Liberty ship

Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, HMS Victory, has earned the right to go back into the water

Joshua Gelernter

A £3 million plan has been introduced to save HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar. She has been out of the water in Portsmouth Harbour, up on plinths, for nearly 100 years. The new plan will have 134 adjustable steel props slipped under her, to mimic the support Victory would get if she were actually floating in water. Why not spend the £3 million making Victory’s hull water-impermeable, and actually float her in water?

It’s the treatment she has earned. The Pax Britannica didn’t begin until Waterloo, but it was won at Trafalgar in October 1805. With its post-Nelsonian control of the seas, Britain did more than start a century free from world wars. It announced that “the African slave trade, and all manner of dealing and trading in purchase, sale, barter, or transfer of slaves, or of persons intended to be sold, transferred, used or dealt with as slaves, practised or carried on, in, at, to or from any part of the coast or countries of Africa, shall be, and the same is hereby utterly abolished, prohibited, and declared to be unlawful”.

This Slave Trade Act was not intended for British slavers; Britain was unilaterally announcing it was outlawing the practice for everyone, everywhere. The Royal Navy began a blockade of west Africa. It captured 1,600 slave ships and freed 150,000 slaves. It was an expensive undertaking, and very dangerous — yellow fever decimated the ranks — but it never lacked popular support. At the same time, Britain used the threat of its sea power to force anti-slavery treaties on the rest of Europe — on the Portuguese in 1810, the Swedes in 1813, the French and Dutch in 1814, and the Spanish in 1817. It forced the adoption of anti-slavery provisions by the Congress of Vienna, bringing abolitionism to Russia, Prussia and Austria. And it announced that anyone — British or foreign — who was caught slave-trading would suffer transportation to Australia, which was even more remote and spider-infested then than it is now.

None of this would have happened if Nelson hadn’t cut Victory across the French fleet’s line of battle and told his men that England expected every one of them to do his duty. Victory has been up on blocks since approximately the year the Pax Britannica ended, despite retaining its commission. It’s unsuitable for so great an object to look like a car that’s been parked in a bad neighbourhood and had its wheels stolen. She should be treated like a cathedral of liberty.

Instead of worrying about her hull rotting in water, fix her hull so that it won’t. Believe it or not, Britain has that technology. Equip her with men who know how to handle a square-rigged ship. Should the Royal Navy have a commissioned ship that none of its sailors know how to sail? It wouldn’t be a bad idea to make a duplicate of her for them to train on, which could then be sent to Cornwall to fight the Spanish fishing armada. Or else to the South China Sea, where our current Pax could use some British naval support. Victory deserves nothing less.

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