Trafalgar in History:
A Battle and its Afterlife

David Cannadine (editor)

Palgrave 2006
A book review by Danny Yee © 2007
The ten essays in Trafalgar in History offer no account of Trafalgar itself and nothing about Nelson's life, but cover less well-trodden topics. Half of them provide broad historical context for the battle and the other half are about its commemoration and its place in memory and subsequent history.

Fran├žois Crouzet gives an overview of the British economy at the beginning of the 19th century, focusing on the extent to which it depended on trade with Europe and the United States (and northern Europe for naval supplies). He also considers debates over the extent to which military spending "crowded-out" other investments.

Martin Daunton compares British and French finances. Britain led in the construction of a fiscal-military state and was able to extract more revenue per person, with less discontent and fewer political difficulties than in France. The French were dependent on exploitation of their conquests, with war funding itself to some extent.

In the propaganda war between Britain and France, analysed by Simon Burrows, the British attempted to reach independent elites through French-language newspapers, but were hampered by a dependence on emigres. Napoleon personally supervised censorship, attempting to control the distribution of news. "[T]he defeat at Trafalgar, which the French press initially reported as a victory, was eclipsed by blanket coverage of Ulm and Austerlitz once the stream of casualties returning to France meant it could not longer be concealed."

The essay that comes closest to the battle itself is Roger Knight's "The Fleets at Trafalgar: The Margin of Superiority". This compares the fighting strength of the opposing fleets — in ships, seamanship, and gunnery — using perspectives from French and Spanish historians. Knight also highlights the importance of Lord Melville's strengthening and repair program using the Snodgrass method.

Considering the significance of Trafalgar, N.A.M. Rodger sets it in the broader context of naval strategy, which he contrasts with the situation on land and puts into historical perspective (the word "strategy" itself was first used in 1810). Misunderstandings about Trafalgar influenced later naval strategy, for example in the failure to adopt convoying in World War I.

Mark Philp surveys British popular songs about Nelson, during the war and afterwards. There was repression of songs critical of the government and massive encouragement of loyalist works; there was a contrast between elite and popular ballads, and between detailed narratives and bland patriotic homilies. He suggests that "it is the sanitized and untarnished portrayals of Nelson that undermine the chances of survival for songs about him".

Geoffrey Quilley looks at paintings of Trafalgar by West and Turner, in the context of changing attitudes to history and representation. "Turner's royal commission to paint the Battle of Trafalgar, pitched among the demands of historical fidelity and historical interpretation, between art history and maritime history, and between 'life-like representation' and history painting, could hardly be other than a failure." (Most of the eight pages of colour plates in the volume illustrate this essay.)

Marianne Czisnik gives a history of the commemoration of Trafalgar, through the 19th century and then in the celebration of Trafalgar Day starting in 1895 and peaking with the 1905 centenary. The Navy League had little success using this event to achieve its goals, however, and more generally "the memory of the battle has gained such a broad significance in terms of national unity that it will not easily convert into a specific political message".

In "The Magic of Trafalgar", Andrew Lambert describes the power the myth of Trafalgar had in influencing the foreign policy of Britain and her rivals, up to the outbreak of World War I. A final summary essay by Paul Kennedy, putting Trafalgar and Nelson in "world historical" perspective, is closer to traditional hagiography, but is nuanced by the ideas of the other essays.

Fans of naval history in any narrow sense are unlikely to appreciate much of Trafalgar in History: they might want to read just the essays by Knight, Rodger and Kennedy. Those with a taste for economic and social history, however, should find it appealing.

October 2007

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%T Trafalgar in History
%S A Battle and its Afterlife
%E Cannadine, David
%I Palgrave
%D 2006
%O hardcover, notes, index
%G ISBN 023000900X
%P 191pp