THE BRITISH NAVY IN EASTERN WATERS: THE INDIAN AND PACIFIC OCEANS

Reviewed by: ROBERT MUDDYSLEY

Dr Grainger is an accomplished, respected and widely published historian. While he is described (Google) as an historian of the Hellenistic and Seleucid periods, he has also published extensively on naval (specifically British) history including for the Navy Records Society. In this book, in just 287 pages of text, Dr Grainger covers the history of British involvement in the Indo-Pacific. He starts in 1577 with the (then) Francis Drake and finishes with the end of empire. His canvas ranges from East Africa including the Red Sea and the Gulf to Hawaii. The early emphasis is on trade, which after all was the main driver of the early voyages of exploration and discovery. The development of the various national East India Companies followed and the, at times odd, relationship the successive British Companies had with the Crown and government is well covered.

The reason the book’s slightly curious title becomes apparent when the development of the Honourable East India Company’s private navies is covered. These, predominantly the ‘Bengal Marine’, were warships, but the East Indiamen, the company’s merchant ships plying back to Europe were heavily armed and could be mistaken for warships, unlike the ‘country ships’ which traded locally.  Thus the book covers not only the doings of the Royal Navy, but those of British governmental naval forces before there was a Royal Navy and the activities of ‘John Company’s navy’ (although the contemporary soubriquet is not mentioned).

As well as a narrative history (and it is instructive how many famous names feature, Anson, Boscawen, Cornwallis, Kempenfelt, Pellew to name a few more often thought of in an Atlantic or Mediterranean context), the evolution in naval tactics is briefly covered, and he makes some passing references to what would now be called doctrine, almost becoming at one point Corbettian! The descriptions of some of the actions would have been much more comprehensible with even a simple diagram, but there are none. There are passing observations that read as banal even trite e.g. “On the whole, the battle was a draw, if anything”. (p92) (The battle concerned is not named in the text, but from Clowes and Mahan, it was the action off Cuddalore, 29 April 1758). Additionally, there are some opinionated conclusions such as (p150) “the success of the French fleet at the Battle of the First of June…”. This is not explored at all; after all to lose seven ships of the line is an odd measure of success, but the prime importance of defending the grain convoy the French were escorting was important. If this action is to be examined properly, losing 3-4,000 seamen from a nation without a large navy or merchant marine was a potentially crippling factor which should be examined. Too many times the author makes such didactic assertions with little supporting argument such as his four-line assessment of Suffren, of whom he concludes “[h]is reputation is overblown”. (p133). His opponent, Admiral Hughes comes out somewhat better, but stating that British operational decisions in 1942 against the Japanese were “exactly the same” as Hughes’ campaigns of 1782-3 without any real examination of the latter is going too far. Indeed, the Second World War is covered in 18 pages and concentrates on the Indian Ocean; the Pacific war and the doings of the British Pacific Fleet gets scant coverage.

Some details are incorrect: (p246) HMS Wivern was never a “Confederate ship in the American Civil War, and then in the Turkish navy”; she was being built in Britain, ostensibly for the Egyptian government but covertly for the Confederacy when she was taken over by the Royal Navy.

Overall this book is potentially extremely good, and it would be if the passing observations the author makes had been covered in more detail with supporting arguments. Instead, it reads as if it were a rush job, at times almost like a lecturers notes. Better edited and better illustrated it would be a useful contribution. Unfortunately, it cannot be recommended to readers of the Naval Review, and particularly not at the stated price.