TRANSPORT TO ANOTHER WORLD: HMS TAMAR AND THE SINEWS OF EMPIRE

December 7, 2022
Posted by: DR MATTHEW HEASLIP

Across all its incarnations HMS Tamar has built a level of recognition in public and naval circles that goes well beyond its humble status, right through to the present River-class OPV. Nonetheless a book tracing the history of the 1863 Tamar and its path through eight decades of naval history, from troopship to supply ship and finally as a base ship, might at first appear a rather niche and arcane topic. This book, however, lives up to Tamar’s name and provides an account of significant value to our understanding of the Royal Navy’s evolving relationship with Britain’s imperial fortunes, as well as the changing nature of sea power during its lifetime. Stephen Davies has pulled together a wide range of material, from Admiralty files, newspapers, to physical items recovered from Victoria Bay, creating an important contribution to our knowledge of the practical employment of sea power, as well as providing an enjoyable read.

The book follows a broadly chronological path through the life of Tamar, its journeys around the world, and ultimate fate in Hong Kong. A wealth of valuable voyage data is also provided in the appendices, which will benefit many future generations of historians. While at first sight the book may appear to offer a narrative of the ship’s life, Davies’ account offers a variety of valuable insights a variety of important topics for those seeking to understand modern naval warfare. The discussion of early Victorian attempts to coordinate global logistics and his convincing argument about how surprisingly successful that system proved to be, offers a valuable insight into how the Royal Navy translated global capabilities into practical power projection both in peace and war. While there are inevitable gaps in the record, Davies does an admirable job of combining the available evidence to offer reasoned and mostly convincing suggestions to help piece together the Royal Navy’s journey towards modern logistical capabilities.

Drawing together the various chapters in the ship’s history, the book highlights how the story of Tamar mirrors that of the British Empire itself and the countless military personnel shipped between regions to facilitate the often-violent acquisition and attempted retention of new territories. In its own way, the book ties in with wider movements over recent decades towards exploring history from below. In doing so, it not only explores the experiences of those transported aboard Tamar and her sister ships, but it also reviews naval developments from the perspective of a long-lived Royal Navy workhorse, rather than a glamorous but often short-lived thoroughbred capital ship.

If there is a criticism for Davies work, it would be that it has the potential to expand its findings to offer an even more significant exploration of the role logistics management played in the expansion and subsequent defence of the British Empire. His research reveals in greater detail not just why secure sea lanes were so important to British power, but also how they were employed effectively and efficiently despite the technological and doctrinal limitations of the age. This can be forgiven, however, as it concludes by looking through to the present day and how a relatively unexciting troopship launched almost 160 years ago still retains an influence on global geopolitics. Indeed, the difficulties encountered in the past in adapting to a rapidly evolving battlespace and perhaps what might be termed a ‘peacespace’, offer potential insights into how the 21st century Royal Navy might meet contemporary challenges. It is therefore quite fitting with Davies overall argument that he concludes by noting just how important Tamar is in tracing the fortunes of the modern Royal Navy.