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Tempest: The Royal Navy and the Age of Revolution

30 Jun 23


(Yale University Press – £25)

ISBN 978 0 300 23827 3

448 pages

How should the Royal Navy, a core service in the defence of the realm, respond to profound developments and disturbances in wider society? The challenge is easier for a volunteer force where members can be expected to sign up to an ethos that has been prudently honed and in which the Service takes pride. The 20th century provided instances where leadership and governance were tested when the community of the Royal Navy was vastly expanded by conscription and national service. Some ships that were deployed to the Baltic in 1919 as revolution threw Russia into turmoil, were reported to be ‘near mutiny’. The proposition of this book is that at no time has the nation and its Royal Navy been in greater danger of the tempest of popular insurrection than in the years of ‘The French Revolutionary War’, a conflict with no holds barred in which Britain often stood alone against “an enemy of a new kind” whose official mouthpiece derided the idea that “the safety of Britain is in her wooden walls” (Le Moniteur, translated on 29 December 1796).

This book completes the author’s fresh look at the Great War of 1793-1815, complementing In Nelson’s Wake (2015) in which he broadened the narrative of the Napoleonic wars beyond campaigns and victories to encompass the underpinning logistical and other elements that he and other contemporary historians have painstakingly researched. This volume again offers a broader perspective in keeping with the ‘New Naval History’ school in which James Davey is a leading light, with the emphasis on socio-cultural context. It is not, therefore, the text for someone looking for operational analysis or a straight narrative of deployments, though it is composed very effectively around the framework of significant tasks and actions. Remarking that the book has been written during ‘interesting times’, not least ongoing dissatisfaction over living standards and pay in many work-forces, the author makes it plain that it has “politics at its heart”. It proposes a fresh assessment of the political activity of sailors and the response of authorities in the context of the “political maelstrom that consumed the British nation across the 1790s”.

The book picks up the catch-line of Nicholas Rodger’s brilliant chapter in The Command of the Ocean (2005) entitled ‘Order and Anarchy’ and addresses the challenge at the start of Rodger’s next chapter that there had been “no serious study of naval manning”. Here, in synthesis backed up by thorough notes and references, is a measured deployment of the substantial research that has been undertaken in the intervening two decades. James Davey’s particular contribution is deep immersion in the surviving witness of the sailors, in both familiar and less familiar published accounts, and in Admiralty records, particularly the Courts Martial Papers preserved in The National Archive. After review of recent scholarly debate over the extent and impact of impressment, Davey concludes that resistance, supported by a volatile wider population, reached a peak in the 1790s. For the impact of impressment affected thousands of families, not least through the incidence of ‘turned over men’, moved straight from a ship paying off into another poised for deployment.

This is a compelling picture of one of the largest communities of labour of that day, one that was diverse and complex, not least as the result of impressment. It was mobile and exposed to cosmopolitan perspectives such as resistance to slavery. With significant numbers of personnel who had served in the slave trade, the author concludes that it is difficult to reach a conclusion on the impact of this resistance on the ratings of the navy. As an aside, where do our people stand today on the post-colonial debate? We should be interested and seek to inform thinking. For James Davey shows that the community of naval ratings in the 1790s was also one that was literate, able to read of  campaigns for ‘rights’, ready to pick up new language such as ‘delegates’ and ‘committees’, and to note new ways of protest such as the petition.

Analysis of records, allowing for self-preserving claims in the aftermath of mutiny, indicates a significant loyal element amongst the sailors, together with those who resigned themselves to their lot, kept their heads down, and resigned themselves to their lot and to playing their part to bring an end to war and to their service. This path was probably easier for more qualified personnel of the merchant service who fell foul of the press-gang. They could quickly earn favour and trust and attain a more comfortable berth onboard. Thus, David Bartholomew would eventually rise to Post Captain. Nonetheless, all must have baulked at the poor pay, the powder keg for the first mutiny of 1797. A reader who shares the view that the response of the British government to the development of the French Revolution and the emergence of the Napoleonic regime set back the processes of reform in this country by decades, will empathise with the statement that “one solution to the problem [of unrest in the Fleet] that seems to have completely eluded Admiralty and government officials was raising the wages of naval seamen, which had not been increased since the seventeenth century”.

Davey places the naval mutinies of 1797 within a broader climate of protest including the food riots of that decade. He argues that the mutinies at Portsmouth, Torbay, Plymouth and Cawsand Bay constituted “one of the most successful labour disputes of the eighteenth century”. Tragically, shortcomings in government communication of a new pay scale gave time for more extreme mutiny to break out at the Nore, whilst rapid dissemination of newspapers and other sources fuelled outbreaks at Madeira, the Cape of Good Hope and Colombo. However, no evidence supports external instigation or undue influence from ‘quota men’, nor, at least until the rebellion of 1798, from United Irishmen amongst the significant population of Irish in the fleet. The author concludes that the only convincing explanation for the mutinies is the sailors’ own capacity for political action, and he shows how mutiny continued to occur in the remaining years of the war, with more extreme expressions such as the intention of taking a ship over to the enemy. The French attempts on the shores of Ireland and Wales to demonstrate the inadequacy of Britain’s ‘wooden walls’ had promoted a deep sense of insecurity. Thus, anxiety in the Admiralty, stoked by unprecedented events such as the withdrawal by mutinying personnel of units on station off Brest, led to measures of retributive justice, such as the Mutiny Act of 1798, to intensive surveillance and investigation, and to support for ever harsher responses from captains and admirals afloat.

It led also to new forms of propaganda. Here the author’s previous works on cartoons and other artefacts and cultural expressions comes to the fore. These were years in which, he contends, public faith in the Navy was severely eroded, and the image of the British sailor was tarnished. The mutineers generally professed that they were ready to fight the enemy, and they proved it at the much-needed victory of Camperdown. The aftermath saw exploitation of the young rating, Jack Crawford, who “nailed the colours to the mast”. But the stunning victory of the Nile would see the emergence of a new propaganda tool, namely Nelson and his ‘band of brothers’ amongst the officers rather than the sailors of the fleet.

This book cannot be recommended too highly to readers of the Naval Review. Its clear structure and logic-flow, enlivened by vividly depicted characters and incidents, make it an easy read. But time will be well spent digesting and following the leads in the extensive end-notes. The ‘Note on Sources’ should not be skipped. Overall, the attentive reader, looking beyond the scuttle into Britain and the wider world, will benefit from fresh understanding of a period of huge importance in our history. The author’s verdict that “no ship is an island” will surely ring true to all who have been engaged in the Royal Navy’s divisional system from early in their careers. This narrative is surely salutary in our own ‘interesting times’ in which effective leadership in the Royal Navy must call for sensitivity to the issues in wider society of which our people are only too aware.