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This is the final section from NAM Rodger “The Command of the Ocean” A Naval History of Britain, Volume Two, 1649 – 1815 (Allen Lane 2004).

Read the economist review of the book: A new maritime history of Britain - putting the sea back in Britain

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It is many years since British historians felt comfortable in celebrating their country's triumphs. Once upon a time, Britain's incontestable naval and commercial supremacy in 1815 would have been explained as the pre-destined fruit of national virtue, religious truth and political freedom. Among professional historians all three explanations would nowadays arouse varying degrees of amusement, distaste and embarrassment, but no modern consensus of opinion has emerged to replace them. For many years the tendency has been to ignore or belittle the fact as well as the consequences of British naval supremacy. Not many would go so far as to dismiss it outright as a convenient myth, or imply that Napoleon won the Napoleonic War,' but a number of intellectual strategies have been devised to ignore it. The first generation of major naval historians, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, were naturally concerned to trace how the Navy had made the Empire, since it was self-evidently the Empire which made Britain great. Taking their cue from them, many modern writers implicitly assume that the functions of the Navy were essentially aggressive, to win territory overseas. It seems for them to follow that sea power is nowadays both uninteresting, except to specialists in imperial history, and morally disreputable, something the honest historian ought to pretend does not exist.





Among strategic and military historians, by contrast, it is very generally accepted that sea power was an essentially defensive force, necessary but not sufficient for Britain's ultimate victory. All Britain's successful wars, they argue, were won by, or at least could not have been won without, European allies and a British army on the Continent. Though great land powers were capable of defeating sea powers, the reverse was never possible. The ultimate
triumph of 1815, therefore, was primarily due to Wellington and the British army, as well as Marshal Blucher and the Prussian army. The Navy had held the Channel against invasion, but it could do no more.' This argument has been most powerfully and elegantly presented by scholars who had themselves fought as soldiers in the analogous campaign against Germany in 1944 and 1945.' Only recently has it been extended, or subverted, by a new presentation of sea power as a form of strategic depth, like the Russian plains a means of riding the blow of an attack, retreating to avoid defeat and prepare ultimate victory. In this view sea power faced by land power is still essentially defensive, but the defence is a kind of elasticity which as it retreats, gathers strength for the return blow. It is the means of buying time, and giving the enemy scope to commit mistakes and over-extend himself.

British sea power has also been interpreted in terms of economic history, as an aspect of Britain's rise as an imperial and industrial power. This approach tends to make naval power appear as an inevitable product of impersonal historical forces, bound to rise as the British economy rose, and bound to fall as it declined. An essential component of success in the era of dispersed maritime empires, it was doomed to irrelevance as the twentieth century brought in the age of great land empires bound together by railways rather than shipping. Their competition transformed a seaborne empire, and the Navy which protected it, into a burden rather than a strength.

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All these explanations have force, but they are not altogether compatible with one another, and none of them now looks completely persuasive by itself. In the twenty-first century all but one of the great land empires has broken up, and both economic prosperity and international power are at least as closely linked to seaborne trade and sea power as they were in the eighteenth century. As to armies on the Continent, it is unquestionable that a Continental victory requires a Continental commitment, so long as one understands victory in the terms of 1815 or 1945: the physical conquest of the enemy territory, and the overthrow of his regime. Total wars of this sort, however, have been unusual in history. Most wars are fought at more limited cost, for more limited objectives. British wars for overseas trade or possessions, and strictly defensive wars against overseas enemies, could be conducted largely or entirely at sea and overseas — as they were in the English case up to 1688. Only rarely did the threat of a Napoleon or a Hitler force British participation in a European coalition war. It was dynastic engagements which enforced a Continental commitment for the century after 1688, not British national interests. Without foreign monarchs, there would have been infrequent need, or no need, to have armies and allies on the Continent. The foreign monarchs, of course, were recruited for religious reasons. Protestantism, and very little else, recommended William III and George I to their new subjects. Thus the Reformation, which had wrecked England's strategic security in the sixteenth century, continued to undermine it in the eighteenth. It is true that the one eighteenth-century war which Britain fought without Continental allies, the American War, was a partial defeat, but it is not at all safe to assume that the lack of allies was responsible, when there are other and better explanations. For most of the eighteenth century, the Continental Commitment was essentially for the benefit of the Church of England, not the Royal Navy.

