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THE ROYAL NAVY 1793-1800: BIRTH OF A SUPERPOWER

Mark Jessop

Pen and Sword, 2018

16 cm x 24 cm format, 158 pages

17 B&W illustrations, 10 maps

SRP £19.99

 

 

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I'm going to be honest -- I really wanted to like this book. Truly, I did. After all, what's not to like about the Royal Navy at the turn of the 19th century? The Royal Navy of Nelson at the height of his career, epic sea battles, etc., etc. And at times, this book is actually pretty good. I learned some interesting stuff, especially about the economics of maintaining Britain's fleet and the run-up to the Battle of the Nile.

 

But, let's backtrack a little. First, let's start with the structure of the narrative. It's broken into eight chapters, and each chapter is built around the contemporary point of view of a historical character, e.g. a schoolmaster, a merchant, a petty officer, etc. Each of the eight chapters deals with a particular facet of the Royal Navy's history. For example, one chapter deals with the epic costs of Britain's defense of her maritime interests. There's a lot of data on rising shipbuilding costs, total annual expenditures year-over-year, info on seaman's wages, and the like -- pretty good stuff, actually. Another chapter focuses on the need for England to maintain the freedom of her sea lanes. One chapter focuses on naval activities in the Mediterranean, another solely on events in the Caribbean. Individually, some of these chapters are good reading.

 

But the book fell flat for me on several fronts. First, I didn't care for the historical perspective provided by the contemporary characters. They just didn't add anything for me. I think this was an attempt by the author to do something a little different from other historical narratives, but I didn't find it particularly effective. Second, since the book's subtitle is "Birth of a Superpower," one would think that the birth of the Royal Navy as a superpower would be a unifying theme. But I didn't find the book to be a unified, cohesive narrative. Instead, it was a lot of bits and parts, some better than others. This feeling of lack of unity was exacerbated by the narrative having no linear timeline -- there was a lot of skipping around from early bits to later bits, to bits in between, and back again. Not my cup of tea. Lastly, the individual theaters of action were treated separately, i.e. English Channel in one chapter, Mediterranean in another, Caribbean in another. An upshot of this method of treatment is that it's difficult to see how each theater worked in concert with the others to contribute to the overall "rise" of the RN.

 

Lastly, to conclude this review, I have to wonder aloud about the particular time interval selected by the author as the bookends for any RN rise to superpower status. It seems to me that anyone covering events up to 1800 would have done well to toss in events up to 1805 too, i.e. Trafalgar. If the Nile in 1798 made the point of England's naval superiority over France, wasn't Trafalgar the final exclamation point on that statement? Just asking.

 

So, in summary -- good book in spots, a little lacking when taken as a whole. Still, at only GBP 19.99, it won't break the bank if you decide to add this one to your collection.

 

CDC

 

Thanks to Pen & Sword Books for providing this review copy. To order, see link in title above.

 

 

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