21 October 1805, Nelson all but destroyed the combined Spanish and French fleets. That battle off Cape Trafalgar is mainly remembered for Nelson's death. The bigger story for Britain is what Trafalgar did for the British Empire.

After Trafalgar the French fleet rarely threatened the British. From October 1805, Britannia really did rule the waves as James Thomson had said it should when he wrote Rule Britannia in the 18th century (see below). That rule would continue until well into the 20th century until the emergence of the German High Sea Fleet.

Nineteenth century British imperialism was unstoppable after 1805 and at its peak, during the first two decades of the 20th century, more than half the ships in ports throughout the world would be flying the British red ensign. Thus, it became easier for the British to exploit the technological and trade advantages of their industrial revolution. Trade could therefore expand and so could the Empire. Much of the capability was possible because the freedom of the seas that Nelson's victory provided.

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Historical Figure

James Thomson (Getty Images/Hulton Archive)

James Thomson
(Getty Images)
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James Thomson 1700-1748

James Thomson was born in Kelso and became a student at Edinburgh in the belief that he had been called to be a minister in the Scottish kirk. However he abandoned liturgy for verse and moved to London where, in 1726, he published his first poem of the seasons, Winter. He became a tutor and with one of his pupils did the Grand Tour. His verse Liberty was dedicated to the then Prince of Wales. Thomson was clearly a political poet and his verse Britannia was critical of the prime minister Robert Walpole. It was in what a century later became known as jingoism, that Thomson wrote the words to Rule Britannia, perhaps with another Scot, David Malloch (1705 - 1765 and sometimes known as Mallet). Thomson scholars point to The Castle of Indolence published in his final year as his finest work.

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Did You Know...

Many naval historians believe Nelson's most important victory was not Trafalgar but the Battle of the Nile aka The Battle of Aboukir Bay. It is claimed that destroying the French fleet in Egypt halted Napoleon's planned invasion of India.

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Contemporary Sources

An account of the Battle of the Nile

Excerpt from Robert Southey's The Life of Nelson

"It was soon after nine that the fire on board the Orient broke out. Brueys had received three wounds, yet would not leave his post. A fourth cut him almost in two. He desired not to be carried below but to be left to die on deck. The flames soon mastered his ship. By the prodigious light of this conflagration the situation of the two fleets could now be perceived, the colours of both being clearly distinguishable. About ten o'clock the ship blew up with a shock that was to be felt to the very bottom of every vessel. Many of her officers and men jumped overboard, some clinging to the spars and pieces of wreck with which the sea was strewn, others swimming to escape from the destruction which they momentarily dreaded. Some were picked up by our boats, and some, even in the heat and fury of the action, were dragged into the lower ports of the nearest British ships by the British sailors. The greater part of her crew, however, stood the danger till the last, and continued to fire from the lower deck. This tremendous explosion was followed by an explosion no less awful. The firing immediately ceased on both sides, and the first sound which broke the silence was the dash of her shattered masts and yards falling into the water from the vast height to which they had been exploded. Among the many hundreds who perished were the commodore, Casa-Bianca, and his son, a brave boy only ten years old."

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