The Royal Canadian Navy recently named October 21 “Niobe Day,” in honour of HMCS Niobe, one of Canada’s first two warships. It was bought from the British in 1910, shortly after the Naval Service of Canada was established that spring, and served in the First World War before being seriously damaged in the Halifax Explosion in 1917.
But for an older generation of Nova Scotians – and Canadians, growing up in a more British-centred school system and society – October 21 was once called “Trafalgar Day.” As children, they learned that on this day in 1805 a British fleet commanded by Lord Nelson in HMS Victory won the Battle of Trafalgar against the combined armadas of France and Spain. The most famous naval battle in history and the most decisive military engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, Trafalgar cemented Britain’s supremacy on the high seas. With the enemy decimated, Britons no longer worried about a French invasion. Of 33 enemy ships, the British captured or destroyed 18, while not losing any of their own. Unfortunately, Nelson, “Britannia’s God of War” and her most famous son and celebrity, died in the battle. He went out in the blaze of glory, during his crowning achievement.
Known for his bold fighting style and leadership, Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson rose to prominence during the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797. However, he is best known for three signature victories: the Battle of the Nile in 1798, in which he led the British in the destruction of a large French fleet off Egypt; the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801, which saw Nelson’s squadron capture or sink the bulk of the Danish navy; and Trafalgar in 1805.
Like Britons everywhere, Nova Scotians followed Nelson’s career closely and celebrated his triumphs, particularly Trafalgar. This allowed them to express nationalistic sentiment and to show their support for the British war effort.
At Halifax in 1805, they celebrated Trafalgar in the streets. The town was “brilliantly illuminated” with cannons booming for Nelson’s finest hour. Samuel Head captured the town’s mood, writing that the joy of every “British Bosom” warmed with news of this glorious triumph, but hearts were saddened that the immortal Nelson had fallen. Patriotic literature soon appeared in local newspapers. The Weekly Chronicle published a song by New Brunswick poet Jonathan Odell, entitled “To the Memory of Lord Nelson.” It had been sung at an all-night ball at Province House in Fredericton to celebrate Trafalgar.
Garrett Miller, a Halifax merchant, and his wife were so touched by Nelson’s victory and death that they named their newborn son Garret Trafalgar Nelson Miller. The boy was born in October 1805, perhaps on the day of the historic sea fight. They would not be alone in naming their sons Horatio and Nelson in the years to come.
Nova Scotians also fought at Trafalgar. John Houlton Marshall, the son of a shipwright in the Halifax naval yard, was a lieutenant in HMS Brilliant. Writing to his father, he described the “Glorious Victory” and the death of our “lamented Chief.” George Augustus Westphal was a master’s mate in the Victory. Injured and taken below decks, his head was placed on Nelson’s coat. Bullions from the coat’s epaulettes apparently became entangled in his hair through dried blood, and had to be cut away. Westphal treasured them as a memento for the rest of his life. Westphal went on to become an admiral, as did his brother, Phillip. Admiral Westphal Elementary School in Dartmouth is named after them. Other Trafalgar veterans made Nova Scotia their home after the war, with the help of land grants from the colonial government. Throughout the 19th century, their obituaries and anniversary stories about the battle sparked interest in “Trafalgar Names in Nova Scotia.”
St. George’s Church in Sydney has claimed for decades to possess “Nelson’s Chair” from the Victory. The appearance of other Nelson artifacts added to this folklore. These items sparked passionate debates in the interwar years about whether Nelson had ever visited the province, either at Sydney or Halifax. The debate reignited in 1954 with the donation of a sea chest and hat reportedly belonging to the admiral. This prompted researchers with the Canadian navy to publish a report stating, once and for all, that Nelson never set foot in Nova Scotia. Nevertheless, his memory was alive and well in this maritime province.
