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Superintendent Writes

Sunday, 23rd October, 2005

Today is the 200th Anniversary of Lord Nelson’s decisive victory over the combined navies of France and Spain off the coast of Trafalgar. I have re-read my history on this event, as well as a new history published this year. Most Australians do not understand how his victory over the combined French and Spanish navies were as significant as the defeat of the Japanese in Papua New Guinea 140 years later. Both battles preserved the Anglo-Celtic nature of Australia, the only continent “girt by sea”.

The victory on 21st October 1805 ushered in 100 years of relative peace in what became known as the “pax Britannica” or the Trafalgar Century. For the British, it ended the immediate threat of invasion posed by Napoleon, who had gathered a huge invasion force on the coast of France. But the people who benefited most were those few thousand British colonists who lived on the other side of the world. In 1805 there were only three small European settlements in Australia — Port Jackson, a penal settlement at Newcastle, and Risdon in Tasmania. The French had sponsored three expeditions between 1788 and 1805 and, as we know, clearly wanted this country as a colony. La Perouse had landed in Botany Bay, Governor King had entertained at dinner, unwittingly a French spy who reported the French could easily take Sydney, and French colonies were established in Tahiti, New Caledonia and other South Pacific bases. France wanted Australia. Only the British fleet protected us.

Britain then extended its settlements around the coast of the Australian continent — Brisbane, Port Essington, Albany, Fremantle, Melbourne and Adelaide and in New Zealand. These settlements became thriving colonies based on whaling, gold, wheat and wool. This was possible because the Royal Navy reigned on the oceans of the world: it was indeed the Century of Trafalgar which made the Australian Nation possible. But the cost was huge. The British had lost 103,000 men in the course of the conflict. It is quite appropriate therefore for Australians to salute Lord Nelson for his remarkable achievements as a fighting Admiral and for his great victory at Trafalgar. We should remember too those thousands who died at sea for the freedom of the Empire. Without this victory, we would today be all speaking French. That the Australian people today can be so fortunate can be traced back to that momentous day off the coast of Spain 200 years ago.


This is Gordon Moyes.

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