At the Battle of Trafalgar, fought off Cape Trafalgar (south of Spain), the British Royal Navy engaged and decisively defeated a larger Spanish-French force in one of the most significant engagements of the War of the Third Coalition. Before the 1800s, the British Royal Navy (while large) was consistently matched or outmatched by enemy forces, but its victory at Trafalgar cemented Great Britain’s status as the greatest naval power in the world.
The main commanders at Trafalgar were Pierre-Charles Villeneuve, Federico Gravina, and one-armed national hero Horatio Nelson; the latter two died from injuries sustained during battle. As the battle commenced, Nelson famously signaled “England expects that every man will do his duty”. He was shot and killed on the deck of the HMS Victory during the battle, but managed to defeat the larger force through superior tactics, and in the end the British took twenty-one enemy ships and 8,000 men prisoner. The real victory, however, was that the British were now ensured safety against French invasion. Trafalgar probably had little effect (compared to its long-term significance) on the war itself, as Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz just months later crushed the Third Coalition, but Britain’s dominance at sea lasted until long after the Emperor’s death.