How did Britain come to rule the waves?

With a new BBC Two series on the history of the Royal Navy showing this month, its presenter Dan Snow tackles some of the key questions about Britain's maritime past

A ship in a storm

This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Q Does the history of the navy matter?

A Since the beginning of time it has been cheaper to move goods by water than by land. Control of the sea therefore gives a nation a stranglehold over the lives of people that border on it.

In the 18th and 19th centuries Britain rose to a position in which it controlled the world’s oceans. As a result, the history of the Royal Navy is important not just to modern Britain, but to the world. The political, linguistic, cultural and social complexion of the world today owes a huge amount to the activities of the Royal Navy from the 16th century onwards. A rainy, irrelevant, resource-poor archipelago in the North Atlantic, the British Isles, managed to impose its ideas of trade, government, religion and culture across vast swathes of humanity thanks to its navy, which could enforce Britain’s will on every continent.

Q Why was the navy so successful?

A England’s and then Britain’s navy was not pre-destined for greatness. The English were late to trans-oceanic trading in the 15th century. In the 16th century, despite eye-catching successes like the exploits of Drake and Hawkins, England was only taking her first steps as a naval power. In the 17th century, Holland and France were both superior to England at different times. Yet, by the 18th century, Britain had established a naval hegemony that was to remain unshaken until the 1920s.

England had some natural advantages. Thanks to prevailing westerly winds, most of the time it sits ‘upwind’ of Europe. The ports on her south coast are superb, much better than those available to France and Holland. There are excellent sources of oak, coal and iron. Yet these factors alone do not explain England’s unparalleled success.

It used to be believed that British success was racial or a product simply of an aggressive spirit. But it wasn’t. It was because the British paid for more ships and more guns than anyone else.

By the early 18th century the British people had come to believe passionately that the best defence of their lives, liberty and religion, and the surest way of making money, lay at sea. From the king to the lowest peasant there was a bedrock of support for the navy that never wavered. Money was made available to maintain ships, dry-docks, ports and foundries – modern government finance being created in the process. Other European navies came and went, as the enthusiasm of one monarch or chief minister was replaced by the scepticism of the next, but in Britain, the Royal Navy was always at the very heart of public life.

Q Why did Britain become obsessed by its navy?

A Englishmen grew to love their navy so much that by the 19th century it was a favourite subject of novels, music hall ditties, art, fashion and theatre. From the first time Hawkins landed in Plymouth with a hull full of Spanish gold, the people of England looked to the west. By the time the Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, as Englishmen watched the fighting along the south coast, it was clear to all that if England was to avoid the fate of small states across Europe and maintain its independence, it needed to be able to protect the seas around her coasts.

The navy was particularly popular because it could not march up Whitehall and seize control of the government. In 17th-century England, the Stuart monarchs and Cromwell all attempted to curb the liberties of their subjects with the help of an army. The navy could only protect England, not coerce it.

By the 18th century, the British rejoiced as their navy delivered victory after victory, and conveniently ignored the odd defeat. Hard conditions, the constant presence of death and disease and years away from home were forgotten as stories circulated of treasure ships and derring do. After Commodore Anson captured one Spanish ship he returned with over a million ‘pieces of eight’; the common seamen on his voyage were rewarded with the vast sum of 26 pounds each! With opportunities like that, it was no wonder that young men like James Cook, son of an inland farm labourer, sought his fortune at sea.

Q Did the navy cause the Industrial Revolution?

A The navy contributed to, and benefited from, the Industrial Revolution that swept across Britain in the 18th century. The navy’s vast demand for iron stimulated production. In the early part of the century, Ambrose Crowley’s ironworks were the largest in the world and the biggest civilian enterprise in the country; his biggest customer was the navy. Steam engines were developed to pump out deep mines to get at the coke which fired the iron founding process. John Wilkinson developed the technology for boring cannon, which was subsequently used to make pistons for steam engines. Copper was mined and worked in vast quantities for the first time to provide copper sheathing for the hulls of naval vessels, which hugely improved their performance and endurance.

