(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
On this Trafalgar Day, we mark and remember Horatio Nelson’s great victory over the French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar. The victory marked the culmination of many years of Naval skirmishing, blockading and fighting between Britain and her principal European rivals. The great victory at sea came at a bitter price. It established Britain’s dominance of the high seas for the next one hundred years, but it cost the life of her greatest Admiral. It would take many more years before the Duke of Wellington could achieve a similarly decisive victory on land.
Although Nelson was already a great national hero, Vice Admiral, and peer of the realm, he was never popular with the establishment of the day. The son of a parish priest, he nevertheless wanted to join the Royal Navy from an early age, and was given his first sea appointment by his uncle, Maurice Suckling, a Royal Navy Captain. Throughout his career, he showed a force of character and independence of judgement that won him many victories and medals, but never endeared him to his superiors. His relationship with Emma Hamilton did not aid his cause.
Nelson pursued his Naval career having failed to become a Member of Parliament. He was determined to make his mark on history and was fiercely proud of his country. His temperament did not lend itself readily to politics, but his ability to inspire his sailors in war time and his care for them in peace time was the stuff of legend. He led from the front, frequently endangering his own life, and his wounds, most famously the loss of an arm and the damage to an eye, are eloquent testament to his fearlessness.
Recently, I went to the shop at the National Gallery and asked if they had a picture of Nelson. ‘No’ the person behind the counter said ‘we don’t have any pictures of Nelson Mandela. Try the National Portrait Gallery.’ I persisted and explained Lord Nelson, the one on the column outside, the one who made Trafalgar famous and for whom the Square the Gallery is on is named after. Three assistants later and no-one knew who I was talking about, and I was feeling rather depressed. How big a monument does a person need to be remembered? The lessons however of his life and victory, however, remain as important for us now as they were at the time.
An island nation needs a strong and effective Royal Nation. Keeping the sea lanes open – the vast majority of our trade enters and leaves the country through our ports. As yet another spending review slices its way through the Ministry of Defence, prioritising spending on the Royal Navy is vitally important. Strong and decisive leadership is essential to national success and prosperity. Looking after those that you ask to follow and if necessary make sacrifices for you is fundamental to sustained success. Fight when you have to, but don’t look for unnecessary and gratuitous entanglements. Above all success requires the spirit of enterprise and the confidence to take a risk.
On this Trafalgar Day it is right to remember the great hero and his victory, a victory he wanted and won for his country. The women and men of today’s Royal Navy serve with that same sense of duty and service. Living, when working and fighting at sea is an arduous business. The lessons of Nelson’s leadership and his victory at Trafalgar are ones that we would do well to remember today as once again Britain sets itself apart from its European neighbours and charts an independent course.