It is paradoxical that Protestantism, which was a strategic weakness for England and Britain, was for the same reason an essential strength to British sea power. This was not because Protestant seamen were braver or wiser than those of other faiths; it was because the governing classes of Britain were obsessed with the Popish menace. It is sometimes suggested, particularly by foreign historians, that British naval supremacy rested on the British people's unique consciousness of the importance of the sea. It may be doubted if in reality there ever was a time when the average ploughboy or mill-lass thought a lot about sea power, but what mattered was that the political nation, those who informed opinion and took decisions, were deeply convinced that their religious freedom, and hence their political freedom and material security, depended on it completely. Few of them knew much about the Navy, and many of them were profoundly ignorant of it, but they knew that they needed it. This more than anything else accounts for the strong, consistent and broad-based political support for a costly Navy which distinguishes Britain from all other European powers, naval powers included. It is impossible to imagine that a Catholic England would have been, or felt, so isolated and imperilled. It was because she became Protestant that she had so many reasons to build up a fleet, and so few opportunities for soldiering in Europe, long before she had any significant overseas trade or possessions. Fear provided the motive to maintain a fleet whose primary purpose was always defensive.' As Henry Maydman wrote in 1691,

England must resolve to be at the constant charge, of keeping a great Fleet in continual Action, if ever the Nation hopes to have any Peace or Tranquillity; for it is only the Navy under its Monarchical Government, as in Church and State Established, by God's Assistance, can bring any lasting Peace or Happiness to this Nation.

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As these lines suggest, the significance of sea power to British history lies at least as much in domestic politics and the growth of the state as in foreign policy and war. Political theorists at least as far back as Aristotle have linked navies and democratic forms of government,' and it used to be customary, to connect the Revolution of 1688 with England's rise to naval greatness. Unfortunately for this argument, it is beyond doubt that the powerful English fleet of the 169oS was not originally the product of Whig revolution, or even Stuart monarchy, but of Republican government and military dictatorship.'° The State's Navy of the 1650S, like the fleets of Spain in the late sixteenth century, France in the late seventeenth, Germany in the late nineteenth, and Russia in more than one period, all show that autocratic, militarized states are perfectly capable 9f building large and efficient navies, often with astonishing speed – but they do not seem to be capable of sustaining their creations. The English Republic (and the English army which dominated it) took barely ten years to create the most formidable navy in Europe, and then to collapse. Spanish sea power enjoyed a brief period of strength in the 15905 followed by a steep decline. Louis XIV's fleet rose to be the largest in the world in less than thirty years, and had largely disappeared within another thirty. The fleet that, Tirpitz built on borrowed money ran out of credit in the budget crisis of 1912.

All these cases can be well explained by the argument that the temporary influence of a dominant favourite or the capricious will of the All-Highest was no substitute for the solid support of entrenched interest groups. 'Naval strength is not the growth of a day, nor is it possible to retain it, when once acquired, without the utmost difficulty, and the most unwearied attention,' wrote the pioneer economist Sir John Sinclair in 1782.12 Only the unwavering support of the political nation, sustained over decades if not centuries, could build up a dominant sea power.

The importance of 1689 to naval history was not that Parliament created English sea power, but that it began to take it over. In the short term the consequences of replacing strong and expert Stuart leadership with incompetent and fractured Parliamentary administration were disastrous, but in the long term it mattered very much that the Navy and the money finished up together in the hands of the House of Commons. There has been much disagreement among historians and political scientists over the nature of British government. It has been argued that British government or British bureaucracy were uniquely efficient," and strikingly inefficient" that the country was surprisingly militarized, and unusually free of military influence." It has been described as unique in combining the `urban, capital-intensive' path to modernity with a strong central government.' For some scholars, England was different because it had a strong Navy, and it had a strong Navy because it was different." For others England was different because it had a strong Parliament, and it had a strong Parliament because it was different. Neither observation seems to have quite the explanatory force we need.


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It is helpful in this context to divide eighteenth-century British government into two parts: the crown's and Parliament's. The crown's government, which included the army and foreign affairs, was based on a balance of central and local forces, the powers of the crown checked by those of the nobility and gentry. It was traditional if not archaic, dispersed and inefficient. Parliament's government was quite different; highly centralized and precociously professional. Here were found the Treasury and the revenue-collecting departments, especially the Customs and Excise, and here too was the Navy. Studying one side or the other of government produces entirely different conclusions. The location of the main revenue-raising and revenue-spending departments on the efficient, Parliamentary side of British government is one of the most distinctive and important features of British constitutional development. Because Parliament captured the Navy, it was able to realize the character of British sea power as the ideal expression of the nation in arms which was founded on the folk-memory of the Elizabethan age. It made the Navy an expression of the liberty of the people, where the army was an expression of the power of the crown. The Stuarts could never have done this, however wisely they had managed the Navy.

