Seapower and global hegemony 1815-30


Action at close quarters during the Battle of Navarino Bay. This detail shows Codrington’s flagship, HMS Asia (centre), simultaneously destroying two Ottoman ships.

When the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815, Britain was the only global maritime power. Even with a major reduction in her navy, Britain’s naval power was unchallenged. From 152 battleships and 183 frigates in 1810, the navy shrank to 112 and 101 of each type by 1820. Still, her proportion of total world naval tonnage remained overwhelming and qualitative improvements increased the margins over potential rivals. Britain was determined to maintain a two-power standard. Political turmoil and the fragile economic recovery made renewed naval competition unattractive to most European powers. Only Turkey and Spain had maritime interests that were directly threatened between 1815 and 1830. Spain was faced by British determination to protect the independence movements and found it impossible to rebuild her navy, let alone challenge Britain. The Greek Revolt (1821-8) posed a direct threat to the maritime communications of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks responded by building up their fleet which resulted in the last major battle between sailing battlefleets.

The only other naval power whose capability showed a marked increase in the years following 1815 was the United States. Here the “navalists” had, temporarily, won the argument. Professional naval officers at last achieved a permanent influence on government policy with the creation of the Board of Commissioners in 1815. The importance of the navy to the state was emphasized by the growing Federal control over the appointment of officers. The officer corps had become established as part of the machinery of the state. The Navy Act of 1816 allowed for a fleet of nine battleships and 12 frigates, supported by a revenue bill which would ensure continued funding for maintenance. America finally had battleships, but soon found that in the postwar world the need was for the large frigates and other smaller vessels to combat piracy and, after 1818, slavers. In the years that followed, this disjunction between the battleship and American naval needs mixed with growing economic difficulties and new trading priorities in the Pacific revived “anti-navalist” feeling and in 1827 the battleships and the frigates were laid up. The United States found that its maritime ambitions were in line with British expectations and protected by them. It was not until the mid-1830s that American political attention again turned to creating a significant navy.

The European revival in naval building did not really accelerate until the 1840s. No state had a great interest in forcing maritime competition. Britain was satisfied with her position and did not want to become embroiled in conflict. After the successful bombardment of Algiers in 1816, the general situation in the Mediterranean suited Britain. Britain preferred a joint approach to maritime problems and discouraged unilateral naval action by France and Russia against the Barbary Corsairs and Greek pirates. During the early 1820s the Turks rebuilt their fleet in the wake of the Greek Revolt. Particularly active was the viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali, who bought new ships from France and America and hired European officers to navigate them. Britain, France and Russia determined to use some naval forces to enforce a truce. This meant intercepting Mehmet Ali’s expeditionary force of 4,000 troops, which left Alexandria on 5 August 1827. The Anglo-French force, under Vice Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, met the Ottoman fleet anchored in line in Navarino Bay on 10 September. A prolonged truce followed and the Russians joined the allies on 11 October. On 18 October the allies decided that the Turks must be forced to conclude the negotiations before the winter and entered Navarino Bay. The forces were not large: 11 allied battleships and 16 other ships faced seven Turkish battleships and 58 smaller ships. The fierce artillery duel at short range and in the confines of the bay led to the loss of a Turkish battleship, 34 frigates and corvettes, and the best of the Turkish officer corps. The Turks were now unable to move their troops by water, but continued to fight on until November 1828 when a French land force finally took their last stronghold on the Morea. The Russian Black Sea fleet supported the army’s advance against Turkish positions at Varna on the Danube. Blockades of Turkish-held positions in the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and at Constantinople were established. British and French naval power was used to prevent the Russian conquest of Constantinople and encourage an armistice. Sailing warships continued to be used all over the globe until the 1860s, but apart from a short blockade of the Dutch coast by French and British ships in 1830, the sailing wooden battlefleet was disappearing from European warfare. When the French and British fleets deployed in the Baltic in 1855, they were a mixed force of steam and sail. However, the sailing warship did not stagnate in its final years. In the first 40 years of the century, it reached the limits of contemporary design. Practical experience, particularly in combat with the American frigates, experimentation, such as that of Sir Robert Sepping’s work with rounded sterns, and, eventually, theoretical contributions, all combined to integrate the work of the shipwright and the emerging profession of naval architect. Britain, the leading maritime and naval power, now undoubtedly led the world in ship design and construction. The ships built in this period lasted for decades, but within 15 years of Waterloo, steamships were accompanying naval expeditions and by the 1850s the dominance of the sailing warship had entered its terminal stages.

In the last years of the nineteenth century technological changes had changed naval power out of all recognition. The modern battleship was a powerful and flexible weapon that had never been pitted against its equals in battle. Mahan’s writings were largely a response to this untested technological revolution. He was looking for unchanging principles of naval warfare to guide naval officers and politicians. Many of his conclusions about the course of naval history before 1814 still hold true, but his view of the apparently inevitable rise of the modern state battlefleet misrepresents the challenges and options open to contemporary decision-makers. Many important questions about these matters are still under-researched. There was no clearly defined “military revolution” or technological revolution that ousted one form of war and replaced it by the battlefleet. There was a series of changes which occurred over a prolonged period. The changes were not necessarily directly related, deliberately initiated or understood, but came together by long and convoluted routes. They occurred in maritime technology, state financing, bureaucratic practice, work relationships, city planning, the transmission of ideas between professionals in different disciplines and different countries, ship design, scientific and educational theory, navigation, patronage and state centralization, political theory, diplomacy, weapons technology, the management of public opinion, long-term economic, demographic and employment changes and in the maturing of markets across the world. The very process by which these changes were incorporated is poorly understood. They were not necessarily accidents, but nor were they planned innovations.

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