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Linda Colley

  • The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815 by N.A.M. Rodger
    Allen Lane, 907 pp, £30.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9411 8

You might think that Trafalgar Square says it all. Its massive column surmounted by the 18-foot-high statue of Horatio Nelson, the bas-reliefs at the base commemorating his ships’ destruction of the French and Spanish fleets and the city of Copenhagen, the surrounding monuments to various imperial warriors: surely all this sums up what the Royal Navy’s command of the oceans in the 18th and early 19th centuries was quintessentially about? The greatest achievement of the second volume of N.A.M. Rodger’s formidable trilogy devoted to British naval history is its determined questioning of any such assumptions.

Trafalgar Square is a mid and late Victorian creation. The battle it celebrates took place in 1805, but Nelson’s column was not completed until 1843. Much of the adjacent imperial statuary dates from the 1850s and 1860s, and the supporting bronze lions by Landseer were added only in 1867. These are representations of navy, nation, empire and warrior masculinity designed and constructed when Britain was at the height of its global power. In earlier centuries, however – and even during Nelson’s lifetime – circumstances and ideas had been markedly different.

Just how different has been obscured by certain persistent English and British mythologies and ideologies. As Rodger showed in his previous volume, The Safeguard of the Sea (1997), much of the naval experience of the ‘British Isles’ from 660 to 1649 is of recurrent weaknesses and failures. Yet the occasional conspicuous success, especially the defeat of Spain’s Armada, together with geographical determinism, allowed politicians and patriotic pundits to propagate a set of flattering and influential arguments. By the early 1600s, the surrounding seas were regularly invoked as confirmation both that Britain was naturally a single political unit, and that its people had been endowed by a Protestant deity with an exalted maritime destiny. In the words of a later pamphleteer: ‘We seem by our being an island, as well as by our situation on the globe, to have been formed by Providence, for ploughing the sea.’

In large part correctly, Rodger will have none of this. For all the invocations of an island nation blessed and given identity by God’s encircling waves, Britain was not united under one monarch until 1603, and not governed by a single parliament until 1707. It took even longer for its ruling dynasty to become securely established, not least because the sea did not function as a reliable safeguard of national security. Before the coming of the railways, travel by water was normally faster and more reliable than travel by land. Consequently, being on a small island surrounded by the sea did not lead automatically to Britannia ruling the waves and the world: this geographical accident rather made early modern Britons particularly vulnerable to invasion and attack. Insecurity and prolonged political instability help to explain why the Royal Navy’s rise occurred only by fits and starts. In the early 1650s, Cromwell’s new republican regime succeeded in building the same tonnage of warships as England’s monarchs had achieved between 1588 and 1642, but it was unable to raise the revenue to pay the crews. After the Restoration in 1660, both Charles II and James II demonstrated enthusiasm and expertise in nurturing naval expansion. But the Royal Navy’s performance in the Second and Third Dutch Wars was uneven, and political and religious divisions among its officers and men enabled William III and the Dutch fleet to stage a successful invasion in 1688 and disrupt the country yet again.

Domestic strife and European enemies also restricted the navy’s enterprise in non-European waters before 1750, and so too did its own flaws. An expensive expedition against French Canada in 1711 failed because of poor navigation and woefully insufficient victuals. For all the excitement of Porto Bello in 1739 (made much of at home precisely because showy naval victories were still rare), subsequent events revealed the navy’s inability to cope with the medical and logistical challenges of protracted operations in the Caribbean. And then there were individual inadequacies. Rodger argues that a lack of aggressive determination was a recurrent problem in the navy’s officer class. It took the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757 to effect a (literal) sea change in ethos and behaviour. Byng, the son of a viscount, was condemned for failing to relieve Minorca not because he was a coward, but because he had not done ‘his utmost to take or destroy the enemy’s ships’. In earlier failures, such as the Battle of Toulon (1744), having friends and relations in positions of influence at home had proved sufficient to protect ineffectual senior officers from punishment. Byng’s much publicised fate demonstrated that blue blood and good connections could no longer be relied on. Shooting him really did encourage the others.

The most significant causes of the improvement in British naval performance were, however, far more gradual and impersonal. Rodger’s underlying purpose in this trilogy is to make clear that there can be no self-contained organisational history of the Royal Navy, and that naval affairs must be reinserted into a broad-ranging history of Britain as a whole. In keeping with this, he shows that command of the oceans was more the product of changes on land than at sea, and more the achievement of tens of thousands of minor civilians than of stray, incandescent heroes in uniform such as Nelson.

