Daily Archives: 22 January, 2010

Empire of the Waves: The Golden Ocean

I’ve just finished watching the latest instalment of this series presented by Dan Snow, and I found this episode very much to my liking. It had perhaps far too much of Snow sailing – he’s doing it for fun, whereas the men he’s talking about worked bloody hard day upon day for years. And I’m not sure watching him try his hand at being a working man by making a nail added to the programme. But the subject matter is top notch, and there has clearly been some first class research gone on behind the scenes.

Snow charts the period from 1690 to 1759 and reveals how England – soon to be Britain – and her Navy rose from the depths of military and economic disaster to achieve global supremacy. In 1690, France was a significant seapower and the Royal Navy relatively weak. William III had taken England into a disastrous war against the most powerful country in Europe. If England was to survive, it needed a new Navy, one capable of carrying the fight to its enemies anywhere in the world. I do feel perhaps that the programme overstates the extent to which England was weak in 1690 – after all, hadn’t the previous programme made the argument that British Sea Power began with the defeat of the Armada? if so, how did it decline between then and 1690?

To achieve this naval transformation required a national effort unlike anything that had been seen before. A determination to achieve mastery of the seas unleashed a chain reaction of revolutions in finance, industry and agriculture which reshaped the landscape and created the country’s first great credit boom. Years before the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Navy became the engine of global change, propelling Britain into the modern world. Could it be that the Royal Navy acted as a pump-primer for the Industrial Revolution? And not only did the Navy develop into a fighting force, but also one that combated piracy, and launched a number of amphibious operations.

This transformation had incredible results at sea. By 1759, French forces around the world were capitulating to Britain’s superior Navy. the Royal Navy’s march, Heart of Oak, refers to 1759 as ‘this wonderful year’. For the first time in her history, Britannia really did rule the waves.

I would have liked to see more about the effect that this naval transformation had on Britain itself, aside from a token view of industrial North England. How about the Naval Dockyards? Where did all the food come from, the wood, the rope, sails? A whole supportive infrastructure grew up to support Naval expansion – the bristling Warships were but the sharp tip of a very long sword. If anyone wants to take an in-depth look at like in the Royal Navy during the mid 18th Century, ‘The Wooden World’ by NAM Rodger is a very good read.

This episode sets the scene very well for the pivotal wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In particular I hope that anyone watching this programme will have realised that Britain did have Naval heroes long before Nelson – Anson, Vernon, Hawke to name but three. And, in the words of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, First Sea Lord during the Second World War:

‘it takes a day to win a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’.

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