boston.com News your connection to The Boston Globe
ALEX BEAM

A beacon in British history

Friday marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, when Lord Horatio Nelson whipped the bloody bejesus out of the combined French and Spanish fleets off Gibraltar. It was perhaps England's finest hour. In one of history's most famous rallying cries, the one-eyed, one-armed Nelson informed his sailors that England expected ''every man to do his duty," and for the most part they did.

Cool Britannia has turned the anniversary into a yearlong orgy of nostalgia for British imperial power. Understandably so. Once Nelson expired in a pool of his own blood after the battle, it was pretty much downhill from there. Here is a nation that ruled and, yes, civilized, much of the known world for several centuries that is now best known for(1) domiciling a transoceanic airline that offers in-flight massages (Virgin Atlantic) and (2) a dotty monarch-in-waiting who talks to his plants (Charles).

Charles and his relatives will be much in evidence this coming weekend. The Queen, her consort, and the surviving First Sea Lords of her reign will dine onboard Nelson's flagship Victory on Friday, and then start a chain of ceremonial beacon-lightings throughout the country. Charles will light a beacon closer to his beloved hunting preserve in Balmoral, Scotland. Princess Anne will be in Wales, and so on.

Trafalgar mania kicked off in June with a bizarre reenactment of the battle near Portsmouth. One hundred and sixty-seven ships from 36 countries participated, in part, it was noted, because the British Navy is now one-fifteenth the size it was in Nelson's time. Demonstrating that history has a sense of humor, the largest ship in the reenactment was a French aircraft carrier named for an Anglophobe, the Charles de Gaulle. The rival navies were divided into ''red" and ''blue" teams, to avoid offending Britain's Spanish and French allies.

(You can watch video of the reenactment on the British Broadcasting Corporation's website, bbc.com. I also enjoyed the website's ''Battle ofTrafalgar" game, which allows you to sail two columns of tiny, digital lozenges -- Nelson's fleet -- through the serried ranks of the French and Spanish boats. The Web-enabled might want to visit christies.com, which is still accepting bids for tomorrow's auction of 177Nelson-related items, including George Romney's bare-breasted portrait of Nelson's mistress Emma Hamilton . . . butI am off on a tangent here.)

Authors have naturally capitalized on the bicentenary to hack out commemorative volumes. There are new biographies of Nelson and Vice Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, his right-hand man, as it were. Adam Nicolson's much-praised ''Seize the Fire: Heroism, Duty, and the Battle of Trafalgar" prompted reviewer Christopher Hitchens to speculate that French Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve ''wanted to lose" the epic confrontation. If so, it was one of the few things he did right that day.

Another well-received book, Roy Adkins's ''Nelson's Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World," points out that while England expected every man to do his duty, it didn't much care about the women. Many women dwelt in the ''wooden world," as the Royal Navy has been called, but when it came time to hand out general service medals to Trafalgar survivors in 1847, women were excluded. How very unsurprising.

This Friday, writes Andrew Roberts in The New Criterion, ''there will hardly be a sober breath drawn by any Briton who has any patriotism in his soul." Bottoms up, my friends! Only nine years and eight months until the Waterloo bicentennial!

Fleet lost in bank fog
Reader Carl Lizio asks: Whatever happened to the huge mural, ''The British Fleet Assembling Off Trafalgar," that used to hang in the lobby of the Boston Five Cents Savings Bank on School Street, now a Borders bookstore? (Another reader thinks this may have been a huge tapestry, and not a mural.) He calls the tableau ''a priceless piece of Boston's history" that seems to have disappeared when the Five was absorbed by Citizens Bank in 1993.

Does anyone know where this work of art is? Or where what Lizio calls the Boston Five's ''magnificent collection of 19th-century mechanical banks" has fetched up?

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist.His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives