Clive Wilkinson. The British Navy and the State in the 18th Century. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. x + 246 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84383-042-9.
Reviewed by Jeremy Black (Department of History, University of Exeter)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2004)
Ships, Administration, and British Naval Power
Wilkinson has written an impressive account of naval administration and strength that casts valuable light on the state of the British navy in the crisis of the American Revolution. He focuses attention on the difficulties of sustaining naval strength, not least as a consequence of the natural decay of what were organic working parts. The longevity of most ships of the line was about twelve to seventeen years, longevity defined as the time between launch and the need for at least middling repair. A complex combination of factors, beginning first with the cutting of the timber, its storage, the mode of construction, weather conditions, the service of the ship and its care while in reserve, determined the longevity of a ship and the amount of repair that it was likely to need.
There was a pattern of cyclical deterioration, and Wilkinson presents his account of naval administration within these parameters. He suggests that the fleet suffered severe decay in the timbers of many of its ships in the 1730s and 1740s. This conclusion is supported not just by anecdotal evidence from naval officers, but also by evidence from ship surveys, from the repair records of ships in the progress books, and even from a French spy. In 1749, as a result of long war service, including damaging operations in the Caribbean, the battle fleet in good condition had been greatly reduced, and, on peacetime estimates, the dockyards could not cope with requirements for repair and replacement. George Anson overcame the problem in the early 1750s, not least through using the private sector to build new ships. But this built in a structural crisis of repair and replacement for the early 1770s. It was then, under John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, that the real cost of maintaining British sea power became apparent. This, however, was seen as waste, inefficiency, and corruption, and was seized on by opposition critics. As a result, Wilkinson argues, Sandwich's achievement was overshadowed by misinformed criticism, a lack of communication, and an unsuccessful war.
Sandwich, however, managed to overcome the problem of a deteriorating fleet, so that by 1780 there were at least eighty-three ships of the line fit for active service. The naval crisis of 1778-1782 owed more to the earlier build-up of French naval power, to the combination, from 1779, of French with Spanish hostility, and, in the Yorktown campaign of 1781, to flawed campaign decisions. Wilkinson also argues that dockyard expansion led to an important enhancement in British capability. As he points out, it was not sufficient just to use private yards to build warships in wartime, as was done in the 1750s. Improved infrastructure (and better naval construction) lessened the problems of cyclical decay. John Perceval, second earl of Egmont is seen as a key figure in improving the dockyards, but his successors, including Edward Hawke, are praised for maintaining this improvement. It is claimed that the political instability of the 1760s did not disturb the everyday business of the navy. Wilkinson suggests that the work carried out by both the Admiralty and Navy Boards demonstrates conclusively that, far from being neglected, after the Peace of Paris in 1763, as is often thought, the navy was managed with energy and imagination: ideas of professional management combined with a general absence of damaging political interference. The administrative and political context was certainly more helpful than in the case of the army. The mobilization of the fleet during the Falkland Islands Crisis attracts justifiable praise. It left the Bourbon powers far behind. Most of the British fleet had been surveyed and repaired in the very recent past, and the poor condition of some of the ships upon mobilization was not in any way out of the ordinary.
A fine study, better grounded in its assessment of political nuances than many on the navy, and one that deserves attention in any consideration of Britain's relative capability.
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