THE ROYAL NAVY CHINA STATION: 1864-1941
Reviewed by: Kevin Rowlands
This is a big book by any standard. Big in size, its shape and weight are reminiscent of a Jane’s Fighting Ships. Big in scope, its topic covers nearly a century of British naval presence in China, from where power could be projected both inland along the rivers, and out into the Pacific. The years chosen to bookend this history are not arbitrary. 1864 was the first year in which China was shown in the Navy List as a separate Station (it had previously been combined with the East Indies), and 1941 saw the outbreak of the war in the Pacific and was thus the end of an era for this outpost of empire.
The author, Jonathan Parkinson, addresses this history through an analysis of the careers of its leaders, the Commanders-in-Chief. It is interesting to note that the first, Augustus Leopold Kuper, was a Rear Admiral, and the remainder were Vice Admirals, except for a short interlude when it was up-gunnedto full Admiral from 1922 to 1924 (Arthur Cavenagh Leveson), and again 1933 to 1936 (Sir Frederick Charles Dreyer). There is no reason for given for these fluctuations, but then that is not the way the book is written. This is not an investigation into the story and importance of the China Station, nor of the goings-on in that strategically important country over nearly a century of cover. When opening the pages, the reader is instead presented with a series of potted biographies of the great men, each ten to fifteen pages long, described in an almost bullet point-like fashion. Birth, early years, career by rank, and then arrival in China. This makes for a useful compendium for the student of senior naval officers of the period but, this reviewer would suggest, is less appealing to the generalist who is interested in the history of the RN in the far east during the period.
Clearly a huge amount of research has gone into the book and each entry is supported by copious notes and references; this alone could make it a compelling springboard for further, in-depth study. Jonathan Parkinson must be congratulated for his labour of love and for the contribution he has made to an under-studied aspect of Royal Navy history, but this is not a page-turner for the armchair sailor.