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Location: BC, Canada

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Cabo de Trafalgar

16 December 2007

Cape Trafalgar is best known, certainly in British history, because of the battle that took place there on 21 October 1805 (the 200th anniversary was celebrated in many British and Commonwealth cities 2 years ago).

A few kilometres south of Conil along the Atlantic coast it is a little more than midway between Gibraltar (British stronghold) and Cádiz the base from which the combined French (18 major ships) and Spanish 15 major vessels) fleet commanded by the French Admiral Villeneuve would sail to eventually meet the British fleet of 27 major warships under the command of Lord Horatio Nelson. As a Captain on 14 February 1797, the somewhat remarkable, erratic Nelson had left the British line to cut off the Spanish retreat at what was initially known as the Victory of St. Valentine’s Day, soon renamed the Battle of Cape St. Vincent (see November 2007). For this he was knighted. At Trafalgar, he would again be victorious but on this date he would lose his life, and some would argue Britain, its greatest admiral.

Today at Cabo de Trafalgar one has to search for any indication of the ominous events of 200 years ago. While there is one small plaque for those keen enough to walk up to and around to the seaward side of the lighthouse, the rest of the signage deals with the geology of the formation of the tombola of Trafalgar. The actual cape is an offshore rocky cliff and reef that over eons have been joined to the continent by the build up of sand.

The lighthouse to the right of the picture is an imposing structure, although not the first on the site. From a closer vantage point and backlit by the sun the size and height of the light are more evident. The building up of a dune against the rocks of the cape can also be seen.

The base of a former lighthouse can be seen to the right on the rocks of the cape with placed rocks in the foreground to stabilize the sand dune.

Following the Treaty of Amiens, Europe had been at peace for over a year and ships in the Royal Navy had been paid off, reducing the capability of the fleet. This was a long-term and much criticized practice of successive British Kings and governments. Meanwhile in France Napoléon was planning the next stages of his domination of the continent. Realizing that a resumption of war would result in the British blockading France’s ports thus strangling its trade (especially the supply of food) and its war efforts, Napoléon laid plans for the invasion of Britain, concentrating troops and invasion vessels at Calais in northern France. To cross to England he would need to control the English Channel. To do this he needed his fleets to break out of the blockaded ports of Toulon, Brest, Ferrol and Rochefort.

Admiral Villeneuve eventually managed to break out of Toulon and sailed for the West Indies where he was supposed to meet the French then blockaded in Brest, and then return to Europe and meet up with the fleets from the other blockaded ports.

With Nelson, more or less on his heels (actually Nelson headed for the southeast and Egypt), Villeneuve met up with the Spanish from Cadiz (under Gravina) and sailed west for Martinique. Nelson realized his mistake and set off in pursuit. The chase would last throughout the summer as they manoeuvred for position in the Atlantic.

Ultimately, after the high, but typically dull drama of a long distance sea chase and the engaging political intrigue of the Napoléonic court, Villeneuve arrived in Cadiz on August 20th.

Nelson arrived off Cadiz on 28 September to join Collingwood’s fleet that was blockading the port, setting his frigates inshore to watch the port for any movement and his battleships 50 miles offshore in the hope of drawing the French and Spanish fleet into a decisive battle.

As the British patrolled offshore Nelson met with his Captains in the flagship HMS Victory and laid out his plan of sailing in two columns, the windward one under the command of Nelson and the leeward one under Collingwood. The intent was to attack from offshore with the wind from offshore, sail the two columns into the middle of the line of French and Spanish ships splitting the line in two and thus preventing ½ of them from effectively engaging in the battle. While Villeneuve apparently knew of or had surmised these tactics, he did not provide his Captains with a plan of defence against them.

Once the fleets were arrayed against each other on 21 October, Villeneuve seeing that the British had the windward advantage, and afraid of fighting with his ships thus on a lee shore, ordered his fleet to turn around and head back for Cadiz. Ordering them to wear around resulted in a 2 hour long manoeuvre, completed at 1000 hours. (With ships with square sails it is a great advantage to have the wind blowing from anywhere beyond 90 degrees away from the direction you wish to go. You can manoeuvre much more easily and much more quickly. So if you are to windward, or upwind, of your opponent you have a major advantage. If your opponent is also closer to the shore and the wind is blowing onto the shore you now have a double advantage – the windward and pressing your opponent against a lee shore.) They French/Spanish fleet now had to reform themselves in line of battle sailing in the opposite direction. By now the center of their formation had sagged off towards the lee shore making their position even more problematic.

Aboard the Victory, Nelson ordered the hoisting of the signal “England confides that every man will do his duty”. This would have required the use of individual flags to spell out each letter of “confides” so the signal was changed to the one that has gone down in history;” England expects that every man will do his duty”. (The Victory is the only ship surviving this era. To see more of her, visit her official site.

The diagram shows the disbursement of the two fleets as the battle began.

By now many will be fatigued by all this description of naval action. For those who want to pursue an in-depth description of the Battle of Trafalgar, there is a reasonably good one at this site

The proximity of Conil de la Frontera can be seen in this shot – it is the cluster of white buildings on the hilltop, to the left center.

The proximity to the African coast can be seen in this shot.

The nearby town of Zahara de los Atunes has undergone extensive development in the last 15 years and more is underway. This will be the story for all of the Costa de Luz as the demands for ocean-side vacations increases.

Power will be supplied in part by the wind, which as we write this blog has been blowing steadily for 24 hours in excess of 30 knots with gusts to 45 knots (double those figures for kilometres – but don’t tell Marie-Claire that).

Wind in this general area is funnelled by the Straits of Gibraltar, compressing between the mountains of southern Spain and northern Africa (Morocco). In the area of this town there is a further compression caused by local mountains, hence the large windmill farms, with the wind, on this day blowing offshore – not a Nelson’s wind. (

Thatch roofs can also be seen in this area, just as in Normandy, France.

We leave you with this nonsensical thought; “People who live in thatched houses, don’t burn expired safety flares in their living rooms”.