As a result of Britain’s technological lead, the navy enjoyed an increasing qualitative advantage over her enemies for nearly 200 years. After the decisive French defeat at the battle of the Saints in April 1782, the defeated admiral came on board the British flagship and admitted that the French navy was a “century behind” the British.

Q Was the navy ever defeated?

A It is easy to believe that the navy was utterly dominant between the late 17th century and the First World War. However there were some disastrous defeats. The most important, although least talked about, was in Chesapeake Bay, North America on 5 September 1781. A French squadron succeeded in repulsing a British fleet that was sailing to relieve General Cornwallis, who was being besieged by a Franco-American army at Yorktown. With no hope of naval help, Cornwallis surrendered and Britain had to accept American independence. It was one of the most decisive naval battles in history.

One of the largest expeditions Britain ever attempted was against Cartagena in Spanish-controlled South America in 1741. It was a spectacular disaster, with yellow fever, typhus and dysentery killing thousands of men. The navy abandoned the expedition, leaving the waters around the anchorage crowded with floating British corpses. Sir Robert Walpole’s government fell when news reached Britain.

A defeat that has been spun as a victory was the utter failure of the Royal Navy to intercept the invasion force of William of Orange as it sailed down the channel. This led to a regime change in Britain and the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’, one of the most important upheavals in British social and political life in history.

Q Why do we remember Nelson?

A Nelson is just one of a galaxy of successful Royal Naval commanders. Blake, Russell, Anson, Hawke, Boscawen, Rodney, Howe, Jervis, Duncan and Saumarez and many others all enjoyed spectacular success at battles of equal, if not greater, importance to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar.

Yet there was something special about the diminutive man who lost an eye and an arm in the service of his country. There are the moments of quick thinking as a young commander, at the battle of Cape St Vincent, and then the titanic fleet actions at the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. But he was also a considerate leader: his letters to his wife (and mistress) are always full of descriptions of the health of his men.

Nelson famously cultivated a ‘band of brothers’, a close knit relationship between his captains, which many subsequent admirals have attempted to emulate. This was not just a social nicety, but a tactical imperative. Nelson trusted his captains to understand the spirit of his orders and then put them into action as they thought best.

Nelson also had a keen appreciation of public relations and fostered the myth of his semi-divinity during his life. He never appeared without a chest full of exotic medals, and his home was a shrine to himself that members of the public were encouraged to visit.

Ultimately we should remember Nelson because he personified an age in which the navy was at its very zenith. Its ships, discipline, doctrines and espirit de corps were absolutely irresistible in battle and ensured that Britain, not France, would dominate the world.

Q Was it all ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’?

A As so often, Winston Churchill’s knack for memorable sound bites actually distorts the truth! Conditions were certainly hard in the sailing navy; rations were rotten, water spoiled within days. Men were ‘pressed’ into service often against their will, for long periods of time. Punishments were famously draconian, with many crimes, like striking an officer, carrying the death penalty, and smaller misdemeanours provoking the captain to instruct the bosun’s mate to “take the cat out of the bag” and flog the offender. It is true that there were dreadful examples of sadistic captains flogging the last topman down from the rigging after furling sails. However these seem to have been isolated, and mutinies were very rare indeed. The most notable were at the end of the 18th century, at the Nore and Spithead, but these were not occasioned by the punitive regime but by concerns over pay.

In fact, recent studies have emphasised how harmonious a ship’s company was, provided the crew felt the unwritten covenant between officers and men was being observed. As a result, commanders like Anson, Nelson, and, later, Fisher, spent a huge amount of time improving the food and conditions of the men under their command. In return the men rarely wavered in their duty and the enthusiasm of ‘Jack Tar’ was commented on by his army colleagues on combined operations such as Quebec, Havana and the Crimean War.

When Captain Nelson boarded not one but two Spanish ships of the line at the battle of St Vincent, he had no cause to doubt that his crew were enthusiastically following him, brandishing cutlasses, belaying pins and pistols.

Q What was the Pax Britannica?

