Friday, October 21, 2005

The Immortal Memory

Today is the 200th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar – one of the three most decisive and important naval battles of all time, and the most important in the past 2,000 years. Only the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, when Greek city states fought off an invasion by the Persian Empire and thereby ensured the survival both of earloy democracy and the ideas which would develop into science, and Actium in 32 BC which determined who would found the Roman Empire and what course it would take over the following 400 years, were as important.

So why is Trafalgar so important ? First, it ensured that Napoleon’s most deadly enemy, Britain, was beyond his power to defeat, and that his power and ambitions would always stop at the water’s edge. Ultimately this was to lead to his defeat – and it made certain that he would not be master of the world. Napoleon was a man of huge abilities and great ruthlessness, and without Trafalgar he might have established a centralised world empire dominated by one man. A history which included such a world empire is not one which any wise person would prefer to our own.

Second, Trafalgar ensured British domination of the seas for well over a hundred years. That power was used to abolish the slave trade, to establish a world economy, and to limit the ability of the old powers of Europe to crush emerging nationalist or independence movements in many parts of the world. I would not pretend that everything Britain did during the 19th century was good, but without the Royal Navy the abolition of slavery and the independence of Greece and most of Latin America would have been much harder to achieve.

Trafalgar was a victory for British sailors who lived, worked and fought in conditions which to us would have been dreadful hardship. Books, films and TV programmes like “Master and Commander” and the Hornblower series can give us some faint conception of what it was like for 600 to a thousand men to live crammed into a creaky, leaky, cold wooden ship about 200 feet long: visits to HMS Victory or the Endeavour replica which visited Whitehaven recently can give a slightly better one.

But I doubt if anyone except veterans of modern wars, and perhaps not even them, can fully appreciate what it was like when those confined spaces were filled with the deafening roar and blinding smoke from cannons, where cannonballs, musket shot and wood splinters cut men down by the dozen, and when agonising death or crippling wounds could come at any moment to anyone on board. Our generation, living relatively safe, secure and comfortable lives for reasons which are in no small way due to the sacrifice of the sailors who fought at Trafalgar and other battles, can only wonder at how much we owe to the Royal Navy.

The Navy drinks to Nelson and the heroes of Trafalgar with the words “The Immortal Memory.”

Let us also remember that the navy which defended us 200 years ago may be needed at any time in the future. Our nation’s prosperity and our ability to feed our people depends on trade routes all over the world, to a greater degree than any other country. We need a strong navy now as much as we needed one 200 years ago. The history of our politicians in supporting the navy (or indeed the other services) is not as glorious as the history of our sailors, soldiers and airmen in defending our islands with whatever tools they have been given. Let all those who aspire to positions of authority in our country remember that.

I usually write in this blog about the present and the future, about current issues that affect ordinary people’s lives. Today I have made an exception and written about the past, and perhaps in terms which may seem a old-fashioned, even Blimpish to some people. Well, maybe, but anniversaries like today’s do not come around that often. And if we want to have the best possible future, we must not forget the lessons of our past.

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