BOOK REVIEW – Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World

Adrian G. Marshall, Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2016. 325 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings, PhD
Norwich University

Although the Nemesis was not really the “first iron warship” as the hyperbolic subtitle of Adrian G. Marshall’s book claims, it was nevertheless a historically consequential warship.  Laid down at the Laird Shipyard in Liverpool in 1839, the Nemesis featured a number of innovations such as watertight compartments (though it was not the “first vessel with truly watertight compartments” as the publisher’s blurb at the back of the book claims—the Chinese had actually developed this technology well over five hundred years before), iron plating, and two 32-pound swivel cannons capable of firing in all directions. Like other ships in the age of transition from sail to steam, the Nemesis was outfitted with sails and a steam-propelled paddle wheel capable of generating 120 horsepower and approximately 10 knots, and could operate under both sail and steam, or under either independently.

The Nemesis was one of several steam warships commissioned at the same time not by the Royal Navy, but by the British East India Company. Founded in 1600 and awarded a royal monopoly on trade in South and East Asia, the East India Company had evolved from a private trading company to an unofficial arm of the British government as the agent of Britain’s imperial expansion. By the time that the Nemesis was commissioned, the East India Company had been functioning as the de facto colonial government over most of India for over a half-century. As part of its governing structure, the Company commanded a large army of Indian soldiers (sepoys) under British officers and a growing navy of craft such as the Nemesis. At 175 feet in length but with a width of only 29 feet and depth of 11 feet, the Nemesis was specifically designed to operate in rivers in support of the Company’s military campaigns to hold or expand the empire in India.

Unlike its predecessors, which were transported in sections for final assembly in India, the Nemesis made the lengthy voyage to India under its own power. As Marshall describes in vivid and interesting detail, this shakedown cruise was by no means uneventful. The narrow hull and shallow draft of the Nemesis made for frequent instability at sea, with one of the major problems being that the constant tossing and turning in the heavy swells lifted the paddle wheel out of the sea, rendering its useless. Both the paddle wheel and boiler suffered damage in the arduous passage, as did a number of iron plates on the hull, which necessitated their eventual replacement. Marshall also points out that, in the days before the Royal Navy established coaling stations across the world, the crew of the Nemesis faced a constant challenge of finding fuel for the engine. Fortunately for the Nemesis, African ports provided sufficient wood.

Upon its arrival in India, the Nemesis was immediately dispatched to China. In 1839, in response to the Chinese seizure and destruction of opium stocks in Guangzhou (Canton), the British government had declared war on the Chinese Empire, thus initiating the conflict known as the Opium War. Military operations against China were conducted by a combination of regular British and Company army and naval forces. When it arrived in China, the Nemesis, with other steam warships of the Company played a major role in Britain’s decisive victory. While its narrow hull and shallow draft had made for an uncomfortable sea voyage, the Nemesis was entirely in its element operating in the rivers along China’s south coast. The combination of steam propulsion and highly accurate swivel cannons manned by well-trained crews allowed the Nemesis to function with devastating efficiency. Chinese resistance, however brave, was indeed futile.

In illustrating the impact of technological supremacy in Britain’s Opium War victory, Marshall is reiterating an argument made by numerous other historians, but his narrative of the conflict also makes another important point that the decisive British victory was also a function of superior operational planning. In marked contrast to the disorganized Chinese military effort, the British forces conducted a campaign that was characterized by a remarkable degree of coordination among the diverse Royal Navy, regular army, and Company armed forces. One cannot help but be impressed with the machine-like precision of the British operations, however much those operations were conducted to further a highly morally dubious cause.

Nemesis is a well-researched and engagingly-written narrative of a warship that also sheds much light on the context of the early age of steam. The volume is handsomely-produced and features numerous interesting and illuminating illustrations and maps. Adrian Marshall may not be a professional historian, but he has produced a highly professional book.

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