Robert Prescott: Awash with satirical soundwaves

July 22, 2005

Sir Henry Wood's statue sported a sailor's cap, signal flags exhorted "every man to do his duty" and the 2005 Proms marked the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the death of Horatio Nelson with one of a series of performances on a maritime theme.

HMS Pinafore was Gilbert and Sullivan's first smash hit, perhaps as much due to the central place of the Navy in British culture as to the jaunty, satirical brilliance of the operetta. Whatever the explanation, Gilbert's caricature of the First Lord of the Admiralty who had never been to sea, and had risen to great heights by keeping his nose clean, is one of his most successful creations. Unrequited in love and very much at the mercy of his "sisters and his cousins and his aunts", he was portrayed with a perfect blend of complacency and urbanity by Richard Suart.

Since satire is grounded in reality. it is legitimate to ask how Pinafore shapes up as a portrait of the Victorian Navy and how it compares with Nelson's Georgian fleet. During "Pax Britannica", the Victorian chattering classes might have suspected, based on encounters at cocktail parties and regattas, that the kingdom's sailors really just lounged about Spithead dancing hornpipes. But this ignored the Navy's role as the worldwide shield of Empire and global cartographers.

Gilbert's First Lord bore close comparison to his real-life counterpart, the stationer W. H. Smith who, whatever his administrative abilities, was no seafarer. Things were different in the Georgian Navy, and the post was frequently filled by an experienced officer. If he happened to be a civilian, it was customary to invite an admiral to join cabinet meetings when naval matters were discussed.

Central to Pinafore' s plot is the inflexibility of social hierarchy that makes it impossible for Ralph Rackstraw, a sailor, to win the hand of his captain's daughter. The Victorian Navy was no meritocracy and promotion from the lower deck to the wardroom was virtually unknown. By contrast, in the 18th century, social class did not readily map onto ranks and promotion. All gentlemen aspiring to become officers had to serve sea-time in a lowly capacity before taking the lieutenants' examination. On the other hand, warrant officers of humble origin could proceed to post-rank upon merit, as did James Cook.

The place of women aboard ship is exemplified in Pinafore by the bumboat woman "Little Buttercup", a purveyor of minor luxury goods to the tars. Her earlier counterparts would have peddled comforts of a different kind, too earthy for the Victorian public.

However, in Nelson's Navy women were even present at major battles such as Trafalgar, as petty officers' wives, laundry women or surgeon's assistants.

These well-recognised but anonymous roles were too much for the Victorian mind to cope with, and when the Naval General Service Medal was distributed, it was denied to those women with the audacity to apply for it.

So what of the Navy today? Although recent First Lords have not been sea officers, in other respects there has been a return to the golden age. The success of the South Atlantic Campaign bears comparison with the achievements of the greatest 18th-century commanders. Promotion across class divides is much easier than it was for Rackstraw: there is at least one example of a lower-deck sailor moving "aft through the hawse hole" to raise his flag as an admiral. Women in today's Navy serve at all levels including the command of ships at sea. Nelson would approve.

Robert Prescott is founder of the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at St Andrews University.

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