By Harold Heckle
CADIZ, Spain Oct 21 - Spain today kicked off ceremonies to mark the 200th anniversary of battle of Trafalgar with a religious service at a naval base pantheon, as part of a world commemoration of the last great naval confrontation in the age of sail.
Spanish Defence Minister Jose Bono was among the main guests at the pantheon of the naval base of San Fernando, southern Spain, joined by high-ranking naval officials and descendants of the original combatants from Spain, England and France.
Wreaths were laid by descendants of Britain’s Admiral Horatio Nelson, French Admiral Pierre Charles Villenueve and Admiral Gravilla in a service officiated by Spanish Archbishop Francisco Perez and the chaplain of British HMS Chatham, Ned Kelly, with coral music in the background.
Later today, the main event will be the unveiling of a commemorative plaque by Bono at the University of Cadiz, and capped by a laying of wreaths in the sea by a naval flotilla led by a Spanish aircraft carrier and a frigate of each of the participating nations. At the same time, a flotilla of sailing vessels will honour the dead and wounded in a ceremony evocative of the original battle between countries now allied in the European Union.
Victory at Trafalgar by the Royal Navy secured Britain the world’s sea lanes and heralded for the nation more than a century of global maritime supremacy. For Spain and France, it marked the end of sea power, presaged the eventual fall of Napoleon, who ruled both countries, and signalled the beginning of the end for Spain’ vast colonial empire.
The architecturally elegant port city of Cadiz, launching point of many of Spain’s most audacious voyages of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, was chosen to host today’s event due to its proximity to the location of the battle.
It was from Cadiz that Villeneuve, aboard the Bucentaure, led a joint French-Spanish fleet of 33 warships - 18 French and 15 Spanish - out to sea on October 19, 1805, to attack British shipping in the Mediterranean. Offshore lay Nelson’s 27 ships.
The battle began shortly after noon on October 21, and by evening the shattered Bucentaure had surrendered, Villeneuve was a prisoner and the Franco-Spanish alliance had lost 22 ships, the British none.
As the remains of Villeneuve’s force tried to disengage and limp to the safety of shore more bad luck was in store. The French ship Achille, which had caught fire, exploded and the rest of the fleeing fleet was hit by a savage storm that drowned many battle-weary survivors.
Historic square-rigged tall ships Tenacious and Lord Nelson were sailed to Cadiz by young and disabled sailors to take part in another event aimed to link up with 28 luxury yachts in a mini-enactment of the battle.
The ceremonies are due to end when flowers are laid in the water at 4.30pm , the moment Nelson died from a bullet wound, knowing that victory was his.
By Harold Heckle