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Sea Battle Replayed With Twist

A reenactment of the British Royal Navy's 1805 victory at Trafalgar over Napoleon's fleet obscures who was defeated.

June 29, 2005|Sarah Price Brown | Times Staff Writer

PORTSMOUTH, England — About 250,000 spectators gathered Tuesday on England's southern shores to watch a reenactment of the Battle of Trafalgar, the naval engagement 200 years ago that destroyed Napoleon's hopes of invading Britain.

But the reenactment did not feature the British against the French. What spectators got instead were the Reds vs. the Blues.

Not wishing to offend French and Spanish sensibilities by rubbing in those countries' historic naval defeat at the hands of the British Royal Navy, organizers at the Trafalgar anniversary celebration decided that the ships involved would fly only generic colors, and not national flags.

Anna Tribe, the 75-year-old great-great-great-granddaughter of the battle's victor, Adm. Horatio Nelson, was among those who thought the deliberate fudging of the historical facts a little silly.

"I am sure the French and Spanish are adult enough to appreciate we did win that battle," she said. "I am anti-political correctness -- very much against it. It makes fools of us."

But some of the spectators agreed that staging a generic battle was the right thing to do, particularly at a time when relations between Britain and France are testy. The old antagonists have lately been quarreling over the ratification process for the European Union constitution and over the EU budget.

"We're all Europeans now," said Mavis Cooke, 70, who had come with her husband to watch the celebrations.

Crowds sipping beer or having picnics lined the beaches of this harbor city, home to the Royal Navy, to watch the re-creation of the battle in which a British fleet commanded by Nelson defeated the larger fleet from France and Spain.

The battle took place Oct. 21,1805, near the southwestern coast of Spain.

By the end of the fight, about two dozen French and Spanish ships had been put out of action, while the British had lost none. But Britain's battle hero died in the engagement. Nelson suffered a fatal injury when a bullet pierced his lung, coming to rest at the base of his spine.

On Tuesday, nearly 170 vessels from 36 countries, including France and Spain, arrived in the Spithead channel off Portsmouth for the commemorative events.

The festivities began with an International Fleet Review, a tradition going back six centuries. Queen Elizabeth II, in her role as Britain's lord high admiral, and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, who is the admiral of the fleet, boarded the Endurance. They sailed along at sea, inspecting the vessels that had gathered for the day.

As the royal couple passed the warships, merchant ships, foreign government yachts and civilian tall ships, the ships' crews saluted them.

The vessels on the water included some from the United States: two Navy warships, a Coast Guard ship and a civilian tall ship. They were among the 58 foreign vessels that had traveled to Portsmouth from around the world.

Wearing raincoats, holding umbrellas and huddling together, people waited anxiously for the battle reenactment, when an actor, playing Nelson, would board the tall ship Grand Turk, a replica of the admiral's flagship, the 100-gun Victory.

During the battle, Nelson was taken below deck after he was shot by a French sniper and died shortly after being informed that the enemy had been defeated.

Aidan Cronin, a 16-year-old from Portsmouth, said the celebration meant a lot to him, because Nelson "saved our country."

"It's a time when we can get together and feel as one.... We're proud to be English," said Alan Tyson, 50, of Lancaster, sipping wine with a group of people he'd just met. "The best part of the day was when it rained, because we all huddled together."

A fleet of 17 historic tall ships from five countries engaged in the staged fight, involving gunpowder and pyrotechnics.

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