Nearly two hundred years ago, October 21, 1805, one of the most important naval battles in world history was fought in waters off the coast of Cadiz, Spain near Cape Trafalgar. The British fleet, commanded by Admiral Horatio Nelson, defeated a combined French-Spanish fleet in a ferocious six-hour battle that ended Napoleon Bonaparte’s chances of successfully invading England.
Trafalgar was one of those rare battles that truly affected significantly the course of world history. Bonaparte, though he won victory after victory on the continent of Europe in the early 1800s, knew that his goal of an ever-expanding French Empire would be frustrated unless he could defeat or neutralize the opposition of Great Britain. “Make us masters of the [English] channel,” he told his admirals, “and we are masters of the world.”1
Indeed, it is arguable that French world rule hinged upon the outcome of the Battle of Trafalgar. Shortly before Trafalgar, Napoleon’s army defeated the Austrians at Ulm. Less than two months after Trafalgar, the French defeated the Russian Army at Austerlitz. Upon hearing of the Russian loss at Austerlitz, British Prime Minister William Pitt commented, “Roll up the map of Europe; it will not be needed for the next ten years.”2 The next year, Napoleon beat the Prussians at Jena and Auerstadt. In June 1807, the French Army again defeated the Russians at Friedland, forcing the Tsar into an alliance with Napoleon formalized in the Treaty of Tilsit on July 7, 1807.
The Treaty of Tilsit, wrote Winston Churchill in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, “was the culmination of Napoleon’s power.” The French Emperor dominated virtually all of Europe. “Only Britannia remained,” wrote Churchill, “unreconciled, unconquered, implacable. There she lay in her Island, mistress of the seas and oceans…facing this immense combination alone, sullen, fierce, and almost unperturbed.”3
Had the combined French-Spanish fleet on that October day in 1805 destroyed or captured the British fleet, leading to the conquest or neutralization of England, by 1807 France would have eliminated all effective opposition to its power on the Eurasian land mass, and would have been free to turn her whole strength toward the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. The United States would have been unable to resist a French Empire that was uncontested in Europe and that was supreme both on land and at sea.
Some American statesmen of the time recognized the potential danger to U.S. security. Alexander Hamilton in 1798 warned in a series of newspaper articles that the French Empire had “swelled to a gigantic size,” aimed at “the control of mankind,” and endeavored “to become the Tyrant both of Sea and Land.” The British Navy, argued Hamilton, “has repeatedly upheld the balance of power, in opposition to the grasping ambition of France,…[and] has been more than once an effectual shield against real danger.”4 One year after Trafalgar, Fisher Ames wrote that “a peace…that should humble England, and withdraw her navy from any further opposition to [Napoleon’s] arms, would give the civilized world a master” with “the weight and ignominy of a new Roman dominion.”5 Congressman John Randolph, in an effort to dissuade his colleagues from voting for war with Britain in 1812, asked rhetorically, “Suppose France in possession of British naval power; what would be your condition? What could you expect if [the French] were the uncontrolled lords of the ocean?”6President Thomas Jefferson, referring to Napoleon after Trafalgar and Austerlitz, expressed the wish that “he who has armies may not have the Dominion of the sea,”7 and later warned that it was not in the United States’ interest “that all of Europe should be reduced to a single monarchy….Surely none of us wish to see Bonaparte conquer Russia and lay thus at his feet the whole continent of Europe. This done, England would be but a breakfast….Put all Europe into [Napoleon’s] hands, and he might spare such a force to be sent in British ships as I would as leave not have to encounter.”8
Such sound geopolitical reasoning, however, was overtaken by the fear and anger of Americans produced by harsh British commercial and trade restrictions, seizures of U.S. ships, and impressments of U.S. seamen to serve on British warships. Even with the rising ant-British sentiment, however, the vote for war against Britain in 1812 passed by only thirty votes in the House of Representatives and only six votes in the Senate. Remarkably, a proposal simultaneously to declare war on France was defeated in the Senate by just four votes!
Perhaps fortunately for the United States and the world, the British victory at Trafalgar denied to Napoleon the one missing element of his plan for world hegemony — supremacy at sea. Unable to directly defeat Britain militarily, Napoleon attempted to starve her into submission by instituting the “Continental System,” a policy designed to close off the European continent to British trade. But Britain used her sea power to circumvent the Continental System, insert an army on the Iberian Peninsula (partly under the command of Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington), and to encourage and support the formation of yet another coalition to fight Napoleon.
That coalition proved to be the instrument of Napoleon’s downfall. French losses on the Iberian Peninsula during 1808-1814 (a theater of war that Napoleon called the “Spanish ulcer”) coupled with Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812 led to the French Emperor’s defeat and exile to Elba. His subsequent escape from Elba and attempt to restore his empire in Europe came to an end in a bloody battle near a Belgian village called Waterloo.
The British victory at Trafalgar contained Napoleon’s conquests to Europe, and made possible his ultimate defeat. The great American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan was surely correct when he wrote about Trafalgar that it was “those far distant, storm-beaten ships…[that] stood between [France] and the dominion of the world.”9
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century(2002). He recently wrote introductions to new editions of two volumes on international relations by Alfred Thayer Mahan. Sempa is an assistant U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, and teaches political science at Wilkes University.