The Royal Navy, a History from the Earliest Times to the Present/Volume 1/Preface

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It is upon the Navy that, under the good providence of God, the wealth, the prosperity, and the peace of these islands, and of the Empire, mainly depend. Such, in effect, is the declaration of the preamble to the Articles of War. No thoughtful and unprejudiced Briton doubts the truth of the assertion. His knowledge, superficial though it be, of the general course of modern history, tells him that, but for the Navy, Great Britain, on numerous occasions, would have lain at the mercy of foreign powers, which, had they had their will, would have left her neither riches nor liberty. It tells him also that the Navy has played as great a role in the development as in the protection of Britain's commerce and Empire. It has been instrumental in the discovery of some colonies, and in the acquisition of many others; and it is, to this day, responsible for the maintenance of secure communication with all, and of pacific trade and traffic between the various portions of the Empire and other parts of the world. And while it has advanced in a peculiar manner the special interests of Great Britain, the Navy has been not without influence upon the progress of civilisation generally. There has been no more powerful factor in the putting down of piracy, and in the practical suppression of the slave trade.

These things are known broadly to all, and are admitted by every one. Not monarchs, not statesmen, not scientists, not reformers, not manufacturers, not even merchants or soldiers have contributed as much as the Navy has contributed towards the building up, the extension, and the preservation of the British Empire. But the nature and the working of this all-important force have been strangely neglected by the British historian, and more especially by the British student. The acts of our kings, our statesmen, our reformers, and our soldiers have been voluminously and exactly chronicled, so that he who runs may read. And for the benefit of him who cannot read while running, and who must halt and laboriously spell out the records of which he would know something, there are brief and popular general histories, not all free, perhaps, from inaccuracies of details, yet, for the most part, full and fair enough to impart a tolerably just impression of the share borne by these kings, statesmen, reformers and soldiers in the creation of the splendid social fabric in which we live.

It is not here suggested that British readers take anything like full advantage of the vast stores of knowledge which have thus been laid open to them. Indeed, the study of history is sadly neglected among us. Speaking as Professor of History at King's College, London, Mr. J. K. Laughton has said, "I am unhappily too well acquainted with the surpassing ignorance of the average young man."[1] And other professors of history, with whom I have communicated, fully bear out the lament of Professor Laughton. The general ignorance of the facts of modern British history is particularly insisted upon by all.

Yet, even if British students were in the habit of thoroughly digesting the ordinary British histories which are within their reach, they would still know little about the nature and services of the British Navy. Our greater historians deal very sparingly with those subjects. Many of them seem to have been deterred by an exaggerated estimate of the attendant difficulties, or by an impression that naval history is far too technical to be understood by lay people. Others have altogether failed to awaken to the importance of the matter, and have, by that very failure, convicted themselves of incompetence. As for the popular historians, the compilers of school histories, text-books, and such-like, they have for the most part, and indeed almost without exception, bungled, where they have not shamefully scamped, the facts of our naval story.

This neglect is doubly strange. The modern British historians of ancient Greece and Rome have not to the same extent avoided or misrepresented the naval side of their subject. Many of us can, I am sure, echo much of Dr. Miller Maguire's complaint that in early life "he was actually obliged to learn off by heart all the little nautical incidents of the Peloponnesian War, and to study the tactics and carrying power of the vessels of the Carthaginians and the Romans, while no one ever dreamt of telling him anything about Hawke, or Boscawen, or Collingwood, or our other naval heroes."[2]

Yet the neglect by the general historian of the naval side of our history is but the natural result of the indifference or shortcomings of many of those who might have forced this part of his work more specially upon his attention, and who might have facilitated his labours and smoothed away his real or supposed difficulties. Until Schomberg[3] wrote, the British naval officer, whose position and training gave him exceptional advantages for the understanding and presentation of the facts, and the conclusions to be drawn from them, was, for all practical purposes, almost silent on the subject. Sir William Monson, it is true, and several other officers, have left us treatises on naval subjects; and Pepys, who was a captain, R.N., has bequeathed us a mass of invaluable material for history; but these are not naval historians. Schomberg's book is so full of inaccuracy as to be almost entirely devoid of value. Then followed Brenton. Brenton's essay[4] was a failure. He understood, it may be, something of what naval history ought to be; but his numerous prejudices, national and personal, his lack of discrimination, and his ignorance of, or indifference to, the common-sense rules as to the admission or rejection of evidence, tainted his work from beginning to end. Moreover, Brenton dealt only with an historical episode.

