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For those who have never thought of Trafalgar as being an actual place – apart from the square – the site of the most famous sea battle in history, Cabo de Trafalgar, lies on the Atlantic coast of Andalucia in Spain near the pueblo of Caños de Meca.
Thirty miles north, and two centuries earlier, another historical naval victory took place. In 1587 Sir Francis Drake “singed the beard of the King of Spain” by sailing into Cádiz to destroy King Philip II‘s fleet, delaying the Spanish Armada’s ill-fated attempt to invade England by almost a year.
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October 21st 2005, and we couldn’t have hoped for a better day. The sun was shining, with just a few clouds threatening a shower from time to time.
Two hundred years before twenty-seven British ships of the line led by Admiral Lord Nelson aboard HMS Victory defeated thirty-three French and Spanish ships of the line under French Admiral Pierre- Charles Villeneuve out in the ocean spread before us. The Franco-Spanish fleet lost twenty-two ships, without a single British vessel being sunk.
The event changed the course of 19th century Europe, and helped seal Napoleon Bonaparte’s fate. It also sealed Nelson’s fate. Felled by a sniper, he died on the deck of the Victory. At the time it was said his corpse was preserved in a barrel of rum before being transported back to England to arrive in a perfect state for the state funeral. That was the rumour; the scandalous truth was somewhat different.
Quite a mixed crowd turned up to mark the grand event at Caños de Meca. Many were British expats from Malaga, Torremolinos, and thereabouts, with a sprinkling of squaddies – by the cut of their jibs – making the trip from nearby Gibraltar. In the end the Brits were outnumbered by Spaniards, who always arrive late. Everyone was there to pay their respects, and to have a nice day out. Or so I supposed.
At first, the British behaved in typical stiff upper lip fashion with lots of Union flags, picnic hampers and folding stools. It almost seemed they had turned up not expecting to have to share the occasion with other nations. A slight air of ‘not a day for Johnny foreigner’ prevailed amongst some. There were moments it had all the hallmarks of a ‘BNP meets British Legion’ rally, with many heads turning to avoid eye contact with the former ‘enemy’. Thankfully, hostilites didn’t break out. And once the stools were set up and picnic hampers were opened, there were plenty of friendly smiles to go round, if not quite enough champagne and sandwiches. There’s nothing like a good picnic with a few fluttering flags to settle things down. Perhaps they should have thought of that 200 years before.
In the end, it was ‘Johnny foreigner’ who stole the show with a magnificent parade of soldiers representing the three nations involved, France, Spain, and Britain. Accompanied by a Duke of Wellington, a Napolean Bonaparte and a Lord Horatio Nelson, troops were marched to the top of the hill, and marched down again.
Copyright © 2011 Bryan Hemming
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