BOOK REVIEW – Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston

Howard J. Fuller, Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston. New York: Routledge, 2013. 297 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz, PhD
British Commission for Military History

Reassessment of the past invariably means reassessment of the picture painted by earlier historians, but for military and naval writers, it also frequently means challenging the uses others have made of previous experience as a window to contemporary problems. These two qualities are much apparent in Empire, Technology and Seapower, a further title in the ‘Cass Series of Naval History and Policy’ presented by Routledge Publishing. Howard Fuller of the University of Wolverhampton offers a fresh examination of the mid-nineteenth century Royal Navy in a study that synthesizes the interplay of technology, naval strategy and party politics as played out in the era of Viscount Palmerston, British prime minister between 1855-58 and 1859-65.

These were momentous years with war against Russia already in hand when Palmerston first assumed the premiership to be followed by mutiny in India in 1857. Meanwhile, the American Civil War dominated the scene of a second Palmerston administration with a British intervention on the side of the Confederacy a distinct possibility. This was not the zenith of British Empire, nor even the high noon of Pax Britannica, but it was a moment when Britain counted for more in the counsels of Europe than anytime previous with this influence owing everything to trade, finance, industry and the wooden walls of her navy. The last, though, faced an enemy which bore no respect of tradition and past success—the advance of science. Here, the proximity and inclinations of France weighed heavy. Already possessing a sizeable army, England’s traditional foe now was building a fleet of the most modern kind of warships represented by La Gloire, but to what end?

Given the centrality of maritime strategy to Britain, a response followed, but the lines of that response depended on a host of factors—technical, financial, strategic and political—where the outcome remained far from certain. Fuller dissects these in turn and demonstrates the complexity of the problem facing Palmerston. A navy to defend a global empire required ships of range and habitability entirely different from those best able to defend the vulnerable ports and dockyards of Britain. Shipyard capacity was finite and naval estimates were not unlimited. Constructing a navy of the most modern ships demanded improvements in infrastructure while numbers had a quality all of their own.

Responding rapidly to the French naval challenge by commissioning the ironclad HMS Warrior, an even more menacing threat now appeared: the USS Monitor. Chagrined by American highhandedness over the Trent affair when Confederate emissaries were forcibly removed from a British flagged vessel, Royal Navy superiority could no longer be assumed in American waters in the face of Ericsson’s prodigy. Thus, the threat of British intervention receded though how Britain could intervene with a French menace still looming is not addressed by the author.            

This is a work of sound, serious scholarship anchored in archival research; therein, lies one weakness. The author assumes a general familiarity of the times and its events few readers—even academics—will possess. Thus, greater scope for providing the context of the period is not only demanded, it is required. Another is that Fuller squarely has his sights set on the historiography of the last thirty years and finds it wanting. His case is reasoned, of merit and convincing; yet, those shortcomings that are decried in the works of others, such as recourse to the counter-factual and suffusing modern strategic theory on the past, invariably appear in due course in Empire, Technology and Seapower.

Given the author’s task of correcting recent historiography, it is surprising more use was not made of the analysis offered by those writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those writing of naval affairs in the period immediately following Palmerston including George Aston, Charles Callwell and the brothers Colomb, John and Philip, are ignored by the author. Not tainted by Britain’s post-imperial decline, Cold War theories of mutual deterrence or an Army-centric view of current strategy, such lessons they absorbed and espoused are probably closer to the mark of historical truth than the modern renditions that Fuller finds wanting; certainly, they deserve a hearing.

A problem more telling is the price of Empire, Technology and Seapower which will preclude its consideration by a wider audience. This is unfortunate for, though clearly aimed at academics, even they will find the price of entry daunting. This reviewer, though, has no reservations in recommending the work. Historians will appreciate a succinct recounting of the transition from sail to steam and its place in broader British affairs. Meanwhile, for those who wrestle with matters of contemporary strategy, competing technologies and the burdens of budgets, the enduring sameness of it all will appear manifest. The accounting offered enlightens these verities and is worth reading, accordingly.

(Return to July 2015 Table of Contents)



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