How did a small island on the edge of Europe become a great empire and world power in just over 300 years? The answer given by the American naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890 was that sea power had determined Britain’s success: it used the sea in peace to build its strength and in times of war maintained its command of the oceans by the might of the Royal Navy.
Daniel Owen Spence follows Mahan’s analysis but argues that while imperial power did depend on control of the seas, the Royal Navy in its heyday was the result, as well as the cause, of the British Empire. Their fortunes were inextricably linked, because without a powerful navy there could not have been a British Empire, and without the need to protect and expand the empire, Britain would not have developed a navy with a global reach. Indeed, the needs of the navy often decided the shape of imperial expansion.
The Royal Navy, argues Spence, became Britain’s most cherished institution. The nation could and did raise large armies in time of war and win great victories on the European continent, but it was the navy that it relied on for protection and for the projection of its power. National opinion came to see the navy as representative of the ethos of Britain, its character, virtues and ideals. If the navy provided Britain with an ideal image of itself, it also imprinted that image across the world.
With skilful compression, Spence describes the strength and efficiency of a navy that brought Britain victories and enabled it to establish and protect its overseas possessions, to safeguard the sea lanes that were the arteries of the empire, and to suppress piracy and the slave trade. The originality of this study, however, lies in its emphasis on the soft power exerted by the navy in dominions and colonies around the world. Spence describes its cultural and social influence, and the way that it exported the British way of life, institutions, social mores, customs and sports. That sports first developed in Britain are now world sports owes much to the way that naval officers, who found cricket, football and rugby useful in raising the morale of ships’ companies, introduced them to the far corners of the maritime empire. Naval culture permeated the life of colonial ports, from the polite society of Government House to waterfront bars, while local populations came to rely on the navy’s need for ship repairs and maintenance, and often for local seamen.
Spence also examines the navy’s contribution to exploration and science. From the 18th century, its ships were in the vanguard of the charting of the world’s oceans and coastlines, pinpointing rocks, shoals, shallows, currents and other hazards. Its leading role in exploration was emblematic of the spirit of the Enlightenment, which sought to explore and classify geography, geology, botany, zoology and generally to increase scientific knowledge.
As the retreat from empire and from world power took place and parsimonious governments shrank the Royal Navy, it left a considerable legacy in the Commonwealth navies that it had imbued with its traditions, in place names across the globe, and in the societies and cultures of many independent states. As Spence writes, it was “a fundamental force in shaping the modern world”.
A.W. Purdue is visiting professor of history, Northumbria University.
A History of the Royal Navy: Empire and Imperialism
By Daniel Owen Spence
I. B. Tauris, 256pp, £20.00
Published 28 January 2016