As David Keys points out it was almost the opposite of Trafalgar in being immediately and rightly hailed across Europe as a victory of huge import: the later battle only overtook it in the popular mind because of Nelson's death and because, in long and mythical hindsight, it prevented a French invasion - which had already been abandoned.
The most extraordinary thing perhaps is that the French reached Egypt at all. Nelson sighted their outlying ships at sea south of Crete on 22 June but lacked scouting frigates to confirm the main enemy presence.
Even more astonishing, as Brian Lavery's recent account (Nelson and the Nile, 1998) makes clear, is that, by an unusual lapse, intelligence which could have led to an even earlier open-sea battle was passed to London by Sir William Hamilton (Emma's husband) at Naples but not to Nelson.
It is very unlikely that such an encounter between Nelson's small squadron and the whole French convoy of warships and transports could have been nearly as decisive. Apart from the tantalising prospect that Napoleon might have been captured (and certainly soon released), Nelson would not have gained the vast glory which made the annihilation at Aboukir the basis of the rest of his career.
The only other certain consequences of the might-have-been Battle of Crete are cultural: the modern fascination with things Egyptian, launched by the French savants who accompanied Napoleon, would not have started had they not arrived. "King Tut's" tomb might still be undiscovered and Egypt - ancient and present - far less a part of the modern world.
PIETER van der MERWE
National Maritime Museum
London SE10Reuse content