This is very much a follow on from my last post. Visiting London, especially for the first time, is an awe inspiring experience. It’s a vast city, awash with grandeur, rich is history and still one of wealthiest places on earth. Famously, it was the centre of the world’s biggest empire, which reigned over foreign territories for five centuries. Well, we can argue the dates, but I go by the dates of 1497 when the first English settlers landed in Newfoundland, to 1997 when the UK returned control of Hong Kong, the final ‘proper’ colony, to the Chinese. The dates are convenient if nothing else. But the main question that visitors might ask – how on earth did this small island end up controlling a quarter of the world’s land surface and up to a third of it’s population?
There is no single answer, most historians would agree. But I’ll venture to propose that if we had to whittle down the explanation of a small island conquering huge chunks of land across the globe, we can whittle it down to one man. You’ll see him and references to him across London and the UK. And his legacy envelopes London almost completely. The man is Horatio Nelson. Aka, Lord Nelson or Admiral Nelson. Britain’s most famous sailor. He came only 9th in the 100 Greatest Britons, which was a travesty.
You see, in 1783 Britain lay at a crossroads. The American colonies were lost. Enemies were circling Britain like lions round a wounded gazelle. Napoleon was wreaking havoc across Europe. In the minds of many, the British Empire was in decline, near its end even. Invasion by the French was a serious threat. If ever the nation needed a hero, it was now. As they say, cometh the hour, cometh the man. He revolutionised naval warfare, taking British fleets into conflict against often superior enemy formations and quickly annihilating them. Five battles later, including the final devastating destruction of the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar, and Nelson had won control of the seas for Great Britain.
He was a legend in his own, short, lifetime. It often helps to die in your prime to maintain that status. He had his controversial moments, for sure. But enemy admirals feared him. Just a mention of his name would have French fleets turn tail and head the opposite direction. His funeral was as grand as they come. Even today his flagship, the Victory, remains a commissioned Royal Navy warship in dry dock at Portsmouth. You’ll see paintings of him in galleries. Busts of Nelson always take centre place, even at Windsor Castle where you can also find the bullet that killed him enclosed in a glass cabinet. His sarcophagus in the crypt of St Paul’s is the most prominent. And of course, there’s Nelson’s column in the centre of Trafalgar Square.
There’s a point to all this. The question was, why did Great Britain end up with the enormous empire it did? And not, as looked likely in 1783, a second rate European nation with a few rag tag colonies. You can see the ‘before and after’ maps of empire above. Nelson didn’t just win battles. He destroyed both the fleets and hearts of Britain’s rivals, the French and Spanish. Neither of whom ever again made any genuine effort to compete with Britain on the seas after the Battle of Trafalgar. The world’s oceans were now Britain’s almost exclusive territory, opening the way for trade, colonial expansion, industrialisation, invention and wealth creation. Admittedly, with a large dose of ethnic cleansing, exploitation and genocide included for good measure.
When you walk around London admiring the grand Victorian architecture, the Palace of Westminster, even the modern glass towers, they were all made possible by the wealth brought in by the British Empire which was itself made possible by Nelson. To understand London today, London’s history of the last two hundred years, the place Britain has taken in the world and even the history of much of the world over the previous two centuries you should take a little time to learn about Nelson. The man, his victories, his legacy. There’s a 90 second account of Trafalgar here. But here’s the funny version…