The next naval officer to attempt the writing of British naval history was Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas. His effort[5] was eminently successful so far as it went, but it was rendered a comparative failure by the untimely death of the historian when he was still at the outset of his gigantic work. The scheme of it was indeed a most generous and ample one. Nicolas spared no pains in research; he was never satisfied until he had consulted the best contemporary authorities for the details of every event; and he devoted as much attention to the civil history of the Navy, and to the development of its material, as to its military exploits. The result was, that although he lived to complete two volumes, he brought his story down only to the year 1422. To continue the work upon the same lines up to the year 1793, as he purposed, he would, I estimate, have needed at least fifteen, and possibly twenty, volumes more. It may be doubted whether any writer who is already in middle life is justified in undertaking, and looking forward to the single-handed completion of, a book framed on such a colossal and ambitious scale. Nicolas, however, chose to venture upon the forlorn hope. His brilliant failure is less astonishing, though scarcely less meritorious, than his success would have been.

Since Nicolas's time, there have been but two serious British naval writers on British naval history — Professor J. K. Laughton, R.N., and Vice-Admiral P. H. Colomb. The former has given us a number of admirable, though short, studies, mainly biographical,[6] and has done invaluable editorial work, especially in connection with the publications of the Navy Records Society. The latter has produced a learned and useful book,[7] which, though it deserves mention here, belongs rather to the domain of technical criticism than to that of ordinary history.

In addition to the major writers already named, Lieutenant John Marshall, R.N.,[8] Admiral Sir Charles Ekins,[9] Lieutenant Miles, R.N.,[10] Mr. A. Duncan, R.N.,[11] Captain S. M. Eardley-Wilmot, R.N., Mr. Joseph Allen, R.N.,[12] Commander C. N. Robinson, and others, besides the authors of numerous biographical volumes, compilations, controversial pamphlets, and technical treatises, belong to the category of naval men who, with more or less success, have striven to elucidate the history of their profession.

Yet, in spite of all this, the Navy has done relatively little towards making public the true story of the progress and work of the service. For this there are obvious reasons. A British naval officer, especially if he be of the executive branch, does not receive, and never has received, in early life, such training as fits him for the avocation of letters. His education does not specially encourage him to study history, nor, during his active career, does he usually enjoy many opportunities for reading, still less for original research. The executive officer, therefore, who can ultimately, like Nicolas or Colomb in the British, or like Mahan in the United States Navy, free himself from the grooves of his professional vocation, and attain distinction in the new walk of life, must be a man of exceptional qualifications, and must always be a rara avis.

The civilian writers on British naval history have been more numerous. They include, among many — and I name only those of some eminence — Josiah Burchett, who succeeded Pepys as Secretary of the Admiralty, Samuel Colliber, John Lediard, Dr. John Campbell (and his continuators), Sir S. Berkeley, Hervey, Dr. Entick, Dr. Robert Beatson, John Charnock, Charles Derrick, William James, Southey, and others, down to Mr. M. Oppenheim, besides biographers like O'Byrne and Fox Bourne.

As a critical naval historian, we have, I am afraid, no Englishman, either naval or civil, who approaches in accuracy, lucidity, and charm of style Captain A. T. Mahan, of the United States Navy. Another American naval historian who, however, is a civilian, has, it seems to me, shown a measure of intentional honesty and fairness which, unhappily, does not always characterise those British writers who have dealt with the same subject. I mean Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, the writer of the history of the war of 1812.

But it is not my intention to introduce here a naval bibliography, nor, if it were my wish to do so, would space suffice. I thus briefly summarise some little of the historical work that has been done in connection with the Royal Navy, merely in order to lead up to a statement of the chief considerations which have induced me to undertake the present book, and which have influenced me in elaborating its scheme, and in seeking assistance from others in carrying it out.

