BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
How maritime England lost America
, March 25, 2017
THE STRUGGLE FOR SEA POWER: A Naval History of American Independence
by Sam Willis
Atlantic Books, London
Hardcover: 608 pages
Price: AUD $70
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
“Those who go down to the sea in
Who do business on great waters,
They see the works of the Lord,
And His wonders in the deep.”
Psalm 107(106): 23–24
Today the world today is so knit together by maritime commerce that we tend to forget just how dangerous going to sea was 300 years ago.
Navigation was rudimentary and often inaccurate, and meteorology as we understand it hardly existed – captains were at the mercy of the weather; an equinoxial gale could tear a fleet apart. A fast ship could get dispatches home weeks before a letter carried by a lumbering merchantman, giving the receiver a substantial commercial or political advantage.
The Caribbean was almost devoid of major shipping during the hurricane season as hurricanes were totally unpredictable, which was very inconvenient, as the “sugar islands” were the main source of national wealth for England and France. And sickness and contagions could decimate crews.
Sea power provided the sinews of empire. Aside from the English, the French and Spanish had substantial navies. The northern Europeans, including the Dutch, the Danish, the Swedes and the Russians could also raise impressive fleets. Russia and the Scandinavian countries tended to concentrate on the Baltic.
The Royal Navy dominated the maritime world as the result of a fortunate combination of circumstances. England, which had both Royal and private dockyards, was the most innovative of the major naval powers. For example, the Royal Navy used ships with their hulls sheathed in copper. This prevented fouling and made their warships more maneuverable. Unknown at the time, an electrolytic interaction between the copper and the iron nails weakened the ships, but the short-term advantage was nonetheless great.
Second, the British financed their naval building program through a well-organised program of borrowing and taxation. Under the monarchy, France’s government finances were chaotic, a key factor leading to the French Revolution. France was always teetering on the verge of bankruptcy. Thus, when England began a program of naval expansion in the late 18th century, money was there to pay for it.
The Royal Navy had good leadership on the whole and its standards of seamanship were exemplary. It is said that you could get a commission as a midshipman through family influence but that you could only get promoted by displaying competence. Captain James Cook learned his trade skippering a lowly Whitby collier, but his consummate skills as a navigator were universally acknowledged.
Most English captains placed a high degree of importance on inspiring their crews, both in seamanship and health. The necessity of encouraging the crew to do their utmost is reflected in the old military saying: “one volunteer is worth 10 pressed men”. Hood, Nelson and Rodney were men of national fame.
The sea was important to America. The original 13 colonies forming the United States were spread from Massachusetts in the north to Georgia in the south. Other colonies, such as the Floridas and Canada, were an element of England’s North American empire, not forgetting the islands of the Caribbean. Water was very important as a means of transport because travel by road was inconvenient and time consuming.
New York, the commercial, colonial and military headquarters for the English, was linked to the interior by two passes through the mountains. Philadelphia was actually more populous than New York but, unlike New York, it failed to flourish. The Cumberland Gap through the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky – a section of the Wilderness Road – showed the importance of finding a means of taming the frontier. The Cumberland Gap was the westernmost settlement in colonial America and was a way to project sea power into the interior.
Sea power was vital to colonial America and the colonial shipyards were extremely competent. “North America was already a maritime state with a maritime economy. Shipbuilding was the colonies’ single largest industry, producing some 35,000 tons of ships per year and no less than a fifth of the entire British merchant fleet,” writes Willis.
Because of the British Navigation Acts, cargo had to be carried in English ships. Boston has a good harbour, though somewhat tricky, and Boston, settled by the Puritans, flourished while the exposed settlement at Plymouth Rock, founded by the Pilgrim Fathers, was never commercially successful. The Americans opened their ports to foreign trade. Trade leads to alliances, and the Americans knew that they could not win their war against the British on their own.
Massachusetts has a good claim to be the birthplace of the American Revolution. A series of incidents culminated in the Boston Tea Party, where a gang of raiders, the Sons of Liberty, tossed British tea into Boston Harbour in December 1773.
The British East India Company imported tea into the colonies. Tea was expensive. It was carried in small chests, considerably smaller than the boxes we call “tea chests” today. The East India Company had a lot of leverage in the British Parliament and it took the loss of the entire cargo of three ships very seriously. The main point of contention was the infringement on the rights of British Americans by the Parliament in London.
