[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Wilson on Spence, 'A History of the Royal Navy: Empire and Imperialism'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Nov 27 10:49:53 MST 2016

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From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.msu.edu>
Date: Sun, Nov 27, 2016 at 10:38 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Wilson on Spence, 'A History of the Royal
Navy: Empire and Imperialism'
To: H-REVIEW at h-net.msu.edu

Daniel Owen Spence.  A History of the Royal Navy: Empire and
Imperialism.  London  I.B.Tauris, 2016.  xiii + 238 pp.  $35.00
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-78076-543-3.

Reviewed by Evan Wilson (Yale University)
Published on H-War (November, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

British naval history is clustered around great wars. Historians of
the late-eighteenth-century navy have filled bookshelves with Horatio
Nelson biographies, but also with social, cultural, strategic,
economic, and technological examinations of the emergence of
Britain's maritime supremacy. Historians of the two world wars have
been similarly busy, debating war aims, technological changes, grand
strategy, and the roles of aircraft and submarines. In between the
two clusters, the bookshelves are lightly populated. Compared to the
eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, the long stretch of the
nineteenth century that saw the height of the British Empire is

Daniel Owen Spence's survey of the navy's role in the British
imperial project is well-positioned to fill that gap. It also aims to
fill a gap in its own series, A History of the Royal Navy, which upon
completion will include no less than fourteen volumes. (The sheer
size of the project makes possible redundancies inevitable, and one
of the first questions to ask about the volume under review here is
how it will mesh with a forthcoming volume on "The Victorian Age.")
Taken together, the series is a kind of curriculum vitae of the navy.
Published by the National Museum of the Royal Navy, the series makes
grand claims about how it "sheds new light on almost every aspect of
Britain's Royal Navy" (p. xv). This is perhaps a step too far, but
that should not be seen as a serious criticism. The series is
fundamentally a work of synthesis, and should be evaluated in those
terms. A more important question is the audience. It seems clear from
the series introduction and the volumes already published that at
least one aspect of the audience is intended to be ministers
threatening budget cuts. Though Spence does well to avoid a
triumphalist approach, the series explicitly reminds its audience
that the navy has a long and important history.

Works of synthesis targeted at academic audiences place serious
demands on both the author and the publisher, and Spence's volume
simply does not have the bibliographic heft to satisfy those already
familiar with British naval history and its historiography,
particularly in the age of sail. From the perspective of a general
reader, though, Spence is more successful. He has a clear perspective
in his narrative, namely naval operations and cultural influences in
an imperial context. He skips neatly over operations and institutions
not directly relevant to the empire. There are no French invasion
scares in this book, no what-if accounts of Jutland, and no
explorations of the Royal Dockyards. Instead, we read of gunboats in
China, the long history of competing claims to the Falklands, and the
navy's role in spreading cricket. The book is organized roughly
chronologically from the Tudors to the twentieth century, but it is
also organized thematically: beginning with arguments for empire in
the early modern period, Spence moves through science and
exploration, gunboat diplomacy, colonial cultures, the development of
colonial naval forces, and the postcolonial period.

The collateral damage of Spence's single-minded focus on imperial
operations and cultures is a tendency to lose the chronological
thread. When discussing the slave trade, Spence neglects to provide
the general survey of the slave trade that one might expect in a work
of synthesis. Instead, he bounces around confusingly. He begins at
the 1807 Slave Trade Act, then jumps forward to Lagos in 1860 and
then back to the American Revolution in 1775 and then forward again
to manpower shortages in 1916 and then back again to punitive
expeditions to Canada in the 1720s. Academics will not be the only
readers suffering from whiplash and confusion.

One explanation for the chronological difficulties is that in
addition to his narrative of imperial operations, Spence has an
argument to make. The navy served as the security force for Britain's
global "paternalistic mission": religious conversion to Christianity,
economic conversion to free trade, and cultural and legal conversion
to Western norms. Naval operations spanned the globe, and
missionaries of various kinds soon followed. Naval personnel were the
point of first contact, shaping not only the perceptions of
communities from Tahiti to Kenya but also creating an environment in
which British merchants and missionaries could operate. The Pax
Britannica was in fact characterized by violence and uncertainty, at
least in the imperial context, and naval personnel had to strike a
fine balance between demonstrations of British strength and friendly
relations with a staggering variety of peoples and cultures.

Spence's examination of the cultural exchange between the navy and
the colonies plays to his expertise and provides a pleasant
combination of interesting vignettes and authoritative arguments. The
navy and its drills influenced dance troupes in Mombasa; amateur
naval productions of British musicals appeared in ports from British
Columbia to the Cape; and Royal Navy Volunteer Reservists in Trinidad
sang calypso music with patriotic lyrics about defeating the Kaiser,
which Spence argues was an essential expression of Trinidadian
national identity.

The book's strength lies in these cultural history sections and less
in the narrative of imperial operations. The great benefit of a
fourteen-volume series, then, is that Spence's volume perhaps does
not need to provide the authoritative account of imperial operations.
Instead, its cultural history of the navy and the empire will provide
a necessary supplement and a different perspective from the future
volume on the Victorian navy and the existing volume on the navy
since 1900.

Citation: Evan Wilson. Review of Spence, Daniel Owen, _A History of
the Royal Navy: Empire and Imperialism_. H-War, H-Net Reviews.
November, 2016.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=47872

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States


Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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