Parliamentary control made possible the astonishing rise in the level of real taxation in Britain after 1688. From 1688 to 1815 Britain's gross national product increased about three-fold, and tax receipts about fifteen-fold. By 18io they had reached almost one-fifth of gross national product. The British government was consistently spending about twice the proportion of national income which was available to French governments, yet because most British taxes (until income tax) were indirect and inconspicuous, the French believed themselves to be much more heavily burdened. The Navy was normally the largest single consumer of British public revenue, and the army was its only rival.

The British state's unequalled capacity to raise revenue was the indispensable foundation of sea power, but its significance is not solely military. Getting and spending so large a proportion of national income made the state the principal actor in the economy, and it was the economy which made Britain great. By the later eighteenth century, before the industrial revolution had begun, Britain was already one of the two great international trading powers. There is much disagreement among economic historians as to how the British economy grew and what factors gave rise to the industrial revolution, but chronology alone makes it clear that Britain was a great power before she was an industrial power. By 1815, when her main commercial rival, France, had destroyed herself and much of Europe with her, Britain was incontestably the dominant world trading power – but the industrial revolution was still in its early stages, and only water-powered cotton mills were yet making a major contribution to the economy. In the period in which Britain rose to greatness, there were only three significant economic activities in the British Isles: agriculture, foreign trade and war.


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Attempts have been made to downplay the significance of one or all of these, but it is hard to believe that they were not all three essentially involved in Britain's economic growth. Foreign trade, especially the rich colonial and East India trades, generated the liquid capital which paid for wars. At least until the 17905 the British economy was producing more investment capital than it could absorb, which was how the government was able to borrow steeply rising sums at stable or falling interest rates. Since it is probable that the peacetime economy was not running at full capacity, wartime expenditure financed by borrowing had little inflationary effect, and Britain's eighteenth-century wars were at least partly paid for by mobilizing unemployed capital and labour. The effect of the state, especially the state in wartime, was to stimulate the economy. `In many ways, this two-way system of raising and simultaneously spending vast sums of money acted like a bellows, fanning the development of western capitalism and of the nation-state itself.'22 The economic burden of war was therefore remarkably low, except when large armies like Marlborough's and Wellington's campaigned overseas and had to pay for what they purchased locally in cash. What was spent on the Navy was nearly all spent in Britain, or spent overseas in buying from British merchants who remitted their profits home.

Foreign trade and the Navy therefore formed two elements of a single symbiotic system, exactly as eighteenth-century writers never tired of explaining. The Navy protected trade and protected the country. Trade generated the seamen to man the Navy, and the money to pay for it. Overseas possessions had a subordinate role in this system, as sources of trade, but only in the atypical years of the mid-century did the British become obsessed with colonies for their own sake, and the debacle of the American War cured them of that. The eighteenth-century British were not keeping up a Navy to conquer a colonial empire. Integrally involved with the international trade system was the financial system. Few of Britain's overseas trades balanced by themselves, but the system as a whole was balanced by bills exchanged on London: a massive and complex system of international credit payments. Combined with banking, brokerage and insurance, it made London the centre of a financial empire which earned large sums in `invisible' trade, and articulated the national and international trading system. The capital markets were an essential part of the financial world, and their foundation was government stock, the indispensable investment instrument which drew capital to London from all over the British Isles, and indeed all over the western world. As the dominant borrower, and as an enormous purchaser of goods and services at home and abroad, the state in general and the Navy in particular were at the heart of this commercial and financial system.


