20 April 2017
A visit to Cape Trafalgar.
This time last year we were, as it happens, in the same place. Except, although it was the same time last year, it wasn’t. If you read my colleague Neil Tidmarsh’s piece on the timing of Easter in the Shaw Sheet last week you will of course know what this rambling is about – last year Easter was three weeks earlier and your correspondent spent the week before the Easter weekend contemplating faith in Seville. He was there again this year, but those three weeks later made a lot of difference – many more tourists in Seville this year, seeking perhaps sun, perhaps God. If it was the former they certainly got it – midday temperatures of 31⁰C in the city centre.
Too hot for northern Europeans, although perfect spring for the Sevillianos, and with the streets not just baking but also crowded with the Easter processions, which seemed even longer and slower this year, a strategic decision was taken to go south, along that part of Spain’s Atlantic coast which runs down from Sanlucar de Barrameda until it turns east to be dramatically punctuated by the Rock of Gibraltar. It is an area which does not see many British tourists, although beautiful for much of its length, with the sea lined by long sandy beaches on the one side, divided from mountains a short distance behind by a good road that allows access to either. The reason for that is not hard to work out after a few minutes reflection. The Brits might enjoy the liquid production of the region – sherry from the area round Jerez and its posh if drier sister, Manzanilla, from Sanlucar, but apart from that positive contribution the British influence on this coast has not been a wholly benign one.
The trouble started in the sixteenth century; Sanlucar, the satellite of up-river Seville, became the main trans-shipment port for the treasure ships coming in from the West Indies, dripping with gold and other goodies (chocolate we should especially mention at this season). The endless procession of bulging galleons coming east became a target for all sorts of piratical and semi piratical activities, most famously involving Francis Drake whose activities in grabbing whatever treasure ships he could, were, if not officially approved, certainly not entirely frowned on. In trying to protect the treasure fleet, Cadiz, a secure and easily protected natural harbour, became the main port for the Spanish Navy. So, eventually, it was the mustering point for Philip II’s armada of ships which would carry the Spanish army to England and put a stop to both piracy and Protestantism for once and for all. But Drake famously singed the Kingdom of Spain’s beard in Cadiz by burning much of the first Armada fleet in 1587 and has not been popular in Cadiz since.
Further down the coast the English managed to make themselves even more unpopular by capturing the Rock of Gibraltar in 1704, and “persuading” or “negotiating” (the dealings were not entirely voluntary on the Spanish side) with Spain in 1713 that it should become British in perpetuity. Gibraltar has indeed remained British ever since and the Spanish still don’t like the idea, periodically creating a fuss in the hope of getting it back. The Rock was, even in 1704, a vital military point controlling the western Mediterranean and it became increasingly so as the British Empire expanded and the Suez Canal was opened. Quite what the strategic importance of it is now is more difficult to say – an awkward lump of hot rock with a runway would be the unkindest view, but its inhabitants are profoundly British in their loyalties and it continues to be an intense source of irritation to the Spaniards, in most other ways one of our best friends in Europe and hosts to many retiring Brits. If it were not for what happened in the Falklands some thirty years ago, it might well have been that by now some accommodation would have been made satisfactory to both sides, perhaps allowing Gib to be self-governing but gradually come under Spanish protection rather than British. Maybe that will yet happen, but it is a highly sensitive subject, as the recent uproar and sabre rattling by a retired Conservative party leader showed.
So the British traveller might want to avoid both Gibraltar and Cadiz, and make his or her way to Los Canos de Meca, a hippyish seaside town with a long Atlantic beach on one side and great windswept pine forests climbing the hills on the other. It is a beautiful spot, with a very different air to Spanish resorts on the Mediterranean coast, a favourite retreat for the wealthy and hip types from Seville, but also an easily accessible spot for the not so rich and not so hip types from Cadiz and the towns round about.
But there is a another pull to the traveller from the United Kingdom – not tourist, not here, it is too far out of the way for the tourist trade – any Anglo who gets here is a fairly serious traveller. The reason they might be here, beginning that long walk through the sand and across the dunes, is only apparent on a map. There are no signs, no tea bars, no gifte shoppes, not even a stall selling ships-in-a-bottle. No Nelson Hotel or Collingwood Luxury Holiday Apartments or even Kiss Me Hardy hats. But walk a mile to the end of the sandy path, and stand beside the lighthouse, the Cabo de Trafalgar lighthouse. This is the point at which the Straits of Gibraltar begin, where geographers suggest that Atlantic and Mediterranean truly meet. And where the Battle of Trafalgar was fought on 21st October 1805.
Trafalgar was not only the culmination of a series of sea battles which confirmed that the United Kingdom was truly master of the seas, but also vindication of Britain’s long term policy of having a professional and properly trained navy. In Nelson it had of course one of the greatest, arguably the greatest, naval commander of all times, a reputation cemented by death at the very hour of victory. Perhaps it was just as well; Nelson was the people’s Horatio at that point and, in spite of trying quite hard, could do no wrong in the public affections. But an ageing bored Nelson, all battles won and no brave employment available; endless pain from the stump of the missing arm and the missing eye, with an illegitimate daughter and a mistress who craved the limelight? It is difficult to imagine that it would have turned out well.
Stand on the rocks beneath the lighthouse, or on the open beach facing west as the Atlantic advances towards your feet, or among the dunes as the sun sets into a bank of clouds. Can you not hear the distant boom of ships cannon, the faint shouts and screams of men injured or falling, the crashing of great masts and spars as the warships collided? All three admirals died as a result of the battle, Nelson, on deck, Villeneuve of France allegedly by suicide the following spring (a remarkable suicide, he stabbed himself seven times), and Gravina of Spain of his wounds five months later. Six thousand or so of their men also died, many in the battle, many more in the great storm which followed before the captured French and Spanish ships could be got to a safe port, many driven onto this rocky coast.
Perhaps it is right that there should be no conspicuous memorial to the battle here (there is a small plaque to peace amongst nations erected in 2005, and a brief synopsis on a battered sign by the lighthouse). It was a great victory out at sea, but what must have occurred and been heard on this remote headland was the pain and cruelty of battle, and an awful aftermath rolling up in the Atlantic breakers. It ensured Europe’s eventual escape from the Napoleonic hegemony and to stand and watch the sea is enough memory of how that happened.