The Naval History Blog: No. 5

Why Naval History Matters

Have you ever wondered why English is the world’s most widely spoken language; reflected on why a small island nation on the fringe of northern Europe could come to control roughly both a quarter of the world’s population and its land mass at the height of a racially and socially diverse empire; or even asked yourself whilst browsing for antiques on a London street market, why it’s named Portobello Road?

The answers are inextricably interwoven within the gestation over several centuries, of a national enterprise; ultimately a partnership of tactic mutually understanding and broad consensus between the people of Britain, and the state: the embodiment of which, was the British Royal Navy. An appreciation of how this came about is fundamental to an understanding not only of our own cultural identity, but also to those many parts of the world, where via the conduit which was the Navy supporting a global maritime trade, people, and goods; ideas on law, technology and politics were exported.

The Iberian Peninsula duopoly, received the papal blessing for the division of the non-Christian world between them via the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Magellan, Columbus, and Vasco da Gama pioneered the early naval explorations, navigations, and discoveries. However,” if the century that followed the discoveries of the 1490s belonged to Spain and Portugal, with the fruits showered on the empires of the east, then the next 200 years would belong to countries in the north of Europe. Against all expectation, the world’s centre of gravity was about to move again”. [1] It was ultimately, the island nation of Great Britain, which more than any other came to a realisation – and could take advantage of the fact – that the source of her prosperity, power, security and influence, over continental and global affairs lay in the possession of a strong navy.

The modern axiom that ‘Britain is a nation of pirates’ certainly held sway in Tudor England, where the state-sponsored privateering of Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh frustrated the Spanish in the New World, who sent a fleet to invade England in 1588. “The sea is no safeguard at all to those who are not capable of using it for their own defence”. [2] Well, the weather may have batted for England, but with more manoeuvrable ships and effective tactics – the Spanish were unable to force boarding actions – England demonstrated, through a maturing sense of geography, that she could harness the sea for just such a purpose: an early modern Royal Navy crushed The Armada.

The mass manufacture of iron canon presaged a revolution in gunnery and line-of-battle tactics in the seventeenth century Anglo-Dutch Wars fought for commercial rivalry. “For those who used the sea lines of communication to explore economic opportunities, efficient use of violence was one of several entrepreneurial skills which was necessary for profit”. [3] Using the military experience of Cromwell’s ‘Generals-at-Sea’; Blake, Monck et al., the issue of Fighting Instructions built upon the experience of battle and communicated lessons learned in a practical way. “On balance, the English approach produced better results, as would become abundantly clear in the eighteenth century”. [4]

The ability to man and supply a fleet of ships operating many weeks and months from home ports around the globe, required an extremely well organised and efficient bureaucracy. The supply of credit and the management of the national debt by the Bank of England from 1694 – improving on the Dutch system – afforded the country unrivalled leverage in diplomacy and the ability to prosecute wars directly or indirectly via credit to continental allies. The ability to borrow at low levels of interest and raise taxes efficiently helped optimise long-term state investment in the infrastructure of the navy. [5] A vast network of merchants and contractors helped supply the navy with food, beer, agricultural produce, textiles, iron, copper, timber, and hemp. [6] If ones consider that Victory built in the mid-eighteenth century required 6,000 trees (90 per cent of them oak) of about 125 years’ maturity growing in 150 acres, you get a sense of the planning and preparation required, and the number of people whose lives must have been affected, to support such a colossus that was the Royal Navy. [7]

It was a naval commander, a newly appointed lieutenant, called James Cook who first sailed aboard the Endeavour in 1768-1771; one of three voyages of discovery to the southern oceans. Charting and surveying the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific coastline of North America with astonishing accuracy, and profound consequences, he displayed exemplary seamanship. The navy was helping the integration of the world envisioned by Britain.

The navy was financed largely from the revenues of global trade in a mutually reinforcing system in which naval and foreign policy objectives and domestic freedoms tallied most closely with the aims of merchants. In 1650 most shipping was in the hands of major joint stock companies. By the late eighteenth century there was a mass of private companies and investors. Naval power went hand in hand with economic and political liberty. The country saw the necessity of keeping trained seamen in the maritime and fishing industries in time of peace. To cope with the ultimate strains of conflict that manifested themselves in The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815, Britain had developed by the late eighteenth century a unique state ethos, and a singular sense of national purpose; a unique combination of a resolute government; a thriving maritime community and formidable ships of the line. [8].

What of Portobello Road? It was named for the capture of the town of the same name on the Spanish Main in 1739, in what became known as The War of Jenkins’ Ear. Robert Jenkins – captain of the merchantman Rebecca – was accused of smuggling and had had his ear cut off by the Spanish guarda costas in 1731. The incident was use to agitate public opinion and initiate reprisals against Spain. The navy’s success at Porto Bello under Admiral Vernon was widely celebrated at home.

Just one of many appealing anecdotes that form part of a rich tapestry timeline, as one reflects that naval history is a convenient lens through which to view, not only the development of a nation and its people, but to better inform our continuum of understanding as to how the modern world was shaped.



[1] Peter Frankopan, The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (London: Bloomsbury, 2015), 242.

[2] N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, Vol 1.,660-1649 (London: Penguin, 2004), 439.

[3] Jan Glete, Warfare and History: Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London: Routledge,2000), 60.

[4] Lincoln Paine, The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, (London: Atlantic Books, 2014), 471.

[5] N.A.M. Rodger, From the ‘military revolution’ to the ‘fiscal-naval state’, Journal for Maritime Research,13:2 (2011):119-128.

[6] Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and the Contractor State (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2010),1-18.

[7] Archie Miles, The British Oak (London: Constable and Robinson, 2013), 189-198.

[8] Richard Harding, Modern Naval History Debates and Prospects (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 81.

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