The American colonies on the eve of the Revolution had a population of 2.5 million, of which around 20 per cent were slaves. The population of Great Britain was around 10 million.
Britain was the world’s pre-eminent naval power and was on the verge of becoming the world’s first industrialised nation. England had vanquished France and its allies in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63).
The initial skirmishes of the American Revolution took place at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts on April 19, 1775, with “the shot heard around the world”. The maintenance of militias in colonial America was common. Exactly who fired the first shot remains in contention. Both sides had intelligence about their opponents.
In the broad sense, sea power was crucial to life in colonial America. Streams, lakes and the oceans were theatres of conflict during the American Revolution. More than that, sea power was an element of sovereignty, an attribute of nationhood.
“The construction of a navy was behaviour intimately associated with an independent nation state. The idea of a colony raising armed ships to fight the Royal Navy was simply unprecedented – and clearly illegal,” according to Willis.
Even the idea of raising a Navy was an encouragement to the rebel cause. Navies are expensive to build and to run. The ships have to be maintained and stocked with supplies such as spare sails. Crews have to be paid and fed. Poor food can lead to diseases such as scurvy. Without proper hygiene, crews fall prey to outbreaks of contagious diseases.
It may be possible for a militia to live off the land, but a ship cannot live off the sea. A navy must be maintained by a nation-state –the printing, raising and borrowing of money and a bureaucracy to oversea the efficient spending of the money so raised needs political will and commitment. The Navy was the handmaiden of the United States of America.
Apart from the Continental Navy, raised by the national government (such as it was), the individual states also had navies. They often knew their waters intimately and were well equipped to conduct a campaign where much of the action took place in coastal waters. Local knowledge was invaluable.
Privateers were the third level of naval power. Privateers were commissioned to prey on the enemy’s ships. In short, they were pirates. Privateers were crucial to the war effort. Not only did they disrupt British trade, privateers brought to harbour goods that were often in desperately short supply.
The most famous American raider, John Paul Jones, lifted the spirits of the Americans with his capture of HMS Serapis. When it was demanded that he surrender, Jones is said to have replied: “I have not yet begun to fight.” According to novelist and mariner Herman Melville, “for obstinacy, mutual hatred and courage”, this was “without precedent or subsequent in the story of the ocean”.
Just the appearance of a crack naval fleet could cause panic. The mere threat of British sea power could win a battle. “They could see how the British maneuvered their much larger ships with skill and efficiency, and they were all too aware that their own force was too inexperienced, too young, too old and too sick to prevail,” Willis writes.
George Washington’s audacious crossing of the Delaware in a surprise attack in 1776 against Hessian troops that turned the war demonstrated that the Americans too could use command of the water to their advantage.
The Americans were allied to the French and the Spanish. By themselves, the Americans could not have defeated the British. The French defeated the British in the battle of the Chesapeake.
“The strategic consequences of the battle meant that this became the most significant battle in all French, American and British naval history,” says Willis.
Cornwallis, commander or the British troops, was trapped at Yorktown. His surrender in 1781 effectively ended the American Revolutionary War. The Treaty of Paris (1783) recognised the independence of the United States.
But it was not all over. At least 70,000 British Empire loyalists fled to Canada, and some 9,000 slaves had run away from their masters. Canada, which remained British, never felt truly comfortable with the new United States. This stimulated the confederation of Canada in 1867 for defensive reasons. The Great Lakes, an impressive body of water bordering the two nations, were demilitarised.
Britain remained the world’s pre-eminent trading and military power. Despite loosing the 13 American colonies, it would accumulate an empire “on which the sun never set”. Britain remained America’s dominant trading partner.
One can only speculate, as Winston Churchill did, on what might have happened if the two great English-speaking powers had remained united. Churchill was, after all, the product of a union between America and England. America retains its British roots, though the English are no longer the dominant ethnic presence.
Some 20 per cent of Americans stayed loyal to Britain. The biggest country in North America, Canada, recognises Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State.
Perhaps England’s greatest gift to America is the system of common law. And of course, the United States is by far the world’s predominant naval power. Probably the most important historian of naval power is Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, an American geostrategist whose book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, published in 1890, is still studied today. The struggle for dominance at sea never ceases.