Trafalgar Day: Present and Past

By Don MacRaild

On 4 February 2011, amidst plans to rationalise the bank holidays that occur in the UK between Easter and Whitsun, the Guardian reported that a ‘best of British’ alternative was being proposed by ministers in the coalition government. ‘They are considering calling it UK Day, to create a nationalistic celebration akin to St Andrew’s Day in Scotland’, the Guardian explained. Trafalgar Day, to mark the anniversary of the great naval victory of 21 October 1805, was mooted as another alternative. The suggestion gained some momentum and then disappeared. A certain amount of animosity also reared up. There was some anger at the prospect of losing a May bank holiday associated with Labour Day (click here fore an example). Some rightly questioned how we could celebrate a great naval victory in an age when the navy was reduced to a shadow of its former glories. Nelson, who died during the battle, has since become a personification of British success in war to compare with Winston Churchill. But the idea of celebrating Trafalgar in this nationalistic way gained little momentum.

This was not always the case. 2011 is not the first occasion upon which Trafalgar was mooted as a patriotic adhesive. At around the time of the centenary of the victory, The Navy League promoted Trafalgar as part of a wider desire to increase naval spending in the face of an arms race with Germany. But in 1905, Trafalgar celebrations were potentially tricky because of the Entente Cordiale between two of the countries, France and Britain, which had fought that day off the coast of the third combatant, Spain. Hence, wreath-laying in London to mark Nelson’s triumph carefully integrated the French with both countries drinking silently ‘to those who fell … friend or foe’.

In Empire, Britons and neo-Britons have always been ahead of the game at home in promoting a shared identity. I was talking to an Australian in his sixties recently who said, as a child, he was told that, without Trafalgar, there would have been no Australia. Instead, an alternative history would have transpired: Britain would have fallen to the French, and the French, with low birth-rates and no particular taste (or need) for colonisation programmes, would not have settled the Pacific as the British and Irish had done. For Britannia’s far-flung children, Trafalgar protected what they had become: Briton’s overseas.

The most cursory glance at the newspapers from the time shows that, at around the time of the centenary, imperial subjects from Canada to Australasia celebrated Nelson’s victory as their victory. According to the St John Daily Sun, 11 October 1905, the English of New Brunswick marked the 100th anniversary of Trafalgar in 1905 with a dinner, meeting and a suitable resolution was passed to honour Lord Nelson, ‘the greatest of admirals, whose memory should be revered.’ In Wellington, the Evening Post (18 October) reported that school children were to be given the day off amidst a host of patriotic celebrations to mark ‘the great naval event by which the Mother Country was saved from invasion, and the security of Britain’s overseas trade and the prosperity of her colonies were established.’ All over New Zealand, the anniversary was marked by dinners, speeches, singing and other public events. In Tasmania, Australia, South Africa, and many other places, the day was marked similarly. Coming so soon after the Boer War (1899-1902), which had spurred patriotic societies around the world, such as the Victoria League and the Sons of England, to defend their interests against internal and external threats, the centenary provided the perfect opportunity to stress the Britishness of peoples who were fast becoming nations of their own.