Having carefully surveyed what has been done, and having examined into the causes of failure, where failure or comparative failure has resulted, and into the causes of success, where success has been conspicuous, I have had certain convictions forced upon me. One is that a general naval history framed upon the scale of Nicolas's, is too huge for practical use. People will not now-a-days purchase a book in twenty volumes. Still less will they read it. Yet a general naval history, dealing with all the aspects of the service, from the earliest times to the present, does not exist, and is badly needed. Another is that a naval history, planned upon lines other than the most restricted, is too great a work to be undertaken by any single writer. Pepys designed such a history, but did not get much beyond the collection of part of his material for it. Nicolas began such a history, but lived to complete only two volumes of it.

So much for the failures to complete. The failures to satisfy are more numerous. I find that Schomberg and others fail because they are grossly and carelessly inaccurate. Brenton fails because he is prejudiced and injudicial. James partially fails because, although he is painstaking and, with few exceptions, fair, he is a chronicler rather than a historian; he does not sufficiently attempt to explain causes and motives; he does not adequately dwell upon results and deductions. Lediard and others fail because, instead of depending first of all upon original sources of information, they have been content to go first of all to second-hand ones, and only occasionally or subsidiarily to the best of all authorities. And it must be admitted that nearly all British writers of naval history, Nicolas being the only prominent exception, have devoted their almost exclusive attention to recording military operations, and have left in comparative neglect such equally important matters as naval administration, the development of the matériel and personnel of the service, the progress in the arts of navigation, gunnery, etc., the social life and customs of the sea, and even, in some cases, the story of naval expeditions of discovery.

On the other hand, James and Nicolas and Mahan are eminently satisfying to this extent — James, in that he is, as a rule, laborious and conscientious; Nicolas, in that he is learned, full, and comprehensive; and Mahan, in that he is luminous and scrupulously fair, and has applied the teachings of the past to the possibilities of the present and the future.

It was naturally my desire both to complete my undertaking and to satisfy the reader; and, falling into communication on the subject with Mr. R. B. Marston, of the publishing firm, I agreed with him, after we had discussed the general project, that a work in five or six volumes of the size now in hand might be made to contain a sufficiently comprehensive account of the military history of the Royal Navy from the earliest times to the present without necessitating any undue neglect of the civil history, of the development of the matériel and personnel, or of the story of the more peaceful yet still active triumphs of the service; and that it would be roomy enough to contain such illustrations as would be requisite for the due supplementing of the text.

But I confessed myself unwilling to embark alone upon the business. I had, for many years previously, made a special study of our naval history; but I had studied some periods more attentively than others, and in most periods there were very many events into the records of which I had made no very deep researches. I therefore deemed it advisable to seek for assistance if I was to set about the preparation of such a history as we had spoken of.

And as to the scope and plan of the work I determined, if possible, to attempt the difficult task of combining some proportion of the various qualities which, as above noted, have rendered the works of James, Nicolas, and Mahan, each in its own way, peculiarly acceptable. This scheme involved the separation of the civil and the military history of the Navy, as Nicolas has separated them, and the full treatment of both; the recourse on every possible occasion to first-hand and official sources of information, after the example set by James and by Nicolas; the pointing of such broad lessons as seem to be plainly taught by the events of the past, and to be applicable to the events of time to come, after the fashion begun by Mahan and Colomb; and, finally, the scrupulous suppression of international or personal prejudice. The importance, as a factor in the building up of the Empire, of maritime discovery and its intimate association with the Royal Navy, obliged me to enlarge the scheme, so as to include special chapters dealing with that also. And, for convenience, I determined to break up the general story into parts.

Thus digested, the plan of the History stands as follows: The work is divided into fifteen historical sections, each of which corresponds either with the duration of a dynasty or a political period, or with the endurance of a great war. The first section (Chapters I.-III.) covers the period previous to 1066; the second section, the Norman Age—1066-1154; the third section, the Angevin Age—1154-1399; the fourth section, the Lancastrian and Yorkist Age—1399-1485; the fifth section, the Tudor Age—1485-1603; the sixth section, the first Stuart Age—1603-1649; the seventh section, the time of the Commonwealth—1649-1660; the eighth section, the age of the Restoration and the Revolution — 1660-1714; the ninth section, the early Hanoverian Age — 1714-1763; the tenth section, the period of American Revolution — 1763-1793; the eleventh section, the wars of the French Revolution — 1793-1802; the twelfth section, the Napoleonic and American wars — 1802-1815; the thirteenth section, the period from 1815 to the building of the first ironclads in 1856; and the fourteenth and last section, the period since 1856.

