THE ROYAL NAVY 1793 -1800: BIRTH OF A SUPERPOWER

Reviewed by: Robert Muddysley

Over the past few decades, the way that history is presented has undergone a radical change. The traditional study of Kings, Queens, battles and dates has mutated into a far more sociological discipline, to grossly oversimplify, ‘What did it feel like to be press-ganged?’ rather than examining the manpower imperatives that drove press-ganging. All too often, due to what can become an obsession with the place of ‘ordinary people’ in history, the context tends to get lost and there is a generation growing up that has no awareness of the causes and effects that drive history, and no perspective of the narrative flow of events, they are studied in isolation from each other. Perhaps this curious book is an attempt to bridge the two streams of historical presentation. It is a well-researched and referenced history of the Royal Navy’s involvement in the Revolutionary War with France, up to 1800, rather than the more logical break point of the Peace of Amiens in 1802. It has no less than 549 footnotes and twelve pages of bibliography and references.

This book goes further than what might be termed a halfway house, putting imagined words into the mouths of historical characters as many have done before; it creates fictional new ones. Some are useful as a vehicle to explain how the navy was administered and managed, like the schoolmaster walking his charges around central London (and stopping for a pie for lunch), some to add human interest like the wife of a petty officer standing ashore in Portsmouth during the Spithead mutiny and mouthing her thoughts and concerns. The interleaved fictional characters, ‘ordinary people’, mostly are without names. However, three are given names, a pressed man Solomon, a quota man Vinney, and a volunteer Jennings. These three are used as a fictional tool to illustrate what might be termed the methods of rating entry and the progress of the individuals thereafter. Others are anonymous, ‘the agent’ who wanders around the Mediterranean and ‘the trader’ similarly around the Caribbean and Eastern Atlantic, who fortuitously had a brother ‘long resident in India’ who wrote to him five times between 1793 and 1800 updating him on the doings of the Royal Navy in Indian waters, but without mentioning the India Marine, the East India Company’s own navy which was more substantial both quantitatively and probably qualitatively than the locally deployed Royal Naval ships.

It is well written and the author has a pleasant readable style, smoothly linking various themes. While well referenced, the author has a somewhat quirky choice of sources and authorities such as the 1888 Encyclopaedia Britannica, and reliance on single sources, such as James’ The Naval History Of Great Britainwhich always refers to ships commanding officers as ‘Captain’, which is why Commander Robert Barlow of the sloop Childers becomes a Captain in a vessel decidedly not a captains command. This leads into a description of what became known as the Childersincident at the end of 1792 which brought Britain to the brink of war with Revolutionary France. This account is minimally fictionalised, with imagined words put into sailors’ mouths. The defence of the Iles Saint-Marcouf off Normandy is well described, but how the author knows that the garrison commander was ‘unpopular’ and had ‘a woman of Portsmouth’ as his companion is not referenced, and the descriptions of the attempted French landing are described as if being observed by the participants.

Chapter 5 ‘As free men, not slaves’ (all the chapter titles are from the libretto of ‘Heart of Oak’) starts off with ‘the surgeon’ at work, at his paperwork. Using ‘Vinney’ the quota man as a patient, he leads into his thoughts on scurvy, seeming to believe that Thomas Trotter had discovered the cure for scurvy and that James Lind had merely written on hygiene. Perhaps because Lind’s death in 1794 (footnoted) preceded the widespread use of lemon juice, Trotter is given the credit, which page 60 could be read as implying. It is regrettable that the sources appear to have had but cursory study. The chapter goes on to discuss many aspects of health care, through prize money to the Spithead and Nore mutinies. The very different nature of the two mutinies is only alluded to. Fleet actions, such as the ‘Glorious First of June’ are well described, and its outcome summed up well, including that the French grain convoy successfully made it to France, despite the loss of its escort, and the loss to the French of a very large number of seamen (without making the point that this latter loss was to do lasting damage).

The ‘Epilogue’, subtitled ‘Come Cheer up my lads, with one heart let us sing’ attempts to pull the period together, but does so by raising totally new facets such as the introduction of income tax and the cost of financing the war. Would an ‘old sailor’ (another creation) really have worried about the cost of recruitment bounties? It is not to denigrate ‘the petty officer’s wife’ who opines that people were less inclined to make peace after the Battle of Cape St Vincent but in the absence of the World War Two ‘Mass Observation’ what evidence is there, apart from the cited 1888 Encyclopaedia Britannicaarticle, to support this?  Then ‘the parson’ wonders if the war should end would they need such a large navy? The book ends oddly “The Royal Navy had become a true Neptune. She [sic] had become a ‘superpower’.”

Presumably this book is aimed at a general reader, one who prefers history in bite-sized dramatized chunks. It is not for the reader with even a passing knowledge of the navy in the revolutionary war.