21 October 1805: the Battle of Trafalgar

On this day in 1805, Britain’s mastery of the seas was assured after the Royal Navy crushed Napoleon’s fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

After the French Revolution, Europe saw 20-odd years of almost constant war as Napoleon and his armies went on a conquering spree around the continent. By 1805, France pretty much ruled Europe. But Britain ruled the waves.

Boney wanted to invade Britain. To do that, he had to take control of the English Channel long enough to get his troops across – 93,000 of them were waiting in and around Boulogne. But Britain had blockaded most of his ports with his ships in them.

After a while, Napoleon gave up on invading Britain and his army headed east. On 19 October, Napoleon ordered Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, in charge of the joint French and Spanish fleet, to break out of Cadiz and head for Naples. But the British fleet was waiting, and shadowed the French and Spanish ships down the coast, keeping out of sight. On 21 October, British admiral Horatio Nelson attacked.

Traditionally, enemy fleets would face each other in parallel lines. Nelson's strategy was to arrange his ships in two smaller squadrons at right angles to the enemy – one column lead by Nelson in HMS Victory, captained by Thomas Hardy; the other by Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood in HMS Royal Sovereign. That way, Nelson hoped to get in among the enemy and spread confusion from the outset. It left them vulnerable to enemy fire as they approached, but allowed them to rake the enemy fire along the length of the ships, causing huge damage.

Collingwood's ship was the first to engage. Nelson soon followed, engaging with three ships, one of which was the Redoubtable, carrying a complement of well-trained musketeers. It was a bullet from one of these that hit Nelson in the chest, mortally wounding him. He died later that day, after uttering the immortal line, "Kiss me, Hardy".

In total, 33 enemy ships were lost. No British ships were sunk, but 430 British sailors were killed, along with 4,408 French and Spanish sailors. The crushing victory ensured Britain would enjoy mastery of the seas for the next hundred years.

Recommended

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain
This day in history

1 April 1999: The minimum wage is introduced in Britain

On this day in 1999, the national minimum wage was introduced in Britain, bringing an instant pay rise to 1.9 million low-paid workers.
1 Apr 2021
27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party
This day in history

27 February 1900: The launch of the Labour Party

Responding to the need for a single political party to represent the trade unions, the Labour Party was formed on this day in 1900.
27 Feb 2021
24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement
This day in history

24 February 1981: Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer announce their engagement

On this day in 1981, Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer made their engagement official in front of the world's press at Buckingham Palace.
24 Feb 2021
24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down
This day in history

24 February 1809: Drury Lane theatre burns down

On this day in 1809, celebrated playwright Richard Sheridan was effectively ruined when the Drury Lane theatre went up in smoke.
24 Feb 2021

Most Popular

How will Joe Biden’s capital gains tax rise affect crypto prices?
Bitcoin & crypto

How will Joe Biden’s capital gains tax rise affect crypto prices?

The US president wants to increase capital gains tax – and that’s going to hit a lot of American cryptocurrency speculators. Saloni Sardana looks at h…
14 May 2021
Inheritance tax planning: the rules around gifting
Inheritance tax

Inheritance tax planning: the rules around gifting

There are plenty of legal ways to minimise an inheritance tax bill. Perhaps the simplest is to give away assets to reduce the size of your estate. Dav…
11 May 2021
Are we nearing the end of the negative bond yield era?
Government bonds

Are we nearing the end of the negative bond yield era?

As inflation gets going, the era of the negative bond yield – that investors have to pay governments for the privilege of lending them money – might b…
14 May 2021