Each of these sections is subdivided into chapters, dealing respectively with the civil history of the Navy, the military history of the Navy, and the history of voyages and maritime discovery during the period under review. In the case of certain sections, the importance of the naval campaigns in which great fleets were employed has led to a further subdivision of the portion treating of the military history. The major operations are in those cases described separately from the minor operations in which only two or three vessels, or small detachments, were engaged. In the twelfth section, moreover, a special chapter is devoted to the war with the United States.

Illustrations from contemporary and original sources, a full index to each volume, and a general subject index included in the last volume, will complete the work.

The gentlemen who have been so good as to associate their names with mine on the title-page of the book, and the chapters for which each has kindly undertaken the responsibility, are : —

Sir Clements Markham, K.C.B., late R.N., President of the Royal Geographical Society The History of Voyages and Discoveries, 1485-1898; being Chapters XVI., XIX., XXII., XXX., XXXIV., XXXVIII., XLIII., XLVII., and L.
Captain A. T. Mahan, D.C.L., LL.D.; U.S. Navy (retired), author of 'The Influence of Sea Power upon History,' etc. The History of the Major Naval Campaigns, 1763-1793, being Chapter XXXII.
Mr. H. W. Wilson, author of 'Ironclads in Action,' etc. The History of Voyages and Discoveries up to 1485, being Chapters III., VI., IX., and XII.

The History of the Minor Naval Operations, 1763-1815 (except those of the War of 1812), being Chapters XXXIII., XXXVII., and XLII.

Mr. Theodore Roosevelt, author of 'The Naval War of 1812,' etc. The History of the War with the United States, 1812-1815, being Chapter XLI.
Mr. Edward Fraser The Military History of the Navy, 1603-1660, being Chapters XVIII. and XXI.
But this by no means exhausts the list of those who have co-operated with me in the work. There are two other classes of helpers to whom I am at least equally indebted. One class includes those who for months have spent their time in libraries and muniment rooms, making researches, copying documents, hunting up portraits, plans, and pictures, and verifying references on my behalf. To them, for the manner in which they have laboured, and for the

numerous suggestions which they have laid before me, I cannot too deeply express my thanks. The other class, a very much larger one, includes the volunteer helpers. Among them are naval officers, British and foreign, and distinguished historical and technical authorities. My indebtedness to these will be found specially acknowledged in various places throughout the volumes, either in the footnotes, or in the introductions. I am desirous of here recording my peculiar obligations to Mr. R. B. Marston, who has unceasingly interested himself in the progress of the work, and has helped me in obtaining, or securing a sight of, many valuable documents and little-known pamphlets and books which, otherwise, must have escaped my notice.

Upon one other subject I must say a word, though I say it a little unwillingly. When it became known in the United States that my friends Captain Mahan and Mr. Theodore Roosevelt were to contribute to the book chapters dealing with our unhappy conflicts with America, a certain New York literary journal, which generally displays better taste, congratulated itself that at last English readers would be told the whole truth about those wars. It went on to insinuate with gratuitous offensiveness that, although Captain Mahan, being perhaps spoilt by British appreciation of his books, might hesitate to speak out, Mr. Roosevelt might be trusted to reflect American opinion in its most uncompromising form, and that I might live to be sorry for having secured the co-operation of that distinguished writer and administrator.

I regret this outburst, and I sincerely trust that the journal in question will, if only for the sake of international and personal comity, refrain from repeating it. Those among us who have studied the subject at all have known the truth about these wars for many a long year, and although we may not be uniformly proud of the parts which Great Britain has played as against the United States, we have no reason for desiring the suppression of any one of the facts. Like all the great characters of history, nations have ever had their weaknesses and their shortcomings. The story of their occasional pettinesses and errors is often quite as instructive as the record of their normally great and noble actions; and he would be but a poor and short-sighted lover of his country, or of his hero, who should seek to heighten the glory of an established fame by painting out its shadows. Neither Great Britain nor the United States has uniformly behaved like an angel: neither ever will behave in that manner. But I believe that both are essentially honest, and that both, especially when time is allowed them for cool reflection, desire truth and justice with equal sincerity.

