The British Empire Library

The Royal Navy 1793 - 1800:
Birth Of A Superpower

by Mark Jessop

Mark Jessop has written a concise yet surprisingly detailed account of a key period in the history of the Royal Navy. It seems very focussed on the seven years at the end of the Eighteenth Century but as the author points out these tumultuous years unleashed Revolutionary and powerful forces which upended so much of the existing World order. It is no coincidence that in these years of upheaval the Royal Navy had to respond to these new threats and opportunities. Looking book through the prism of Trafalgar just 5 years after this book finishes it is hard for us to appreciate just how substantial a leap it had been for the Royal Navy to recover from the American Revolutionary Wars and gain pre-eminence against not just France but a whole variety of shifting allegiances from the other naval powers in Europe. This book basically sets out how the Royal Navy overcame its many and varied challenges to make itself such a powerful and eventually a war winning force.

The author makes it clear that in the early 1790s British ships were not particularly well known for their quality. It was interesting to read that Britain eagerly pressed into service ships that they had captured but rarely were British ships so pressed into service when taken by her rivals. This is a surprisingly revealing detail. One has grown up with stories of the 'Heart of Oak' so it was interesting to hear that Spanish ships were built to far more demanding standards using impressive woods from South America making them unusually strong. British sailors hardly seemed like they were ideal warriors either, especially with the haphazard press gangs bringing in sundry and often unwilling recruits to man the ships. Actually, the author does a good job of explaining the intricacies and limitations of the press system. He makes it clear that it was far more nuanced than is often portrayed. It is also almost comical that pressed sailors had to agree to their impressment if they wanted to receive the sought after bounty for signing up... talk about the ultimate in carrot and stick offers! There were many occupations and individuals who could and did receive special dispensation against impressment. It was also useful to have pointed out that the withholding of pay for long periods was far from just neglectful inefficiency but rather an important means of deterring sailors from jumping ship and absconding. If you had several years of pay expected, you might think twice about leaving your employer! Of course, the harsh realities of naval life were a contributing factor to the 1797 mutinies which are covered in the book very well indeed. Again, it is possible that these could have spiralled out of control and contributed to revolutionary ideas spreading into the British body-politik, but the author explains how these were largely contained within a surprisingly patriotic format by the mutineers and how the authorities (for a change) did not over-react and make a tense situation worse. In many ways, this section is the most important part of the book and the compromises reached do much to explain how and why Britain was not convulsed with the same kind of revolutionary passions, despite genuine grievances, as elsewhere in Europe in this period.

The book makes it clear what a gigantic endeavour the Royal Navy truly became over this period. It was fairly large at the outset for sure, but it became a huge institution in a very short period of time - augmented by captured ships as much as by newly built vessels. Indeed, it is clear that the profit motive did as much as anything to meld officers and crews together in the curious intersection of private gain and national defence. It is hard to over-estimate how the punctilious Prize Rules motivated sailors and marines to lay their lives on the line time and again in the hope not of destroying their enemies but in capturing them. Crews were willing to undertake phenomenally dangerous cutting out escapades or boardings in order that the ships and its contents could be taken to a friendly port and its value shared out amongst the crew. The more brazen your Captain, the more likely you were to end up materially benefitting... or buried at sea!

I must mention a recurring device used by the author which 'may' deter some readers, although I hope not. The author employs a number of fictional characters to help illustrate themes and issues throughout the book. Virtually every chapter starts with such a character who places the issue into a realistic context. I do know that some people will not like this and think that the blending of fact and fiction could be confusing and off putting. I have to say that I was sceptical myself at first but soon realised that it was doing far more good than harm. For one thing it gave more voice to those groups of society that you usually do not hear so much from; women, the poor, unusual occupations etc.... Secondly, it gave real flavour and colour to proceedings. Non-fiction books can be boring when they are constrained wholly by the truth and necessary evidence. These semi-fictional characters (for they are definitely based on types of people who really did exist) can be given thoughts and actions that we can be pretty sure people of that time may have had; A wife worrying about her husband's involvement in the mutinies almost certainly occurred and it is a shame not to recognise these kinds of emotions. I think these characters make the entire book far more accessible as they allow the author to weave some very important and genuine events into a framework that holds your attention but also delivers real facts in an understandable manner. So please do not write off this book because it seems to blur the line between fact and fiction. If anything I would say that the fiction allows the fact to be delivered more interestingly.

