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  • Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy by Sarah Kinkel
  • Elizabeth C. Libero
Sarah Kinkel, Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018). Pp. 320. $45.00 cloth.

Sarah Kinkel's new monograph offers a clear and concise discussion of the relationship between British political ideologies and naval performance from the time of the Restoration to the American Revolution.

The Royal Navy's evolution into a globally dominant force over the long eighteenth century has attracted a great deal of scholarship. While many studies have emphasized geographic, economic, cultural, or administrative/institutional factors, Kinkel focuses on the political environment that fostered the navy's development. The author explains that "political commitments matter. Britain was constrained by geographic and economic realities, but political considerations shaped which ones were significant" (7). Kinkel argues that competing strategies of naval power were integral to broader debates about the form and aims of the British Empire. With research based on a variety of sources including parliamentary debates, radical pamphlets, and satirical publications, Disciplining the Empire demonstrates that political contestation was crucial to the British navy's ascent. These source materials and the straightforward way they are interpreted could be considered somewhat conventional. However their deployment to show change over a long time period and to draw together British, North American, Irish, and South Asian contexts makes for a fresh and insightful discussion.

The book begins by describing how the later Stuart monarchs and their opponents framed naval power through differing ideals of English governance. Questions over how the navy should operate internally and how it should be used in war and peace became entangled in the broader political struggle between monarchical and parliamentary supremacy, and in struggles over social issues including the rights of Catholics, the privileges of nobles, and moral standards. Kinkel's second chapter shows that during the time of Walpole the establishment Whig government pursued a restrained maritime policy in order to stabilize the European balance of power and keep domestic naval expenses low. Deterrence and economy were hallmarks of this particular vision of the navy. In contrast to the Walpolean ideal, authoritarian Whigs advocated increased order, hierarchy, and control as described in chapter three. The professionalization reforms of the 1740s created a force more committed to duty and order than previous iterations—and thus reflected the authoritarians' broader social and political paradigms.

A group called the "patriots" articulated a second challenge to the Walpolean/establishment Whig limited naval policy. The fourth chapter explains their model of an active navy but one based on individualistic ideals. Chapter five shows the advent of a more professional and active naval policy during the time between the Seven Years War and the American Revolution. The fulfillment of a more authoritarian navy (and empire in general) generated conflict, particularly with North Americans of more libertarian or patriotic leanings. Here Kinkel makes the important point that the Royal Navy was often at the interface between the state and the increasingly disgruntled colonists in their role as revenue collectors and enforcers of civil authority. The concluding chapter argues that the naval weaknesses exposed during the American Revolution hinged upon political uncertainty emanating from Westminster rather than problems within the navy itself. [End Page 275]

There are two intertwined strands to Kinkel's thesis, which can be roughly categorized as external and internal operations. In terms of the outward-looking activities of the navy, proponents of contending political ideologies attempted to use the navy to achieve their particular goals on the global stage. For instance the Walpolean establishment Whigs' disinterest in conquest and colonial expansion led to the somewhat passive naval policies of the 1720s–30s. The opposition Tories of the same period advocated aggressive naval involvement in an American maritime war that would expand British colonial territories. The patriotic Whigs envisioned expanding British trade in the Americas, so they too endorsed an active and interventionist naval policy. The patriots maintained that this could be achieved through a limited permanent force augmented by privateering as needed during conflicts. Authoritarian Whigs also supported an aggressive navy, but unlike the patriots, authoritarians believed that...


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