Yet, after all, that is a small matter. The point that struck me as being most ungenerous in the attack of the New York paper was the suggestion directed, not against us Britons, but against Captain Mahan and Mr. Roosevelt. To insinuate that one of these is capable of deliberately subtracting from the truth in order to pander to English vanity, and that the other is capable of deliberately adorning the truth in order to pander to American Chauvinism, is surely to outrage the honour of both and to besmirch the dignity of American history. I sought, and I welcome, the co-operation of these gentlemen because the transparent good faith of their writings has deeply impressed itself upon me, and because I have ever been of opinion that, cœteris paribus, Americans are alike as capable and as desirous as Englishmen of exercising impartiality. It seems to me fair, moreover, to let both sides be heard, and that I could not possibly offer surer guarantees of my anxiety to do strict justice than by inviting distinguished American writers to co-operate in this work on equal terms with Englishmen. Any historian, no matter his good faith, may err, as well in his facts as in his conclusions; but if either Captain Mahan or Mr. Roosevelt err it will not, I promise both English and American readers, be on the score of national prejudice or personal insincerity. I only wish that the two countries could be induced to permanently co-operate in the making of history with as single an aim as we Britons and our American cousins are on this occasion endeavouring to write it.

To the reader — and with him I include the critic — I must add yet another word. The task which my fellow-workers and I have undertaken is one full of difficulties and pitfalls. Some periods of our naval history are now comprehensively dealt with for the first time. Others, which have been dealt with over and over again, have been cobwebbed with myths and errors. I know not whether it be easier to compile new records or to remove the dust and defacement from old ones, but I know by experience that the labour, if conscientiously performed, is, in each case, such as few who have not attempted it can realise. The contradictions to be found in two or more authorities, apparently of equal weight and equal trustworthiness, are often so serious and fundamental as apparently to defy reconciliation or explanation. Sometimes, indeed, two eye-witnesses, watching an operation on board the same ship, have left entirely contradictory accounts both of the sequence and of the issue of the events observed. Nor can statements even in official dispatches, State papers, and Government returns, be always accepted without corroboration. It has been our business to meet and vanquish these and other difficulties to the best of our ability, and we have spared neither time nor pains in searching for the truth. But the mass of material to be consulted is so colossal that errors of omission as well as of commission cannot but abound in a work like the present. I trust, therefore, that the book may not be too harshly judged. Such faults as may be detected in it must, in any event, be attributed least of all to prejudice. We have desired to set down facts without fear or favour, and to draw such conclusions only as are justified by the evidence offered; and it will be a great satisfaction to all of us, even although we may fail to some extent in other respects, if the sincerity of our intentions escape all impeachment.

  1. ' The Study of Naval History '; paper read at the R. U. S. I., March 11th, 1896
  2. In discussion of Prof. Laughton's paper, March 11th, 1896.
  3. Capt. Isaac Schomberg, R.N.: ' Naval Chronology, or an Historical Summary of Naval and Maritime Events, from the time of the Romans to the Treaty of Peace, 1802.' 5 vols. 1802.
  4. Capt. Edward Pelham Brenton, R.N. : ' The Naval History of Great Britain, 1783 to 1836.' 2 vols. 1837. A revised and enlarged edition of an earlier work by the same author.
  5. Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas : ' A History of the British Navy, from the Earliest Times to the Wars of the French Revolution,' 2 vols. 1847. I call Nicolas a naval officer, but he retired early from the Navy.
  6. Some of these were collected in ' Studies in Naval History,' 1887.
  7. ' Naval Warfare.'
  8. Lieut. John Marshall, R.N.: ' Royal Naval Biography,' 12 vols. 1823-29.
  9. Admiral Sir Charles Ekins: ' Naval Battles, from 1744 to the Peace in 1814, critically reviewed and illustrated.'
  10. ' Epitome of the Royal Naval Service,' 1841.
  11. ' The Mariner's Chronicle,' 6 vols, 1750; etc.
  12. ' The Battles of the British Navy.'