Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy by Sarah Kinkel
On the first page of Disciplining the Empire, Sarah Kinkel proposes to answer an age-old and dauntingly grand question: "why Britain became the world's greatest naval power" (1). In doing so, she dives into a vast and nuanced historiography and emerges with a fresh analysis that sees changes in naval structure as part of a larger project to reconfigure power throughout British society. The redesigned navy, she argues, became both a model for a more hierarchical society and a useful tool to enforce that societal change throughout the empire.
Kinkel's well-conceived study refutes the conventional narrative that British naval development from the 1600s through the 1780s was linear and uncontroversial. Instead, Kinkel reveals a complex political struggle over the size, structure, tactics, and geopolitical use of the Royal Navy. She notes that other historians have depicted eighteenth-century naval reform as an "apolitical" (88) project of rational modernization because they have failed to acknowledge the deep-seated divides over naval policy that often transcended the era's political lines. By making use of a broad range of sources including ballads, pamphlets, and illustrations, Kinkel not only delves into the debates over naval reform and policy in Parliament and within the Admiralty Board but also captures a wider popular discourse about naval policy and empire.
Disciplining the Empire explores the navy's journey from the "geographically restrained, less aggressive, and more deliberately defensive" force of the Stuart era, into its deployment "primarily as a tool of stability to build alliances and maintain the balance of power" (211) in the Walpolean era, to the far-reaching mid-eighteenth century reform and its creation of a professional navy primed to expand empire and enforced imperial policy. Kinkel's analysis sees a series of military reforms transforming Britain by the mid-eighteenth century into "a fiscal-naval state" (21) with a vast, expensive, hierarchical, and professionalized navy. Moreover, she argues that "in the years between the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution, the navy was tasked with shaping imperial society into the same disciplined, ordered system that the naval service now embodied" (15). By the start of the Seven Years' War, the navy was not only a larger, better organized, and more tactically aggressive force; it was also increasingly pointed inward as well as outward, as naval vessels took on an expanded role in enforcing and collecting taxes on goods traveling to and from the [End Page 575] colonies. Soon the navy became "a means of exerting authority internally and a more effective tool than the army in policing trade and enforcing revenue measures" (20). Indeed, though many historians see Britain's shift to a more ordered and authoritarian empire as a product of the financial stress that came with the military success of the Seven Years' War, Kinkel points to the reordering of the Admiralty in the 1740s as the pivotal point. As she argues, "naval reforms of the 1740s embodied a model of society that was every bit as obedient and hierarchical as the one the authoritarian whigs of the 1760s or 1780s attempted to enforce" (19) across the British Empire.
Disciplining the Empire does much more than narrate the rise of British naval power. Above all, Kinkel shows how burgeoning naval might was a product of the politically contested and complex debates about what sort of navy Britain ought to have and what role it should play within British society. As she shows, examining the debates over the navy's use and development allows for analysis of "the ideological texture and conflicts at the heart of the eighteenth-century British Empire" (23). These debates arose from widespread dismay over the shaky record of the Royal Navy in the early eighteenth century. Though most observers saw the navy as an essential tool of empire and in need of reform, precisely how to restructure it led to deep ideological disagreement. "Authoritarian whigs" (14) saw a large, modernized, and professionalized navy as the essential tool to build and maintain the empire. Especially following the Seven Years' War, they sought to rely on the professional navy as the essential apparatus of "coercive power" (156) over the colonies. By contrast, "patriots" worried about the threats to liberty represented by any professionalized military force, whether terrene or maritime, and "focused on the need to defend traditional liberties from the threat of encroaching executive power" (125). Accordingly, they advocated more direct civic engagement with the military and, rather than the highly hierarchical, professional officer corps favored by the authoritarians, they promoted voluntary militias ashore and the use of privateers at sea. The transformation of the navy reflected the triumph of authoritarian whigs.
Kinkel shows that these debates were not limited to naval organization, and perhaps her most important contribution is to reintegrate the story of Britain's maritime ascendancy into the broader terrain of politics and political ideology: "the naval reforms of the 1740s were linked to both imperial and constitutional debates" (90) that resonated throughout the empire. Indeed, the book's boldest claim is that the navy was not merely a military tool to be deployed in the service of empire; it was a test case for visions of how British society as a whole should be conceived and structured. "Rather than being separate phenomena, these authoritarian developments were all part of the same project" (19), she maintains, one that stemmed from the philosophies of governance and imperial order articulated by a growing group of political authoritarians such as Edward Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, who argued that in the navy, as in society more generally, "disorder and disobedience" [End Page 576] (90) were the problems that limited Britain's success. Thus, beginning with naval reform, authoritarians sought the "development of a centrally ruled empire and the state apparatus within Britain" (22). The patriots also derived their naval vision from a broader pattern: "the patriots who opposed professionalization were far from pacifist, but they abhorred the idea of a state monopoly on violence and emphasized instead militias and privateering endeavors which would remain in the hands of civilians" (22–23). These competing views of the empire's future, Kinkel maintains, "were mutually incompatible" (65) with regard to both the governance of the navy and to the conceptual structure of the empire as a whole. While those in the metropole continued to debate between the positions, the increasingly authoritarian naval presence in the western Atlantic pushed colonists to the patriot view and led to growing resistance. In Kinkel's depiction, the authoritarian/patriot debate concerning naval organization presaged the revolutionary pivot as North American colonists came to see the navy not as their protector but as their oppressor after 1763.
