Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:53 | SYDNEY
Saturday 24 Oct 2020 | 23:53 | SYDNEY

The immortal memory

21 October 2010 13:23

Justin Jones is Navy Fellow at the Lowy Institute and maritime adviser to the MacArthur Foundation Lowy Institute Asia Security Project.

Today is Trafalgar Day, the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. Trafalgar is still considered one of the greatest naval battles in history, and is widely interpreted to have been the catalyst for the demise of France's 19th century ambitions and the subsequent 100 years or so of peace from 1815.

Is an Admiral and his exploits from the age of sail still relevant in the 21st century' I believe so, although much of my reasoning lies in aspects of command and leadership rather than international policy. There is, however, one trait of Nelson's that is pertinent to policy in the Asian century.

Nelson was a formidable diplomat. Many Royal Navy Captains were, in those days, but Nelson was an outstanding communicator and cultivator of productive relationships, a genial companion, politically savvy and astute (The Duke of Wellington, Nelson's equivalent on land, once said of Nelson, 'I don't know that I ever had a conversation that interested me more. He really was a very superior man'). Nelson's diplomatic exploits ranged from negotiations in the wake of the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, to regular correspondence with the Queen and King of Naples, and Sir John Acton, Prime Minister of Naples, in early 1805 during the pursuit of the French fleet. The topics were not mundane matters of diplomacy. Rather, significant issues were discussed that required tact and a deep knowledge of the strategic circumstances then at play in the Mediterranean and Western Europe.

That the Captain of a man 'o' war nowadays can be contacted by phone and email at all hours of the day, anywhere in the world, has changed the operating environment considerably. But the basic role of naval diplomacy remains and forms a key part of strategic shaping alluded to in the Defence White Paper. Naval diplomacy ranges from providing the host platform for strategic talks in regional countries, official support for Australian missions overseas, to acting as intermediary in complex peace monitoring negotiations or UNHCR matters. Rory Medcalf and I will be co-authoring a paper on this subject in the near future.

While no longer de rigeur, Wardrooms (officers' messes) throughout many Commonwealth navies – even some non-Commonwealth navies –will celebrate today with a Trafalgar Night mess dinner. The final toast is the only naval toast drunk traditionally in complete silence. The toast is made to 'the immortal memory.'

Photo by Flickr user Mina Uk, used under a Creative Commons license.