When the two battlefleets sighted each other off Cape Trafalgar on the morning of 21st October 1805, Nelson divided his into two columns, with himself, in Victory, at the head of one and Vice-Admiral Collingwood, in Royal Sovereign, at the head of the other. As the fleets closed for action, Royal Sovereign drew ahead and battle was joined just before noon when the French 74-gun Fougueux opened fire. At 12.10pm. Royal Sovereign broke through the line behind Santa Ana, the huge 112-gun flagship of Vice-Admiral de Alava, and raked her unprotected stern with a murderous double-shotted port broadside which, it was later acknowledged, killed or wounded nearly four hundred Spanish officers and crew. Putting Royal Sovereign's helm hard over, Collingwood then ranged up the lee side of the Spaniard to deliver the coup de grâce. Simultaneously raking the Fougueux with her starboard broadside, Royal Sovereign thereupon began to pound Santa Ana in a furious engagement in which several French and Spanish vessels briefly joined before finding other targets for themselves.
It is this moment which the artist has captured even though the small boat in the left foreground seems an unlikely witness to the drama whilst the towering stern of the Spanish galleon in the right foreground somehow has the appearance of a vessel from an earlier age. Within minutes of this scene, a more general mêlée had developed as the British ships following behind Royal Sovereign entered the fray although the duel between Collingwood and the Santa Ana took two hours to resolve and it was about 2.15pm. before de Alava finally surrendered.