It seems the vast majority of people who watched the Olympic opening ceremony enjoyed the show. An inventive display of what made Britain great. Starting with the green and pleasant lands we live in. Going on to the Industrial Revolution that turned the country in the world’s manufacturing sweat shop. Stopping for a moment to remember the two World Wars. And then finishing with the story of the NHS – the flagship of the post war social revolution.
Did they miss anything out? Ahem….the Empire, perhaps? The legacy of the British Empire was the big elephant in the room. How on earth would they tackle that prickly subject? For a good couple of billion people on this planet, the Empire is the key defining factor of their relationship with the UK. And that empire and the institutions within it were also the driving force behind many of the Olympic sports that were invented or codified and spread across the world. Yep, I think they covered that the best way possible. By skipping over it.
But then we skip over our naval history, our exploits as explorers and map makers and our rich history of scientific discoveries. And we also bypass some of the most important figures in British, and global, history. Which brings me to the point of my post. The single most important Briton to have ever lived. The Brit who had the greatest impact on the destiny and shaping of the country. The man who changed the whole world perhaps more than any other man in the last thousand years.
That chap would be Horatio Nelson. As a warring sea captain and then admiral, he was a legend in his own lifetime. The British Empire can quite easily be divided into two eras. Pre 1783 and post 1783. The American War of Independence was a truly global conflict, with Britain fighting just about everyone else who could put a gun in a soldiers hands. The result? The French lost.
The British were kicked out of the newly formed United States of America. But we won most of the other campaigns around the globe, retaining control of the lucrative Caribbean Islands and important bases in Gibraltar and elsewhere. But the world teetered on a knife edge. Napoleon would rebuild the French into a formidable military force whilst the British needed a new imperial strategy to determine it’s place in the world. It was entirely possible that the death of the British empire was near.
Future confrontation was inevitable. The potential consequence was that that would lead to prolonged conflict, stunted economic growth and diminished discoveries and scientific advancement. On the table for a decisive victor was the key to the riches of trade, the potential to industrialise and the wealth of empires. It was far from certain that Britain would emerge as the decisive victor. For a good while, that looked an unlikely outcome.
Enter Nelson. His leadership was inspiring, his understanding of his men and waves unparalleled, his tactics revolutionary, his bravery unquestionable and his sixth sense uncanny. A string of stunning and comprehensive naval victories, culminating in the annihilation of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar left Britain as undisputed masters of the worlds seas for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Our continental rivals never again made any serious effort to compete on the open seas, and Britain was left unhindered to develop a global empire the size of which hadn’t been seen before and hasn’t been seen since. That empire fuelled the industrial revolution and advancement of the sciences. And, of course, our wealth.
The rights and wrongs (mostly wrongs) of the Empire can be debated. But the fact is, we shaped the world in that era of British domination. It’s effects are still felt across Africa, Asia the Americas and Europe to this day. For good and bad. There are countless people who played important roles in the creation, development and maintenance of the British Empire. But none of whom could claim ‘it wouldn’t have happened’ without them. Except, perhaps, for Nelson.
Should you visit London, you can’t miss his presence. His statue towers over Trafalgar Square. His tomb is the grandest in the crypt of St Pauls Cathedral. But there is a better place to go and get a feel for Nelson and his achievements. I visited the Historic Dockyards in Portsmouth last weekend, where the flagship of Nelson, HMS Victory, sits in a dry dock. More than two and a half centuries old, the ship is still a treasured ship of the line. Unlike the more modern Ark Royal that was recently decommissioned and currently sits across from Victory, Nelson’s ship is still officially a commissioned warship.
The Battle of Trafalgar is a pivotal moment in British history, and a legend that is taught early in school. I’ve long looked forward to visiting the old boat and seeing the plaque marking the sport where Nelson fell when shot by a French sniper. And seeing the little spot in the depths of the boat where he died. Just so I could touch and feel the history.
It is a touchy history. Too touchy for the Olympic opening ceremony though. Would it have been insensitive to have included a spot on British maritime history? It would have been controversial, that’s for certain. My photos of HMS Victory are on Flickr. As are my photos of HMS Warrior 1860, the first iron clad battleship to take to the waters.