Ruling the waves
RULE BRITANNIA: The Victorian and Edwardian Navy
By Peter Padfield
1981, re-released London: Random House, 2002
Rec. price: $39.95
Throughout the 19th Century, Britain was considered to rule the seas on account of her Navy. She established this legendary hegemony during the Napoleonic wars and it was not until the late Victorian and particularly the Edwardian era that this claim was challenged, particularly by the Germans, a challenge that many historians argue was one of the causes of World War One.
Rule Britannia examines the British Navy during the reigns of Victoria (1837-1901) and her son Edward VII (1901-1910), an era that saw significant developments.
At the commencement, the ships were wooden sailing ships with cannons; by the conclusion, they were steel dreadnoughts powered by steam and mounted with revolving guns, ships that faced the new threat of being torpedoed by submarines.
This period also saw the expansion of the British empire, as colonies were acquired and bases established to protect British interests. Britain also used its navy for the humanitarian purpose of quelling the slave trade, by intercepting and destroying vessels used to transport slaves.
Interestingly, although the British Navy had a reputation for invincibility for much of the period, the naval budget was comparatively small and certain squads had comparatively few ships. The need for new types of battleships in the wake of technological advances and the growing threat of rival nations were integral catalysts in the expansion of the naval budget.
However, perhaps the most interesting sections of Rule Britannia are those that discuss what naval life was like for officers and men and some of the developments in their conditions.
Most officers came from professional or aristocratic backgrounds, and promotion was slow, particularly early in the Victorian era, as there was an oversupply of officers – and admirals did not retire. Initially, service for sailors was only for the voyage of a ship and there was no standard uniform. By the end of the period, there were uniforms and set terms of service for sailors.
Padfield paints a fascinating portrait of one of the most interesting institutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries.