The Emergence of Britain's Global Naval Supremacy: the war of 1739–48 by Richard Harding 392 pp., 8 b&w plates, 11 figures, 15 maps, 27 tablesBoydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge IP12 3DF, UK, 2012, £65/$115 (hbk), ISBN 978-1843835806
Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
© 2013 The Authors. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology © 2013 The Nautical Archaeology Society
International Journal of Nautical Archaeology
Volume 42, Issue 1, pages 231–233, March 2013
How to Cite
Lambert, A. (2013), The Emergence of Britain's Global Naval Supremacy: the war of 1739–48 by Richard Harding 392 pp., 8 b&w plates, 11 figures, 15 maps, 27 tablesBoydell Press, PO Box 9, Woodbridge IP12 3DF, UK, 2012, £65/$115 (hbk), ISBN 978-1843835806. International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, 42: 231–233. doi: 10.1111/1095-9270.12008_18
- Issue published online: 4 FEB 2013
- Article first published online: 4 FEB 2013
The war of 1739–1748 has long been the Cinderella of Britain's 18th-century conflicts, and an inconclusive precursor to the glories of 1756–1763. Richard Harding's important new book has changed that perspective. It brings together critical naval, imperial, European and political issues, benefiting from extensive archival research and the fruits of modern scholarship. Harding creates a sophisticated analysis of this paired conflict, emphasizing the Continental and domestic dimensions as the background to naval disasters and political change. At heart this is a study of the making of policy; the interface between strategy and politics, where naval and military failure impacted on politics, and vice versa. British ambition and self-confidence took a serious knock in the West Indies, the Mediterranean and the Low Countries.
By 1739 sea power had become a core concept for the opposition ‘Patriots’ in the newly made United Kingdom. It offered an alternative to the costly continental commitment of 1689–1713, a ‘British’ policy that avoided pandering to the interests of Hanover, the King's German electorate. Sea power was linked to the aggressive commercial aims of the City of London, motor of the post-1690 economic miracle that had transformed the Stuart kingdom into a Great Power. The ‘Patriot’ programme was attractive for those seeking more trade; in a mercantilist world where trade was thought to be limited this meant taking markets by force. The obvious target was Spanish America. Elizabethan fables and glories were revived to fuel the illusion that Spanish America was little more than a mountain of silver, ringed by wealthy ports anxious for British goods. Even the salutary shock of the ‘South Sea Bubble’ did nothing to blunt the ambition and avarice of the commercial classes, and their taxes paid for the fleet. Pushed by the ‘Patriot’ opposition and the City, Sir Robert Walpole's Government reluctantly entered a war with Spain in 1739, relying on a limited strategy of cutting Spanish sea communications to secure peace. The sea lanes that tied Spain to America and Asia were vulnerable, but the Royal Navy was not ready for the task. Admiral Vernon took Porto Bello and George Anson eventually took the Manila Galleon, but elsewhere the fruits of sea power were thin. The Navy was unable to concentrate on Spain, as France hovered on the margins and a major war broke out in Europe. Manpower shortages and other administrative problems further weakened the effort. Vernon was beaten off at Cartagena de las Indias, and the strategy began to unravel as Europe took centre stage, reviving the core concern of English/British strategy since the Middle Ages. To prevent the Low Countries being used as a staging post for an invasion, the British had to change focus. Disillusionment with sea power and the lack of obvious success broke Walpole's ministry and its successor: botched battles on land and sea cost ministers their posts. By the middle of the war the older generation of naval leaders was making way for new blood, led by George Anson. Using his fame and fortune Anson joined the political elite by marrying the Lord Chancellor's daughter, took a seat at the Admiralty Board, and won a significant battle off Cape Finisterre. This last restored the service's lustre, just as the war in Europe reached a disastrous conclusion.
Harding's key conclusion is that Britain went to war with Spain in 1739 under the influence of an unrealistic and overly ‘naval’ strategic concept. Key decision-makers were convinced—with little basis in experience—that a potent navy alone would be enough to defeat the rambling Spanish Empire and secure additional trade to boost the economy and refund the costs of war. Success against Spain would give Britain a powerful platform to influence the European state system and address the underlying vulnerability to invasion from the Low Countries and the linked threat of a Jacobite rising. The experience of war between 1740 and 1745 provided a salutary lesson. The Royal Navy, for all its ships and stores, was not ready for the challenge of a global war: new base facilities and ship designs, a professional officer corps, and improved organization were needed. The Navy that went to war in 1739 lacked the dedication, experience and, above all, the killer instinct to make sea power truly effective. A succession of Court Martials, including the execution of one unfortunate officer, and a new leadership that included Anson, made a difference. By 1747 the French navy had been swept from the seas, and French prizes were beginning to transform the quality of British ship design. At the same time the problem of Europe remained. Once France and Austria went to war, British imperial aims became less significant. While the opposition called for a maritime war, in reality Britain was bound to Europe by the threat of invasion. This became all too clear when Antwerp was captured by a French army in May 1746.
This war proved that sea power took time to be effective, it was fortunate that those effects were becoming clear to the French. Sea power worked better as a counter-attacking strategy, using economic warfare, colonial conquests and local action to block attempts to invade, while steadily degrading the enemy's resources. In this respect Britain's key asset was financial: the post-1688 political settlement gave the government long-term access to low-cost capital, and tied the commercial classes ever more closely to the state and the dynasty. It was no accident that the interest rates on government securities were essentially unchanged throughout the conflict, despite defeats and political strife. Britain could not defeat France in Europe, but it could easily outlast France in any long war. When peace came in 1748 the British had to trade in most of their overseas success (notably the capture of Louisbourg), and the destruction of French shipping to get the French out of the Austrian Netherlands, modern Belgium. This last, rather than the King's German electorate of Hanover was the reason why Britain had to be a mixed power, and not a pure sea power. As the war had demonstrated, if the French had an army in the Netherlands they could mount a serious invasion. Therefore Britain had to find allies and strategies that would keep the French out of Belgium; that meant preventing France becoming a hegemonic power. Putting the Austrians back in charge of Belgium and balancing the European state system would be essential before Britain could make effective use of sea power. In the next war, which began in the Americas in 1754 spreading to Europe in 1756, Belgium was neutralized and Holland neutral. This meant that fighting in Germany did not threaten British national security, and more effort could be devoted to the Imperial conflict. In this war the hard-won lessons of 1739–48 and many of the key players of that salutary conflict created a global empire, but, as Harding shows, they were building on the foundations of the preceding conflict. This is a work of the first importance, which will become the standard text on the British side of the war. It is a pleasure to see the footnotes in their proper place, in a well-set text with good illustrations. Unfortunately a number of literals have crept through the editing process, including one in the last sentence.