Kinkel argues that other historians (especially N. A. M. Rodger) treat the navy as something outside the parliamentary maneuvering of the eighteenth century.1 While Rodger's work centers on "integrating the story of naval administration with the story of naval warfare," Disciplining the Empire complicates the traditional narrative of the rise of the British navy's maritime supremacy by linking the debates over restructuring the navy to larger philosophical struggles over what kind of empire Britons sought to build.2 As such, this book is in useful conversation with works such as Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford's Rage for Order, which analyzes the legal-philosophical underpinnings of empire in the nineteenth century.3 Somewhat more narrowly, Kinkel might best be identified as part of a rising scholarly interest that focuses on the development of bureaucratic frameworks that came to structure the British imperial project, much as Nathan Perl-Rosenthal has done with the codification of national identity in the revolutionary Atlantic and Asheesh Kapur Siddique has done with imperial record keeping.4 [End Page 577]
Although a valuable contribution, Disciplining the Empire could have done more. Like the views of the authoritarians who pushed for a hierarchical navy (and empire), the book's analysis is largely top-down. Despite Kinkel's rich use of materials such as ballads and pamphlets to bring in popular perspectives, there is little here that delves into the world below the officer corps. Indeed, though Kinkel's political analysis is excellent, her use of popular sources fails to tease out fully the links between the popular and political realms over the patriot/authoritarian divide.5 Kinkel does acknowledge the presence of patriot and even more radical resistance to naval hierarchy within the maritime world, but Disciplining the Empire is hard to square with the internationalism, radicalism, and resistance in the maritime world that appears in the works of scholars who insist we must take seriously the notion of a "Red Atlantic" both within and beyond the naval service.6 Moreover, though the book's central argument is clearly one about British politics and policy, it might nevertheless have been useful to look at the growing body of scholarship taking a comparative, transnational approach to eighteenth-century navies.7 The omission of maritime radicalism and its transnational aspects makes Disciplining the Empire somewhat more parochial than it might otherwise be. Finally, the failure to link more explicitly the growing colonial fear of the navy to this longstanding maritime resistance is a missed opportunity. The project might have been extended, ending not with the American revolt against an increasingly authoritarian empire in the 1770s but with the mass naval mutinies of 1797 at Nore and Spithead. These too were in no small measure responses to the naval reform of the previous half century, and they in turn set off a related series of debates about the role and structure of the navy and its place in British society.
Ultimately, Kinkel provides an essential contribution by carefully historicizing the political and philosophical underpinnings of the Royal Navy. She argues persuasively that the navy was not always and uniformly seen as the pride of Britain and the wellspring of imperial power, thus undoing a powerful residual Victorian-era assumption that has long blinded historians to the true complexity of the navy's role and development in the creation of Great Britain. [End Page 578]
1. N. A. M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (London, 1996), 31.
2. See Isaac Land's review of N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815 (New York, 2004), in Land, "Tidal Waves: The New Coastal History," review essay, Journal of Social History 40, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 731–43 (quotation, 734).
3. Lauren Benton and Lisa Ford, Rage for Order: The British Empire and the Origins of International Law, 1800–1850 (Cambridge, Mass., 2016); see also David Armitage, The Ideological Origins of the British Empire (Cambridge, 2000); Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837 (New Haven, Conn., 2003).
4. Nathan Perl-Rosenthal, Citizen Sailors: Becoming American in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge, Mass., 2015); Asheesh Kapur Siddique, "Paperwork, Governance, and Archive in the British Empire during the Age of Revolutions" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 2016).
5. Margarette Lincoln, Representing the Royal Navy: British Sea Power, 1750–1815 (Burlington, Vt., 2002), 41–77.
6. See Jesse Lemisch, "Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America," William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 25, no. 3 (July 1968): 371–407; Lawrence Osborne, "A Pirate's Progress: How the Maritime Rogue Became a Multicultural Hero," Lingua Franca 8, no. 2 (March 1998); Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston, 2000); Paul A. Gilje, Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia, 2004); Peter A. Coclanis, "Atlantic World or Atlantic/World?," WMQ 63, no. 4 (October 2006): 725–42.
7. Niklas Frykman, "Seamen on Late Eighteenth-Century European Warships," International Review of Social History 54, no. 1 (April 2009): 67–93.