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The financial system in turn linked international trade with domestic agriculture, whose rapid productivity growth made possible the rise of the economy as a whole. From 1600 to 1800 the population of England almost tripled, but the agricultural workforce stayed about the same and the country remained broadly self-sufficient in food. By 1800 only one-third of the British population (compared to two-thirds in France) was on the land. Even in the hard years of the Great Wars, when fourteen harvests failed out of twenty-two, few people were ever in serious want, and both the economy and the population continued to grow very fast. A prosperous rural population formed a large consumer market for nascent domestic industries, while those displaced from the land provided the manpower which fought the wars, at a low cost to the productive economy. All this was made possible by the growth of an efficient national agricultural market, in which, as we have seen, the Victualling Board was heavily involved. This national market depended on coastal ship-ping, for only the efficiencies of water transport were capable of integrating so large an area as the British Isles. The agricultural market also spread the financial system to the remotest corners of the British Isles, and drained the surplus profits of farmers and landowners into the London capital markets. In this way agriculture too contributed capital and skills to the `maritime imperial' system.

It has been argued that the industrial revolution, when it came, heralded the end rather than the beginning of Britain's economic supremacy, for it was based on technologies which could easily be exported. The commercial and agricultural revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on which Britain's economic supremacy was first established, derived from `social efficiencies' of British society which were difficult or impossible for foreigners to copy. These were precisely the aspects of society which also favoured sea power. Only flexible and integrated societies could surmount the very considerable difficulties of combining the wide range of human, industrial, technical, commercial and managerial resources required to build and fight a seagoing fleet. Nations in which public policy was based on a broad consensus of interests, in which numerous private businesses serviced and influenced government, in which land and trade overlapped, were best equipped to sustain a navy. Middle-class participation in public life, professional skills, commerce, industry and private finance directly favoured and were favoured by navies. Sea power was most successful in countries with flexible and open social and political systems. They were the same which favoured trade and industry, and for the same reason, for a navy was the supreme industrial activity. The armed forces of early modern states were the blueprint of their modern societies: a complex, integrated, industrial world for the naval powers; a rigid, archaic world of great landed estates for the military powers!' Open societies were best at naval warfare for the same reason that they were later best at meeting other challenges of the modern world, because a navy was an image of the modern world in miniature. `Warfare on the British model was a triumph for an enterprising and acquisitive society, not an authoritarian one. Britain did not simply survive centuries of warfare relatively unscathed because of geographical and historical accident,' to profit from the industrial revolution because there were no competitors left undevastated by war. Naval warfare was Britain's apprenticeship for commercial and industrial supremacy.


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Much of this argument still rests on suggestive connections rather than established proofs, for economic and agricultural historians on one side, and naval historians on the other, have built few bridges between their subjects. Some attention has been given to the subject of technological `spin-off' from the Navy to industry, concluding that it was significant in only a few cases." What cannot be gainsaid by any impartial observer is the impact of war on history, economic as well as political and social. In 1790 France was on most measures as likely as Britain to become the great industrial and commercial power of the nineteenth century. The devastation wrought by Napoleon's ambitions ended that hope for ever – but it was not an inexplicable accident that Britain alone was spared." Having at last learned to master the facts of geography and turn them to their advantage, the seventeenth-century English and eighteenth-century British made their Navy the guarantor of their freedom and security. It did not come easily or naturally; it required great skill, long experience and ceaseless vigilance. Freedom from foreign invasion, conferred by sea power, provided the security which alone made long-term investment and economic growth possible. In this way if no other, naval supremacy was the indispensable foundation for prosperity. Add to this the preservation of the lives and liberties of the people, and the strictly defensive achievements of sea power would have been central to British history even if it had never made any other contribution.

The achievements of British sea power were national ones, the product of government and society as much as of the Navy as an institution. Without the courage and professional abilities of officers and men at sea they would have been impossible, but the most crucial developments in the period covered by this volume were not naval but financial and administrative. It was the capacity of naval administration ashore, above all the Victualling Board, which transformed the operational capabilities of British fleets at sea. The seamanship of officers and men and the capabilities of their ships (though perhaps not their discipline) were probably adequate in the 1650s to have achieved much of what the Navy actually did during the Great Wars, but their operational range was completely inadequate, and the government was incapable of paying for the limited operations they did undertake. Only when ships could be kept at sea with healthy crews for long periods could the possibilities of naval power be fully exploited. Thus the final achievement of naval supremacy, after so many false starts and disappointments, was truly a national achievement which drew on the economic and social resources of the three kingdoms to sustain professional sea power at war. One small detail missing from the 1815 peace treaty marked what Britain had now won. There was no claim to the `salute to the flag'. The empty boast of `sovereignty of the sea' which had embarrassed English diplomacy and troubled the peace of the Narrow Seas for 500 years was quietly dropped. There was no more need of it, now that Britain had incontestably gained the real command of the ocean.

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