Review: Daniel Owen Spence, Colonial Naval Culture and British Imperialism, 1922-67

9780719091773img01Review: Daniel Owen Spence, Colonial Naval Culture and British Imperialism, 1922-67.

Manchester University Press, Studies in Imperialism, 2015 – full details here.

This is not your traditional naval history. Aligning himself with those whom he describes as ‘cultural-naval historians’ (2), Spence aims – as he puts it in the book’s final sentence – to understand ‘navies as social and cultural institutions, where power was expressed as much in the ideas and relations they cultivated, as through the barrels of their guns’ (251). Combined with this fresh approach is a different perspective: Spence’s take on the British Empire is focused not on the Royal Navy but upon a series of colonial naval forces, shifting the viewpoint away from the well-known centres of power to a variety of sites around the globe.

In the introduction and first chapter, we are given three key concepts which are at the heart of the subsequent analysis. The first is ‘imperial overstretch’: the much-debated idea that, by the twentieth century, the British Empire had grown to the point where the costs to imperial rulers of maintaining it outweighed the benefits they drew from it. A combination of thinning resources and the naval restrictions set by the Washington Conference of 1922 therefore led the Admiralty to encourage local colonial volunteer forces to be established, in a bid to reduce their own commitments. The second concept is ‘naval theatre’, drawn from Jan Rüger’s work on pre-1914 Anglo-German rivalry, which suggests that the navy’s participation in public rituals played a key role in encouraging support for empire. Finally, Spence posits the existence of ‘seafaring race theory’, similar to ‘martial race theory’, by which British officials defined certain social or ethnic groups as possessing inherent qualities suiting them to military, or in this case naval, service. As this book shows, certain groups (for example, Caymanians and Malaysians) embraced such definitions when these offered a relative advantage of employment or social advancement.

Throughout the rest of the book, Spence takes us on a tour of colonial naval forces in Trinidad and the Cayman Islands, in East Africa, in Malaysia, and finally in Hong Kong. Using a mixture of sources including official documents and, most notably, interviews with former recruits – some of them conducted by Spence himself – the chapters of the book outline each unit’s development and changing significance from their creation, in the 1920s and 1930s, through their participation in the Second World War, to their role in the postwar world of increasing decolonisation. While sensitive to the specific context of each case-study, Spence also reveals certain similarities across these different institutions.

The most obvious is the deeply embedded racism which combined widespread imperial attitudes about the superiority of British society with particular manifestations of seafaring race theory, often excusing institutional failures in training or equipment by resorting to racial stereotypes. Although conscription was present in some places at certain times, all of the naval forces discussed were comprised mostly of volunteers, but in all cases officers’ commissions were restricted to Europeans or those of European descent. In the one exception, the postwar Hong Kong Defence Force, ‘racial discrimination’ was denied but ‘racial grouping’ was in fact maintained (227-8). Discrimination was deep-seated and took various forms. In Trinidad, ‘if a black or “coloured” rating committed an offence he was sent to the Royal Gaol amongst ordinary criminals, while…white ratings and officers…were detained in the barracks instead’ (44). East Africans were described as ‘”little more than children mentally”‘, even those who were thought to be of ‘seafaring race’ (81), and in Kenya European officers were forbidden to socialise in non-European hotels or bars. Even after the war, European chief petty officers in Kenya were paid £790 a year, while an Asian officer of the same rank was paid £315, and an African officer just £60; the same disparity existed for ratings, and African recruits received smaller ration and travelling allowances, and no marriage allowances (121). Similar prejudices applied to Chinese recruits in Hong Kong, who were generally seen as unreliable and potentially disloyal (chapters 7-8).

This racism existed in complicated political situations, and the fortunes of these naval forces were dictated as much by local circumstances as by the relationship between the imperial centre and its colonies. The Kenyan volunteer naval reserve, for example, relied upon local chiefs and elders for recruitment, who were therefore courted by the local authorities (93-5). When, in 1954, two Luo volunteers objected to certain duties on the grounds of ‘tribal custom’ (as navy officers put it), the authorities consulted the volunteers’ community (who denied the claims: 120-1). The importance of local circumstances became even clearer following the Second World War, as questions of consolidation, reorganisation, and colonial independence emerged. There had been previous tensions between different colonial forces in the Caribbean, but the proposal of a combined navy, suggested in the later 1940s, failed because of Jamaica’s reluctance to participate (48). In a similar way, although an East African Naval Force was created in the 1950s (soon becoming the Royal East African Navy), early in the 1960s there was a debate between Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda, and Zanzibar over the institution’s future. Some felt that it would represent continued British influence; others thought, rather paradoxically, that it was a way of keeping the British out, as well as an important element in potential political federation (136). These comparative discussions highlight how imperial government was not a straightforward system of ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, but a series of continually developing relationships between many different interests.

In some ways, this book is primarily an institutional history, and understandably so, as institutional records provide a key source and Spence must first lay foundations on ground not previously covered by naval scholars. There are a few moments where this results in a flood of military acronyms, or where the principal characters in the story are solely imperial and naval officials, but in keeping with the ‘cultural-naval’ aim there are plenty of alternative points where the impact of ‘naval theatre’ upon the local community comes to the fore, sometimes in surprising ways. To name a few, Spence discusses calypsos sung by Trinidadian sailors (35-6), Taarab singing groups in Zanzibar who identified themselves with both the navy and airforce (99-100), Kiswahili proverbs suggested as mottos for the East African Naval Force (but ultimately rejected: 118), the significance of Trafalgar Day celebrations in 1920s Hong Kong (186-7), and the struggles of British officials with translating their message into Chinese language and culture (216-20, 233).

This approach fully bears out Spence’s argument that navies played a key role in the development of imperial culture. ‘Naval theatre’ was a way of projecting British supremacy (even – indeed, especially – when the reality was quite different), but more surprisingly it was also mediated through many cultural forms. As with any political theatre, those in power might write the script, but they could not be sure that it would always be followed exactly as they had in mind. Spence thus paints a nuanced picture of both imperial power and creativity in response to it.

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