During the 20th century, Nelson was remembered through Trafalgar Days, usually with ceremonies organised by the Canadian navy. The battle’s centenary in 1905 was a major spectacle that generated interest across the province. Buoyed by the arrival of a British naval squadron, two days of festivities unfolded in Halifax. On October 21, the British carried out a day-long ceremony in the harbour. The warships hoisted ceremonial flags and signals to honour Nelson. At precisely 4:30 in the afternoon, the hour Nelson fell, they lowered the flags to half mast and fired minute guns as a funeral salute. In covering this anniversary, the Halifax Herald stated that October 21 was arguably the “most memorable day in all British history,” while the Truro Daily News encouraged people to “give flags freely to the breeze” and to attend special church services on “Nelson Sunday.”
On Trafalgar Day in 1927, investors led by the Canadian Pacific Railway began construction on the Lord Nelson Hotel in downtown Halifax, with the grand opening slated for Trafalgar Day a year later. The press covered the hotel’s opening in tremendous detail, lavishing praise on its Georgian furnishings and the fine dining in the Wardroom. The name was deemed a fitting tribute to Halifax’s naval heritage, first under the British and later the Canadian fleet. Today, visitors will find Nelson memorabilia displayed throughout the hotel. The Victory Arms (sadly renamed “The Arms” recently), named after Nelson’s iconic ship, is a popular restaurant and pub, with paintings of Nelson hanging on the walls.
For the bicentenary of Trafalgar in 2005, there were museum displays in Halifax, Sydney and Yarmouth, while CFB Stadacona hosted a Nelson dinner with “Cape Trafalgar Sorbet” and other delicacies. To learn more about Nelson, the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic has replicas of the Victory and fragments from its oak timbers, while Admiralty House (now the Naval Museum of Halifax), a hidden treasure at Stadacona, possesses artifacts and paintings relating to Nelson’s navy. The building itself is a national historic site and a direct link to the Royal Navy’s long tenure in this warden of the North Atlantic.
Although Nelson never visited Nova Scotia, he held a special place in the hearts of its people for generations and lived on through cultural memory, folklore, and anniversaries. Trafalgar Day may no longer be celebrated on this side of the Atlantic, but it can still educate people about Nelson’s legacy and encourage them to learn about Canada’s own naval heritage. Fittingly, when the Niobe was acquired in 1910, it steamed across the Atlantic at full speed to arrive on Trafalgar Day for the festivities in Halifax that year. As members of our current navy will tell you, Nelson remains an important part of its traditions and fighting spirit, much of which were modelled after the British service during the 20th century.
Keith Mercer works for Parks Canada at Halifax Citadel National Historic Site and is a Research Associate with the Gorsebrook Research Institute at Saint Mary’s University. See his latest article in Acadiensis. You can find him on Twitter @kd_mercer.
 Virginia Beaton, “Celebrating the Canadian Navy’s first ship,” Trident (Halifax), 1 November 2010; Ian Fairclough, “Anchor found at HMC Dockyard in Halifax a ‘piece of our heritage’,” Chronicle Herald (Halifax), 20 October 2014. On the RCN generally, see Marc Milner, Canada’s Navy: The First Century, 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
 Andrew Lambert, Nelson: Britannia’s God of War (London: Faber & Faber, 2004).
 Explore the “Trafalgar Ancestors” database on The National Archives’ website to learn more about the nearly 20,000 men who fought with Nelson at Trafaglar, including at least a few dozen “Canadians”: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/nelson/.
 For more on this topic, see Keith Mercer, “Lord Nelson on the Mind: Naval Victories and Cultural Memory in Nova Scotia,” Trafalgar Chronicle, 22 (2012), 171-91; Timothy Jenks, Naval Engagements: Patriotism, Cultural Politics, and the Royal Navy, 1793-1815 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
An earlier version of this essay was published in The Trident, the newspaper for Maritime Forces Atlantic in Halifax, on 27 October 2014. It is reproduced with the Trident’s permission.
Featured image: J. M. W. Turner, The Battle of Trafalgar, 1822, National Maritime Museum, London. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.