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  • The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century
  • Andrew Lambert
The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century. By Clive Wilkinson. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 2004. ISBN 1-84383-042-6. Tables. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. x, 246. $85.00.

Navies have always been expensive instruments of power. The long term funding required to maintain an effective seagoing force stretched eighteenth-century states to their limits, and in meeting the demand for funds navies transformed the states they served. John Brewer developed the concept of Britain as an advanced fiscal military state in The Sinews of Power of 1989. Clive Wilkinson applies these themes to specifics of naval administration, using the key question of why the Royal Navy fell short of expectation in the American War of Independence as his focal point. Wilkinson shows how the nation funded the Navy, and what the nation expected in return. With an excellent examination of the constraints of eighteenth century naval power, [End Page 226] slow mobilisation, limited resources, and the uncertain durability of wooden ships he shows how narrow were the margins of success in the mid century wars with France. Naval expenditure was controlled by two processes, greater Treasury control and demands for greater accountability by a Parliament that dare refuse the service adequate funds.

In addressing the policies of the mid-century Admiralty Boards led by Anson, Egmont, Hawke, and Sandwich, Wilkinson uses the real strength of the battlefleet in ships ready for service as the key indicator of success. His conclusions will strike those who have made policy as eminently fair, and those who prefer their politicians to be venal, foolish, and flawed as a whitewash. No-one was really to blame for the massive structural problems inherent in the attempt to maintain the expanded wartime fleet of the mid century with inadequate infrastructure and poor construction methods. The roots of policy failure were many and deep. Instead key naval administrators did their best to address the issues. Lord Sandwich, bitterly attacked for his part in the loss of the American colonies by political opponents, was in reality highly competent. His attempt to rebuild the fleet with new, "scientifically" built ships that would be more durable and therefore cheaper in the long term, was only just starting to bear fruit when the needs of war interrupted. His predecessors had done much to upgrade the dockyard infrastructure and with Sandwich's policy in place, and much improved oversight of naval expenditure, the foundations were in place for the next round of global conflict, when an altogether more powerful fleet completed the recovery begun at the battle of the Saintes in 1782. Britannia ruled the waves because her pockets were deeper, and her need for sea power was greater than her rivals. But the mechanisms by which she ensured the money was effectively spent, and the fleet prepared for war have never been more clearly and incisively set out. Wilkinson's clearly written and thoroughly researched book joins those of Daniel Baugh and N. A. M. Rodger as a key text, engaging in the wider debates of the historical profession and ensuring naval history takes its proper place in any account of the development of the British state, and the loss of the American colonies.

Andrew Lambert
King’s College London
London, United Kingdom


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pp. 226-227
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2010
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