Much was due to the growth of the state, and to the greatly improved supply of revenue made possible by parliamentary supremacy and increased political stability. Throughout the 18th century, the Admiralty was Britain’s highest-spending government department. It helped too, as Geoffrey Holmes noted long ago, that something approaching a non-partisan civil service emerged in this period. Even the parliamentary and republican regimes of the 1640s and 1650s left the lower ranks of the navy’s administration relatively unpurged. After 1715, there were no party purges at all in the Navy Office. This fostered the emergence of a cadre of long-serving civilian clerks, administrators and experts (of whom Samuel Pepys is the best known) who accumulated and passed on knowledge, and over time transformed what the navy could achieve. They implemented technological changes such as the copper-sheathing of ships’ hulls, so that British warships became faster than their competitors. They devoted time, money and experiments to naval medicine, so that scurvy had been eradicated from the Channel fleet by 1800. Most important, they revolutionised victualling, so that ships could remain on station at sea for long periods. ‘It is an observation . . . worthy of record,’ a former naval surgeon wrote in 1759, a year of conspicuous victories, ‘that 14,000 persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of health upon the watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.’

This was the official dimension of naval revolution; the more private dimension was trade. Over the long 18th century, a vital symbiosis was consolidated between the Royal Navy and British commerce. Naval ships supplied convoy protection, explored trade routes and kept them open, and carried essential bullion. In return, the mercantile marine trained up seamen; and its private shipyards – by contrast with those of other countries – supplemented the work of the naval dockyards by building warships in times of emergency. And there was more. Customs duties on Britain’s overseas trade provided much of the revenue behind naval expansion. London, the centre of Britain’s commercial web, was also the navy’s administrative hub. The city sucked in essential supplies from all over the kingdom, and its merchants and financiers made available the steady diet of credit and loans that the navy fed on alongside public funds. Rodger even suggests that the entrepreneurship and social mobility traditionally associated with Britain’s commercial, urban and industrial revolutions were indispensable to its navy’s success too. Only a flexible and integrated society like this ‘could surmount the very considerable difficulties of combining the wide range of human, industrial, technical, commercial and managerial resources required to build and fight a seagoing fleet’.

This may be putting the cart before the horse or, to unmix metaphors, the land before the sea. Because of the sheer scale and variety of skills, commodities and manpower they required in order to function, 17th and 18th-century fighting navies – and not just Britain’s – tended to be more open and meritocratic than most European land-based organisations at this time. Black sailors were not immune from discrimination, but those who were freemen and even some who were slaves seem often to have enjoyed better prospects and treatment on board Royal Navy ships than blacks labouring on the land. Jews were disproportionately represented in naval victualling and other port trades; so were Huguenots. And navies drew on the efforts of surprising numbers of women. As Rodger remarks, sailors’ womenfolk – who maintained their homes, children and sometimes their businesses in their absence – are a vital and still virtually unstudied part of naval history. Female traders and their contribution are better known: from Mrs Constance Pley of Weymouth, who supplied the navy with sailcloth, to Mrs Ann Wyatt, who built the warship Cumberland.

To this extent, the Royal Navy was a microcosm of its home society, a by-product and reflection of its shifting economy, politics and population. But what of the navy and the world beyond Britain? Here Rodger takes a strong and contentious line. Before 1815, he insists, the navy was not primarily an engine of expanding British empire and aggression. Its main raison d’être was defensive, and it was powered more than anything else by fear, and indirectly by Protestantism. Naval expansion under Cromwell was prompted by the ‘insecurity of a military dictatorship surrounded by enemies real and imagined’. William III and the early Hanoverian kings were less interested in the navy than in armies: but they had to invest heavily in the former, because for so long there were rival, Catholic claimants to the British throne backed by the other main European naval powers, France and Spain. Even in the 1780s, Britain was engaged in a frantic naval race against these two countries, which France might have won.

European imperatives, and persistent and legitimate fears that the Catholic powers would overwhelm them, persuaded British MPs and ministers, year after year, to allow the Royal Navy the lion’s share of national revenue. Extra-European empire, by contrast, was a sideshow. Rodger occasionally pushes this argument too hard. Read carefully, his own text makes clear that while empire in this period certainly did not drive the navy, the empire would not have developed in the same way without it. Thus, for all the failings in the Caribbean in the 1720s, 30s and 40s, it would have been impossible for the British to hold onto Jamaica, their most lucrative plantation colony, without regularly dispatching warships to keep the French and Spanish at a distance, and slave risings under control. Even more crucially perhaps, it was the increasing power of the Royal Navy, together with the growth of other European fleets, that permitted some (not all) British politicians and intellectuals to evolve a more global vision. The idea, famously expressed in the 1750s by the Duke of Newcastle, the British secretary of state, that ‘every part of the world affects us, in some way or another’ was at base an idea made possible by unprecedented naval reach.