A There is a widespread fallacy that after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain remained essentially at peace for most of the 19th century. In fact, although the 19th century did belong to Britannia, it was far from peaceful and the navy were at the forefront of the fighting. Britain’s vast industrial and financial might translated into a navy that was unchallengeable. Partly because of this there was only one large European war in the period, the Crimean War, which saw British fleets engaged in the Black and Baltic seas. The naval threat to the tsar’s capital, St Petersburg, helped to convince the tsar to accede to allied demands.

Outside Europe, though, there were countless other vicious battles – from North Africa to China and Uruguay. In China, the navy smashed the outdated Imperial Chinese fleet of junks and advanced up the rivers and canals to impose Britain’s will on the Chinese emperor. There were punitive expeditions up the Congo to shell villages in which European traders had been manhandled. There were operations against slave trading in east and west Africa. Governments were supported, toppled or pressured across South America by the application of naval force.

In New Zealand, the native Maoris were overwhelmed by expeditions carried in the ships of the Royal Navy. Alexandria was bombarded to bring the Egyptians into line with British strategic goals. Athens was blockaded until the Greek government paid compensation to a British subject whose house was vandalised by a mob. A young British naval officer wrote: “You cannot imagine the effect of a British man of war… my presence at Rome kept the city tranquil, though my ship was 50 miles off… English influence still carries the day, and a word of advice from us will do anything”.

Never before had one nation been the world’s policeman, and it was enforcing laws of its own devising.

Q Why did Britain lose her mastery of the seas?

A Britain ruled the waves, in part, because no one else attempted to. The other candidates, France, America and Russia, all underwent internal upheaval or had other priorities for much of the 19th century that prevented them from making a serious challenge to British control of the world’s oceans. Towards the end of the century, however, as other nations caught up with, and even overtook, Britain’s industrial lead they started to develop naval ambitions to match their enhanced industrial status.

It was inevitable that Britain, with her limited population and resources, could not continue to dominate the planet when the modernised economies of Russia, America and Germany turned their attentions to the sea. At the beginning of the 20th century a multi-polar naval world, of the type seen in the 17th century, returned. It was then simply unrealistic for one nation to expect to have the majority of the world’s total naval ships, as Britain had done at times in the 19th century.

Instead nations like Japan, Germany, America and France all built fleets commensurate with their industrial development and their ambitions as naval powers. Britain’s supremacy thus sowed the seeds for its own eclipse, as other nations attempted to emulate it.

In the end there was no violent snatching of Britannia’s trident. The biggest naval battle to that point in history, Jutland, was a decisive British strategic victory, as Germany’s impressive fleet of battleships scurried back to port to lick their considerable wounds and never again contested control of the seas.

Instead an exhausted Britain recognised the reality of the new world born in the rubble of the First World War; she accepted parity with the United States navy.

Q How did the navy shape the modern world?

A In 2009 the world is made up of a majority of nation states that largely embrace ideas of free trade, democracy, individual rights, and limited government. English is the international language of business and culture. This is no accident. It is the result of the domination of the Royal Navy, which underpinned the spread of those British ideas.

Large parts of America and Canada could have remained New France, Australia could still be New Holland, the Spanish could have maintained their empire in South America and young children in Indian classrooms today could be learning Portuguese or Dutch rather than English, the Russian empire might stretch down to include parts of the Middle East. All of these outcomes were perfectly possible were it not for the actions of the Royal Navy.

Phillip of Spain, Louis XIV, Napoleon and Kaiser Wilhelm all attempted to create a different future, one with very different values and forms of government, but they all failed in the key task of creating a navy that could destroy the Royal Navy and end British control of the world’s oceans.

Dan Snow is the history correspondent for BBC One’s One Show, and presenter of Empire of the Seas, airing this month on BBC Two. He is a regular contributor to the BBC History Magazine website: www.bbchistorymagazine.com/blogs

BOOKS: Safeguard of the Sea by NAM Rodger (Penguin, 2004); Command of the Oceans by NAM Rodger (Allen Lane, 2004); Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns That Shaped the Modern World, 1588–1782 by P Padfield (John Murray, 1999)

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TV: Empire of the Seas, a history of the Royal Navy presented by Dan Snow, is being broadcast on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer, starting this month