It was two hundred and ten years ago today that Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets off Trafalgar. This is one of those victories that in the modern age we seem to think was pre-ordained. It wasn’t. Two years ago Geoffrey told us here that for the most part it is no longer celebrated in the UK. That’s sad. I can only attribute that to too many of our people coming to believe that our influence on the world has been an evil one. That is not only wrong, and perhaps evil in itself, but diametrically opposed to the truth.
Sir Walter Raleigh, in A Discourse of the Invention of Ships, Anchors, Compass, &c., said this:
For whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.
This was also quoted by Fleet Admiral Nimitz, on his retirement. It was true for the Elizabethans, it was true in Nelson’s time, it is true now, it will always be true. But the Anglo-Saxon powers have always been more interested in trade than pure control of the world and its people. Alfred Thayer McMahon, in The Influence of Sea Power upon History, says this with regard to the British fleet: “Those distant, storm-tossed ships, never seen by the Grande Armee, were all that stood between it and world domination.” And that is so. Our francophile president, Thomas Jefferson wrote that if Napoleon took possession of Louisiana and attempted to move an army there, “on that day we shall have to marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation”. Nor was he kidding, control of New Orleans would have (and had under the Spanish) stifled the growth of not only the Old Southwest, but also the Old Northwest, it was simply something that America could not allow, and survive.
Nor did it end there. We haven’t forgotten that during our Civil War, the French attempted to impose a Hapsburg emperor on Mexico, or that it was only thwarted in 1865, when fifty thousand battle-hardened Union troops assembled in Texas, leading to the French Foreign Legion’s most famous defeat. But we also recognize that one of the reasons that we developed as we did is that the Royal Navy was the guarantor of the Monroe Doctrine. That allowed the new world to develop at its own speed and in its own way.
We should also mention that the end of chattel slavery in the west was primarily done by the Royal Navy, which to encourage industriousness amongst its people, paid prize money for captured slavers, and the return of their cargos. Slavery ended with the deaths of a half-million white Americans, but they and the Royal Navy were both following the precepts first proposed around the time of the Revolution–in East Anglia.
Nor do I think there is any question that India, is far better off today, than it was in the days before the Raj. Gandhi himself once said that his nonviolent tactics would not have worked against a less moral people than the British, and in fact, Dr Martin Luther King said the same thing about the civil rights struggle here.
And so we come to the twentieth century, to 1941 specifically. Off Newfoundland, two convoys of warships met. One carried the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, on HMS Prince of Wales. the other carried the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt, on the USS Augusta. Here was mapped the grand strategy that would allow the cousins, for that is what we were, and are, to free the world from the menace of Nazi Germany, and Imperial Japan. But here’s the point: On that day in 1941, only seventy-five years ago, if you were free to speak your mind, you spoke English as your native language. All the rest of the world owes their very freedom to those distant storm-tossed ships, that won one of the world’s greatest victories, for England, and for the world.
And so, for two hundred and ten years now, the Royal Navy has drunk one toast in silence, and all free peoples should join them.
I give you, Gentlemen (and Ladies):
“The immortal memory,
of Nelson and those who fell with him”
It’s true now, as it has always been, We sleep safe in our beds because of rough men (and now women) who are prepared to do violence on our behalf.
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