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  • Shipping and Military Power in the Seven Years War: The Sails of Victory
  • James Pritchard
Shipping and Military Power in the Seven Years War: The Sails of Victory. By David Syrett. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. ISBN 978-0-85989-786-0. Illustrations. Appendixes. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xi, 179. $59.95.

This detailed study of the organization and administration of the British maritime transportation system goes a long way towards answering the question why the Seven Years' War was the most successful British war during the eighteenth century. This is the second posthumous publication by the late David Syrett, Distinguished Professor of History at Queens College CUNY. His death in 2004 cut short the career of a naval historian of the first rank. In this last of twelve books that he either wrote or edited on the British navy during the eighteenth century and on the defeat of the German U-boats during the battle of the Atlantic in the twentieth, Syrett has come full circle back to the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation (Columbia University), which was published (1970) as Shipping and the American War: A Study of British Transport Organization.

Although a precedent for a single organization to administer British military overseas transport services had been established earlier during the century, this had been abandoned some time before the Seven Years' War in favour of a system of largely centralized hiring and decentralized administration. In three brief chapters, Syrett deals with ship chartering by the Navy Board, the Victualling Board, and the Ordnance Board. Two additional chapters treat of agents for transports, the procurement of shipping in North America, amphibious operations, and the 1762 expedition to Havana, which examines the transport system in motion. The business of [End Page 1323] chartering vessels to the government boards was largely in the hands of a small group of shipbrokers in the City of London, whether from corruption or favoritism, Syrett does not say. These men submitted bids to provide services, and the boards employed both time and space charters: the former chiefly for transportation overseas to North America and the West Indies and the latter for short voyages to Europe.

During the war, the Commissioners of the Navy chartered approximately 1,000 ships in Britain to serve as transports, and in North America, government agents chartered another 440 to support military operations there. And while these numbers represent a small percentage of the merchant marine, the successful procurement, inspection, measurement, fitting out and administration (including enforcement of the terms of charter) of this number of ships well reflected the size and sophistication of the Royal Navy, the most complex, and largest, capitalintensive armed force in the world. Between 1754 and 1762 the commissioners of the Navy Board spent nearly £3 million on transport procurement. What is amazing was not the confusions that were bound to arise, but the success that enabled British forces to be dispatched to Louisburg, Québec, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Havana, Belle Isle and the French coast, Germany, Portugal, Gibraltar, and the American colonies where they were supported until they achieved victory.

In a fascinating digression Syrett treats in some detail the unique problems that arose from provisioning the close blockading naval squadrons on the west coast of France between 1758 and 1761. Off loading provisions, including live animals, from small coasters of less than 100 tons alongside large men of war in a westerly wind required seamanship of the highest order, and as autumn came on large transports of 200 to 300 tons burthen chartered to the Navy Board replaced the coasters chartered to the Victualling Board. By November 1760, the Victualling Board was employing 55 transports shuttling back and forth between England and Ireland and the British fleet in the Bay of Biscay. Re-supply at sea in such quantities was unprecedented and was not repeated for more than forty years until the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This re-supply, the author insists, was a precondition of the successes met in the close blockade of Brest and the battle of Quibéron Bay. And so it was across the world, as British financial strength, commercial power, and a prosperous expanding...