Book of the Month: January

Trafalgar in History: A Battle and its Afterlife
Edited by David Cannadine

This isn’t a book I would have chosen for myself – it was lent to me by the secretary of the Collingwood Society because it had a section on ballads including some which mentioned Collingwood, which he knew I would find interesting, and I decided I might as well read it all.

It turned out to be a proper academic book with footnotes – and economics! – but also to be so interesting that it left me with that good book feeling of not knowing what to read next because nothing else felt quite right.

It’s a collection of chapters on different topics; the first two are the economics ones – a general overview of the British economy of the time, and one comparing taxation and the way war was funded in Britain and in France – which are things I think aren’t interesting at all, and then turn out to be, because it’s fascinating to see why things turn out the way they do in different places.

The third is about propaganda, mainly newspapers, but also giving me a lovely epiphany about Stephen Maturin’s own particular form of warfare – not just collecting information, although that’s useful, and not just spreading misinformation, although that can be, and definitely not running round stabbing people with scalpels (even if that’s occasionally unavoidable), but about getting truth to people Napoleon is denying it to (Napoleon’s excommunication, which turns up in The Mauritius Command, is mentioned as one of the things which he’s preventing knowledge of from spreading).

The fourth compares the fleets, looking at comments from historians from the different countries involved, but especially focusing on Lord Melville’s efforts to get more ships to sea by introducing new ways of repairing rather than rebuilding them. (It also includes the nice comment about Royal Sovereign‘s engagement at Trafalgar being ‘the only time that Collingwood ever beat Nelson to anything’!)

The fifth looks at the significance of the battle, and the way it (and other sea battles) have been misunderstood – particularly by comparing then to land battles, which claim territory. Naval victories are useful for improving morale, but even more for destroying the enemy’s ships more quickly than the sea can, letting everyone get on with the real jobs of blockading and convoying.

The second section of the book is less about the battle and the war, and more about about what has been said and written about them afterwards, starting with the chapter on ballads. I did find this interesting – as well as particular songs, it looks at the way that popular songs were being influenced, so that very little that was published about Nelson or the battle is critical, despite political unrest at the time. The songs referencing Collingwood are in a group which ‘effectively enjoin us to move on, thereby both celebrating Nelson as a hero, and preparing us to to recognize others who will do the same for their country’ – saying about one song, although without quoting any lyrics, that ‘the sole purpose of the song seems to be to introduce and underline the importance of Collingwood’. (It turns out to have been printed in Newcastle, which may explain things.)

The next chapter is about art, and paintings of Trafalgar as part of a wider conflict between painting as a way of telling stories and making points, and as a literal depiction of a particular point in time.

The next two chapters are about commemorations of Trafalgar and its later legacy, from Nelson’s funeral to the Navy League and its 1905 celebration of Trafalgar Day. – the second looks more at the way the legacy of the battle influenced later public opinion, and was used in the later navy, but suffered a bit from going over things which had been better explained in the previous chapter. (I’m also intrigued but still unconvinced by an argument that Collingwood’s dispatch was deliberately beginning a process of something like canonisation – I’ll have to think about it more!)

The last chapter turned back in a way to the themes of the first half, looking at how we got to the point of one small island controlling the seas, and the extent to which being an island, and being on the edge, brought that about, mixed it with all the other historical accidents – another interesting look at how things get to be the way they are.

The whole thing has made me realise that there’s something very interesting to be done on changing perceptions of Collingwood since his own time (which I think Max Adams only touched on, and I don’t think anyone else has looked at).

(Or, really, of anyone who isn’t Nelson – I’m sure changing perceptions of Nelson has been done at least 25 time – but although with someone else you’d avoid the endless rows about anchors, I’m not sure there’d be so much there without Trafalgar lurking in the background.)

I really don’t think I’m going to be the one to do it, though!

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