This said, Rodger’s emphasis on the nervousness and insecurity that always lay behind growing British naval power in this period is correct and salutary, and part of what makes this an iconoclastic as well as an important book. The impact of empire on 17th and 18th-century Britain – and its empire’s impact on other countries and peoples – are still too often, and too unconsciously, viewed through Victorian and whiggish lenses. The knowledge that Britain’s was fleetingly, in propaganda at least, an empire on which the sun always shone, has led to too much emphasis being placed on imperial prefigurings, obsessions and arrogance in its earlier history. Even on the eve of Trafalgar, as their archives and culture make abundantly clear, the majority of Britons of the political class remained fixated for much of the time on Europe, and for good reason many of them were still unsure and often afraid.

If there is a flaw in Rodger’s work, it is not his iconoclasm but the limits he imposes on it. At one point, he remarks that ‘foreign historians’ are too inclined to stress ‘the British people’s unique consciousness of the sea’. It is right of course to discount the old myths of an island nation’s manifest naval destiny, but this should not preclude an imaginative and wide-ranging investigation of how proximity to large stretches of water has had its impact over time on different people’s lives and ideas in different parts of the ‘British Isles’. Rodger argues that naval history needs installing ‘in its proper place’ in our understanding of Britain’s past, but this is actually no longer the most urgent requirement. Recent decades have witnessed a renaissance in British naval history, greatly assisted by the efforts of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, and by other maritime museums. As far as the long 18th century is concerned, the past six years have seen the publication of an important survey of the navy and Britain’s empire by Jeremy Black, Clive Wilkinson’s scrupulous analysis of Lord Egmont’s role as head of the Admiralty in the early 1760s, Margarette Lincoln’s richly suggestive discussion of the navy’s public image between 1750 and 1815, Glyndwr Williams’s wonderful book on Lord Anson’s circumnavigation of the world, a significant new biography of Captain Cook by Nicholas Thomas, and many other substantial works. John Sugden and Andrew Lambert have just produced biographies of Horatio Nelson, and a further biography by R.J.B. Knight is eagerly awaited. The Royal Navy is doing very well, thank you.

Moreover, all kinds of scholar, many of them not British, have discovered that the massive archives of the Royal Navy (and its accumulated artefacts, images and buildings) constitute a bottomless treasure chest for many varieties of history writing. Vincent Carretta has used naval archives to revise radically our understanding of Olaudah Equiano and other black slaves. Marcus Rediker, Peter Linebaugh and Nicholas Rogers have exploited the potential of naval sources for labour history on both sides of the Atlantic. Isaac Land and Kathleen Wilson have drawn on them to discuss 18th-century masculinities. And historians of science, including Simon Schaffer in Britain and Graham Burnett in the United States, are increasingly using naval material to explore changing technologies and patterns of knowledge.

What has been far less investigated where these islands are concerned is maritime as distinct from naval history. The Royal Navy has been an important part of British history and, for good as well as ill, many other countries’ histories as well. But to focus only on the navy, however adventurously, is to remain too much in hock to a history of the British state and its priorities. There were all kinds of people in the past whose lives were utterly bound up with the sea – smugglers, fisherfolk, sea-salt makers, travellers, traders and many more – but who had little if anything to do with the state. A truly comprehensive maritime history of Britain would, for instance, have to take in J.M.W. Turner, who grew up near London’s docks, and went on to paint ships, coastlines and the sea all his life.

Such a truly comprehensive history would also have to explore interconnections with every other part of the globe, and not just the empire. It would also have to acknowledge that different regions possess distinctive maritime histories. The Scillies, the Shetlands, the Isle of Man and of course Ireland – like England, Wales and mainland Scotland – are all caught up in the naval history of Britain, but their respective maritime histories extend far beyond it. We need to know more about this. As Braudel demonstrated, moving the sea from the margins of historical inquiry to its centre makes possible alternative and less circumscribed ways of seeing. Many historians still take the nation-state as their natural point of departure; most still take for granted that they should chronicle only the land. Yet, as recent events remind us, human beings’ lives and deaths have always been closely bound up with access to large stretches of water, its opportunities, its wide horizons and its dangers. Occasionally, at least, historians would do well to turn their gaze from terra firma and begin instead with the sea.