Royal Navy

Royal Navy
   The British navy, the Royal Navy, was the world’s dominant naval force throughout the nineteenth century. The Royal Navy emerged from the wars of the French Revolution and Empire with a reputation for invincibility established by its successive victories over the Danish, Dutch, Spanish, and - most of all - the French navies. Its primacy was established by the great victory of Trafalgar in 1805, although commerceraiding and blockades continued until the end of the Napoleonic wars. Although the Anglo-American War of 1812 produced a number of embarrassing defeats in frigate actions, the Royal Navy successfully reasserted itself. In the long peace that followed the French wars, the Royal Navy provided protection to Britain’s increasingly far-flung trade routes, its power thereby being an immediate and necessary precondition of the growth of British and indeed Western global economic supremacy. The Royal Navy was also active in the campaigns against slavery and the slave trade, and against piracy. As naval ships were often the only British forces in distant regions, such as the coasts of Africa and China, sailors and marines frequently operated ashore in furtherance of British interests. They played a major role in victories over the Chinese in the so-called Opium Wars of 1839–1842, 1857, and 1859–1860, and in operations against slavers and against hostile tribes in Africa. Whereas British power was maintained by small naval forces - often single ships - in more remote areas not dominated by another western power, in home and Mediterranean waters Britain maintained significant fleets of major warships. Warships changed radically throughout the nineteenth century. The introduction of steam engines, at first as auxiliary power, radically changed ship design, as did the advent of iron cladding followed by iron construction. Disputes between advocates of paddlewheels, which were vulnerable and interfered with armament, and screw propellers were resolved in favor of the latter. The fleets used in the Crimean War featured large three-decker sailing ships of traditional design equipped with removable screw propellers. That war also saw the development of large fleets of steam gunboats for inshore service. Such gunboats later saw service in numerous imperial campaigns.
   Rapid technical change throughout the nineteenth century led to a number of naval scares - notably in 1847, 1859, and 1884 - in which it was feared that the foreign, and usually French, introduction of whole new types of ship would make the Royal Navy obsolete at a blow. The French launched the steam ironclad La Gloire in 1859, leading the British to respond with the much larger H.M.S. Warrior, equipped with both steam engines and sails and a combination of breech- loading and muzzle-loading guns. Rapid improvements in guns, armor, and steam technology led to an arms race featuring many curious hybrid ships; it was a race that, following France’s defeat by Prussia in 1870, Britain won by default. The Victorian navy systematized the recruitment of both men and officers, introducing for ratings long service in place of the practice of engagement for a single sailing, and a system of naval colleges for officers. Technical change led to a need for engineer officers and for skilled mechanics, or artificers, as well as specialist gunnery officers. H.M.S. Excellent, founded in 1830, trained the latter, and was one of a number of specialized technical schools created by the nineteenth-century navy to replace the old informal system of training at sea. Originally tolerated as unpleasant necessities, engineer officers were integrated into the naval rank structure as the century went on, although the full equivalence of engineer and deck officers was only pushed through, against some resistance, in 1903. The first ship without masts at all was H.M.S . Devastation of 1873; henceforth battleships, as they were beginning to be called, began to take their twentieth-century form, featuring guns in turrets, steam engines, and massive belts armor, especially around key areas. Other novel types were introduced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including the torpedo boat, the destroyer, and the submarine.
   The 1905 launch of H.M.S. Dreadnought , the brainchild of Sir John Fisher, the first all-big gun turbine-driven battleship, made all other ships afloat obsolete. It also did much to accelerate the Anglo-German naval race. The naval race led the admiralty to withdraw from service many older and obsolete ships, especially from far-flung corners of the empire, in part to save money but also in obeisance to the blue water theories promulgated by A. T. Mahan and many others. The command of ships on distant imperial stations necessarily involved a great deal of initiative and autonomy on the part of relatively low ranking officers, but the battleship fleets on the Home and Mediterranean stations came be characterized by rigid command structures and, to some critics, a fetish for paint and polish. It was a syndrome highlighted by the 1893 sinking of H.M.S. Victoria, the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet, in a collision caused by unquestioning obedience to orders. Throughout the nineteenth century an attempt was made to preserve the Royal Navy at a strength known as the two-power standard. During the Edwardian era, the Anglo-German naval race replaced that standard, it then being assumed that the primary enemy would be Germany. The famous clash of Dreadnought-class battleships at Jutland in 1916, the British forces being commanded by Sir John Jellicoe, demonstrated that Britain had effectively won the Anglo-German naval race, albeit narrowly.
   See also <>; <>; <>; <>; <>; <>.
    Herman, Arthur. To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World . New York: Harper Collins, 2004;
    Kennedy, Paul M. The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery . London: A. Lane, 1976;
    Massie, Robert K. Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany and the Winning of the Great War at Sea . New York; Randon House, 2003;
    Padfield, Peter. Rule Britannia: The Victorian and Edwardian Navy . London: Routledge, 1981;
    Rodger, N.A.M. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain . London: Allen Lane, 2004.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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