Royal Naval Museum



Battle of Trafalgar Conference

Held at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard

Friday 14th – Saturday 15th October 2005

Keynote Address: Trafalgar: Myth and Reality - Dr Michael Duffy, University of Exeter

The more we study the Trafalgar campaign, the more it becomes clear how little we know for certain. Was a Franco-Spanish invasion capable of fruition as much of the British public feared?  Much of the battle itself remains as hidden as it did in 1805 by the gunsmoke which shrouded the battle zone, by the deaths of so many commanders who might have explained more, and by Collingwood’s determination to suppress any disputes over individual conduct. The way has been left clear for the use of imagination and the growth of myths and legends which have taken hold of the public imagination.

The battle has been sanctified by the death of Britain’s greatest admiral, but how far has this distorted the study of what happened? Have we been too Nelson focused? Have we taken it for granted that his officers simply did what he wanted them to do? Has modern society tried to rationalise too much the thought processes of the time at the expense of the irrational impulses of honour, excitement and incompetence?

Have we overrated the professionalism of the British officer corps and underrated that of the French and Spanish? Each side expected the British to win but the British found it harder than expected, because of the weather conditions, because of the resilience of their opponents and because of British mistakes. Ultimately victory was achieved by the sheer endurance and hard fighting of the crews of the British ships earliest engaged.

We need to develop new perspectives – to keep an overview of the battle as a whole, that is often lost in the focus on the death of Nelson and on individual ship actions. We need to change the vision of the battle we have had ever since the publication of the earliest plans. We also need to set the battle in a wider context of at least four parts – the attempt to draw the Combined Fleet out of Cadiz, the pursuit and battle, the storm, and Sir Richard Strachan’s action: The latter two having a significant impact on contemporary perceptions too.

Lastly we need more realistic perceptions of the impact of Trafalgar – in what ways was it the ‘defining moment’ which has become this year’s favourite catchphrase about the battle. What difference did it make to the war at sea? What would have happened if the Allies had won? What would have happened if there had been no battle? Was the real impact on both sides psychological? In this context was the British handling of the storm of as great an impact as the battle itself? The time has surely come to re-immortalise the British crews in the battle as well as Nelson and to respect the heroism and humanity of both sides in the battle and its aftermath

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