During 1793-1815, Britain had one of the biggest navies in the world; they were seen as the ‘rulers of the waves’ due to their military prowess, and France wanted to overthrow them. I think that it is very accurate to say that the Royal Navy ruled the waves during 1793-1815: they had the best, new innovative technologies, the best officers, the best blockades and – most importantly – won the Battle of Trafalgar.
One thing that put Britain above the best of the world was their Daily Gunnery Practice; this allowed the sailors to perfect the method of unleashing a broadside every 1.5 minutes – nearly 3x as fast as the French. This is due to the British using gunlocks and the French using slow matches. Britain also had the carronade: a short, light canon loaded with grapeshot. This fired rapidly; meaning that Britain could quickly control the events in a battle. Most of these ships also carried 32pdr guns, which were extremely powerful and inflicted much damage on the enemy’s ships. These technologies showed that Britain ruled the waved because they were more advanced than the rest of the world; hence they began to be looked up to as an influential, resource-rich nation, of which others were reluctant to challenge.
The Royal Navy also began to copper sheath their ships. The French were not the only enemy of the British: marine organisms, such as ‘shipworms’ and ‘gribbles’ led to structural damage of the ships, reducing the vessels handling and speed at sea, making them less effective in battle. This showed that the Royal Navy ruled the waves because Britain was the only nation to have knowledge in this copper sheathing, so other nations had to rely on Britain. Britain also owned a number of frigates: small, but very fast ships which terrorised European coastlines, damaging trade and raiding ports. For example, by 1805 Britain had already seized Cape colony, Sierra Leone and many other islands. This proves that the Royal Navy ruled the waved because they were able to build up their Empire via the waves.
But, all of this came at a cost: the decks had a max height of 168cm (meaning that the sailors were cramped); Scurvy (lack of vitamin C) became a problem; and there had been no pay increase since 1652. But, all of this was faced by the other nations too, so I don’t think that this made the Royal Navy any worse than the other navies. But, these poor conditions did lead to tensions on board: April 1797 was the Spithead mutiny and in May of the same year was the Nore mutiny. Pitt’s government set out to isolate and starve the mutineers. Richard Parker, and 28 other mutiny leaders, was hanged. This suggests that Britain couldn’t possibly have ruled the waves because they couldn’t even control their own crews. But, I think that the role of the officers were important in restoring this – for example, Lord Howe solved the Spithead mutiny by visiting each ship & holding a banquet to re-establish trust. This produces the counter-augment: Britain did rule the waves, because any mutiny that arose was dealt with quickly.
Moreover, the British officers helped in ruling the waves: in the Royal Navy, it was not possible to ‘buy yourself’ to the top; instead you had to have high mathematical and astrological skills, which often came from growing up ‘learning the ropes.’ Many of these officers also had valuable experience from the American War of independence. So, too, did the French officers – but most of these had fled or guillotined during the French revolution (1789 – 1799). This showed that Britain ruled the waves because the outcome of a battle was often based on the skill and capabilities of the officers. For example, the role of Nelson in the Battle of Nile ultimately led to that victory. Britain managed to regain control of the Mediterranean due to Nelson: initiating the battle; inspiring officers and men; not overcomplicating the orders – he only gave 9 signals in total – and becoming a national figure. This supports the idea that Britain ruled the waves because the best world-renowned officer as British, therefore adding to the superior aura of the British Navy.
The role of Nelson was also important in the Battle of Trafalgar, 1815. Despite the HMS Victory flagship being under fire for 40 minutes, experiencing lots of damage, it was still able to find a gap to the Bucentaure flagship and put 400 men/ 20 guns out of action. The British also ruled the waves during this battle by having higher accuracy: they used flintlock matches opposed to linstock matches (which had a delay). This meant that Britain could inflict more damage much faster. The French surrendering at the Battle of Trafalgar, and the outcomes of the battle, also presented Britain as more powerful than the rest of the world: the French navy were the second best in the world, and if anybody were to have the power to defeat the British then it would’ve been them. The fact that the French had much more losses (2218 to 459), and there were 8000 French and Spanish prisoners combined, eradicated any hope in the other nations of being able to challenge the British. After this battle, the French didn’t seriously challenge the British in the seas for years and this battle marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Therefore, Britain were seen as the rulers of the waves because they were on the side who won the Napoleonic Wars, and the ones who stopped the French ‘sharks’ from hunting in the seas.
But, it was not only the British fighting that helped them rule the waves. I think that the British blockades which were enforced during the Napoleonic wars also gave Britain an upper hand. There were two forms of blockade: open and closed. During the battle of the Glorious First of June 1794, the Royal Navy blockaded French ports. This battle gives a balanced argument as to whether or not Britain ruled the waves: in one way it suggests it does because the French experienced almost 6 times the casualties as the British; adversely, the cargo still managed to reach France, averting famine. Moreover, in 1796 Britain left 15 battle ships to blockade Brest. 44 French ships set out to break this blockade, fortunately the gales dissuaded the French and they abandoned their mission. Although all of this shows that the blockades weren’t completely broken -the fact that they were penetrated, or left alone – implies that Britain did not rule the waves, because it was the weather conditions that kept the blockade intact.
In conclusion, I believe that it is very accurate to say that Britain ruled the waves. The lifestyles of the British officers put the Royal navy at an advantage: because the British sailors ‘learnt the ropes’ from a young age, they grew up in the mind-set of joining the navy; then once joining the navy, they intensified their navy-orientated lifestyle by taking part in the daily gunnery practise, improving with carronades, gunlocks – and being able to unleash a broadside almost 3x faster than the French. This showed that Britain ruled the waves because they were much more powerful than the French, in terms of resources. Additionally, the officers were so powerful because many of them had valuable experience form the American War of Independence – many of the best French officers were lost in the French revolution, meaning that the British officers were much more skilled in battle. For example, Nelson was a national hero and a world-known officer. In the Battle of the Nile, he inspired the officers and made his orders very clear; and in the Battle of Trafalgar, he didn’t give up when his Victory was getting destroyed. Instead, he held on and then managed to find an opening to destroy the enemy. I believe that the British officers were extremely significant in Britain ruling the waves because it is the officers that take control of the battles – hence determining the outcome. But, the battle of Trafalgar is the point at which the superiority of the British navy is confirmed; the fact that they won by such a large margin, and scared the French so much to stop them from initiating a serious battle in the sea for years, truly shows the power of the British navy…so it is very accurate to say that the Royal Navy ruled the waves during 1793-1815.
Sorry for the late update!
It’s been busy recently with my 3 maths and 3 further maths AS exams, physics practical assessments, and catching up with history classwork. But school is now officially over – yay! Though I still need to go in a few days next week to present the maths challenge finale, which I have been planning for KS3 Students throughout the year, and then I’m staying in London for a week to do an internship.
But now I have time to revise all of the stuff I’ve learnt in history this year; as well as start preparing for the Haig coursework. We haven’t been given the question yet, but we do know that it’s going to be 4000 words evaluating the interpretations of Haig by different historians.
Thanks for reading 🙂