Trafalgar and Australia
By CDRE Harry Adams AM; RAN
Federal Vice-President Navy League of Australia

The significance of the 200th Anniversary of the Royal Navy's victory under Admiral Lord Nelson at Trafalgar is lost on many Australians.
Harry Adams explains why a 'nation girt by sea' should understand its significance.

For most Australians the relevance of the Battle of Trafalgar to Australia may seem at best quaint, for some even bizarre. Indeed, a former Minister of the Crown in 1976 once questioned why the Royal Australian Navy still recognised the anniversary of the battle. Yet for any student of history the victory won by the Royal Navy over a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships off the coast of Spain on 21 October 1805 ushered in 100 years of relative peace in what became known as the "pax Brittanica" or the Trafalgar Century. For the British nation, however, it meant that the immediate threat of invasion posed by Napoleon, who had gathered a huge invasion force on the coast of France, had been thwarted: indeed this victory bore out the earlier advice to the British Government attributed to Sir John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent, who said: "I didn't say they cannot come, I only said they cannot come by sea"!
With justification it could be said that the people who benefited most from the Trafalgar Century would have to be those few thousand British colonists who lived on the other side of the world.
In 1805 there were three European settlements in Australia - Port Jackson with a population of less than 15,000, hemmed in by the Blue Mountains, a penal settlement at Newcastle, and Risdon in Tasmania comprising just a few hundred settlers. This despite the fact that the Dutch had discovered the continent 160 years earlier. As well, the French had sponsored three expeditions of discovery in the two decades before 1805 and, as we know, clearly had designs on the country as the site for a colony.
The 25 years of conflict in Europe (1790-1815) had drained and exhausted the European powers leaving Britain as the dominant sea power in the world. Concurrently with the charting of the world's oceans by the Royal Navy's Hydrographic Service, British trade expanded to the extent that, by 1914, 49 per cent of the world's trade was carried in British-registered ships. And because there were no European designs on Australia and New Zealand, Britain was able to extend its settlements around the coast of the Australian continent - Brisbane, Port Essington, Albany, Fremantle, Melbourne and Adelaide - and in New Zealand. These settlements became thriving colonies with their economies based on whaling, gold, wheat and wool. Self-governing colonies from the l850s, they federated in 1901 to become the Commonwealth of Australia, a dominion within the British Empire. This remarkably successful Australian story was possible because the Royal Navy reigned supreme on the oceans of the world: it was indeed the Century of Trafalgar which made the Australian Nation possible.
But the cost was huge. While Trafalgar was the defining moment, the determination of the British to blockade the French, to supply Wellington's army in Spain, protect British convoys and mount operations overseas - even as far away as Ambon in present-day Indonesia - made huge demands on the Royal Navy. By 1815 the Royal Navy had 154 warships in commission but had lost 103,000 men in the course of the conflict. This figure would have been much larger and the effectiveness of the Fleet greatly reduced had it not been for the fact that the scourge of scurvy had been beaten by 1795. It is quite appropriate therefore for Australians to salute Lord Nelson for his remarkable achievements as a fighting Admiral and for his great victory at Trafalgar. We should remember too those thousands who died at sea, nor forget that small but determined group of naval surgeons who conquered scurvy and made it all possible.
Uniquely in the world the Australian nation occupies a continental land mass with no land borders, one basic language and a strong democratic tradition. That the Australian people today can be so fortunate can be traced back to that momentous day off the coast of Spain 200 years ago.


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