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The Channel Islands in Anglo-French Relations, 1689-1918

11 Jun 24

290 pages

David Childs

For many members their first sighting of the Channel Islands may well have been while on passage from Dartmouth as part of a sailing exped. For some that may well have been the last time they saw or concerned themselves with these islands tucked into the armpit of France – their significance forgotten or ignored. To highlight their importance, an international maritime history symposium was held on Alderney in 2019 with contributions ranging from: piracy and privateering, fishing disputes, hydrography, fortifications, naval warfare, trade and, of course, Anglo-French diplomatic relations. These have been brought together in this publication.

It is the editors’ contention that the key role played by the Channel Islands in both naval warfare and Anglo-French diplomacy during this period, (and even beyond) when the countries were frequently at war, has not always been recognised.  Indeed, in support of that contention, an examination of Norman Davies’ massive work The Isles (1,200 pages) grants the Islands less than two lines. Yet, several of the contributors to the symposium have found it difficult to illustrate the importance of their subject. Contrary to the quote that “whoever has the Channel Islands has the lock and key of the British Channel”, these essays indicate how much more important were the ‘harbours of refuge’ and naval ports on the British mainland and the port of Cherbourg in France. Ironically, the subject discussed in greatest local depth is the construction of a ‘harbour of refuge’ in Alderney between 1847 and 1872 which became the HS2 of its day, uncompleted at enormous cost. Part of the problem might well be that the peak construction population of some 1,000 men had 46 licensed hostelries available to them.

As anyone who has sailed through these waters will know, the combination of rocks and tides and features such as the notorious Alderney Race makes any approach to the islands hazardous, so it is no surprise that the efforts to charts these waters by both French and British hydrographers provide three of the most interesting essays in the collection.

As for the rest – one can judge essays collected from a symposium by considering whether, if one had been present at the original lecture, one would have remained alert or started wondering how long it was before the lunchbreak. Too many of these fail that test to consider this, poorly illustrated, book worth the outlay of £80.