I am someone who would like to think that I know a fair amout about Naval history, but I still found lots to learn from this book. I am not sure I appreciated how fortuitous two scares before the French Revolution truly were in helping the Royal Navy to prepare almost accidentally for global war; The war scare with Spain in 1790 and another with Russia with the Ochakov Crisis of 1791 (which I confess I had never heard of). Often little appreciated acts or events can have unexpected consequences and the semi-mobilisations and activity from the Admiralty would stand the Royal Navy in good stead when war did break out. I also had not heard of William Brown who not only was a black African in Royal Naval service (not an unusual occurrence per se) but a 5'4" 26 year old woman (which was decidedly a lot more unusual). Not only did the crew know she was a woman but did not seem to mind in the slightest. She apparently went to sea after a quarrel with her husband and seemed to acquire a great deal of prize money and enjoyed her grog as much as her crew mates.

Of course, not all the action of this book takes place at sea, and the crucial business of victualling and supplying the Navy is explained clearly. This was also the period in which crucial medical advances were made such as identifying and preventing scurvy with the distribution of lemons and lemon juice on ships. By 1795, scurvy had effectively been defeated in the Royal Navy. Fumigating ships, cleaning bilges and issuing soap to sailors all helped to reduce the terrible threats of some diseases at least. Again, this might go against our preconceived ideas of Eighteenth Century standards, but shows that the Royal Navy could be surprisingly advanced and receptive to new ideas. Another example was when the Royal Navy began vaccinating their crews to protect them from Smallpox outbreaks. Having hundreds of people cramped up in such a small space was asking for trouble, but the Royal Navy were about as proactive as any institution could have been at that period in time to help mitigate such threats.

The underlying culture of the Royal Navy in this period is perhaps best summed up by the author when he explained: "The harshness of eighteenth century ship life was lessened by small civilities and formal modes of address." The division between the officers and the crew were vast in many ways, but the codified language and social expectations allowed them to combine their endeavours to help defeat the French and defend their shores. It is clear that the officers could never have controlled so many men to undertake such dangerous activities without a commonality of purpose defined within strict military codes and expectations and of course with the lure of prize money!

The author explains that the Royal Navy's job was not just to prevent invasion of Britain but also to ensure that her own ports were not blockaded and that the shipping lanes could still flow to Britain and her colonies. Furthermore, they wished to deny those very same shipping lanes to their enemies. Blockading enemy ports became a key activity and enemy merchant ships were added to those prize tallies with even more enthusiasm than military ships. The European theatre soon spread on to the global stage as many of the protagonists started the war with colonies scattered across the globe. The first clashes may have been in the English Channel, but soon the fighting spread to the Mediterranean, the West Indies, the Indian Ocean and beyond. The author explains that one of the fundamental problems facing the French was the division of her Navy (and ports) across the two seas to the North and to the Mediterranean. The already global minded Royal Navy could use bases like Gibraltar and Minorca to help separate the French ships from one another. It was also interesting to appreciate how the Royal Navy's fortunes in the Mediterranean could wax and wane with the fighting on land. When Napoleon was on the defensive, the Navy could find willing ports and allies to host their ships, but when he went on the offensive (and started winning), those ports would soon be closed and the difficulties of blockading the Southern French coast would become more problematic. The fascinating cat and mouse journey between Napoleon and Nelson to Egypt is particularly gripping and the ultimate destruction of the French fleet at Aboukir was one of those definitive turning points that so nearly did not happen and yet was so consequential when it did.

The waxing and waning of Naval power in the Caribbean seemed to work to a different beat than that in the Mediterranean. The isolated sugar islands were little influenced by events on land back in Europe but were rather at the mercy of the weather and fresh fleets arriving from Europe. The disparate and isolated islands made it relatively easy for any fleet to instill their will and take individual islands as and when they attempted to do so. The problem was that no sooner had one fleet left than another might arrive and capture it back. Local superiority fell to any half dozen ships that could stick together long enough to find and subdue a target. Although hurricanes and disease did their best to frustrate these exploits. At heart though, the prevailing winds tended to carry fleets in particular directions and once they had passed through were unlikely to return any time soon. But a new fleet from Europe might undo all that had just been done. Again though, the story even in this theatre is of the Royal Navy slowly but surely establishing itself with each new season so that by 1800 it was in the preeminent position which it would maintain for most of the remainder of the war. These Revolutionary Wars allowed the Royal Navy to become not just a regional power but a global one.

In conclusion, for a book that is only 190 pages in length and which covers just a short period in history for a single institution and which also employs fictional devices, I learnt an incredible amount. It is highly accessible and conveys some very complex concepts in a way that was engaging and kept your attention throughout. At no point did I tire of this book and think it a worthy chore to have to finish it. Rather, I was excited to keep on reading and knew that each chapter would reveal some fascinating facts that I knew I would benefit from. It may seem that this is a book for beginners or novices in this period, but I promise you that anyone at any level would gain a great deal from reading this book. Highly recommended.

British Empire Book
Mark Jessop
Pen and Sword


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