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Margarette Lincoln. Representing the Royal Navy: British Sea Power, 1750-1815. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. ISBN 0 7546 0830 1. Price: £37.50 (US$74.95).

  • Tim Fulford

…plus d’informations

  • Tim Fulford
    Nottingham Trent University

Corps de l’article

This study is a welcome addition to the growing body of work illuminating the cultural impact of the navy during the Romantic era. Students of literary Romanticism interested in the topical context for works such as Persuasion and Don Juan will find it a mine of thought-provoking information. Arranged as a thematic survey, the book covers the navy’s public image in all its facets. The first chapter deals with the navy’s self-image and demonstrates that sailors were themselves interacting with popular representations of the navy: common seamen published their stories of hardship and bravery to support themselves when invalided out of the service; officers campaigned for more impressive uniforms so as to display their status as gentlemen. Other officers commissioned portraits in uniform to establish their importance: the navy became a means of social climbing. Lincoln’s discussion is useful in that it contains much information of value for Romanticists: the words and pictures that sailors circulated can be put alongside works such as “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the “Sailor who served in the Slave Trade” and Persuasion. But the image the navy presented of itself was not uniform: some officers and men criticised practices such as flogging, lack of education and lack of religion, while others worried about patronage and corruption.

A chapter about the navy and politics shows the service becoming implicated in power struggles between the ministry and the opposition, struggles exacerbated when admirals were also MPs or were visibly connected, by marriage and/or patronage, to politicians. Lincoln shows how the romantic image of the naval officer as a gallant hero and of the common seaman as Jack Tar was manipulated for party purposes by MPs, pamphleteers and ministers. She sheds new light on the affair of Admiral Byng and the later trial of Admiral Keppel, who was also accused of failing to engage the French closely enough, showing how the very different outcomes of these courts martial were influenced by the kind and degree of public support that each could command. Regrettably, there is no account of the political effects of Nelson’s victories or of his scandalous affair with Lady Hamilton.

Lincoln turns next to the developing links between merchants and the navy. Here the thesis is not remarkable: unsurprisingly, men and companies who made fortunes by international trade argued for a well-funded and manned navy to protect shipping and secure entrepôts across the oceans. Yet if Lincoln has no new argument to make, she nevertheless unearths some fascinating details about the links between mercantile empire and the military. For instance, Liverpool merchants defended the slave trade on the grounds that it was a nursery for British seamen, a reservoir of trained sailors who would be of use to the navy in wartime. Lincoln also reveals how provincial worthies used naval heroes to cement their local prestige: by erecting monuments, funded by public subscription, to Rodney and Nelson they were able to demonstrate their region’s patriotism and munificence and exhibit their own power to marshall the local population. In addition to this, Lincoln looks at the boost given to new media by naval heroism: images of the romantic hero of heroes, Nelson, were so much in demand that manufacturers covered every surface they could devise a means of decorating. Stipple engraving, room dividers, globes and even clock-faces were imprinted with naval themes.

The next chapter, “Navy and Religious Opinion”, forms a useful contribution to histories of the evangelical movement. Lincoln examines the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, proto-revolutionary events that deeply alarmed the governing classes. She shows that Hannah More was drawn into publishing her Cheap Repository Tracts to counter the danger, and that she defined the sailor as a loyal but simple-minded creature in her propaganda – this at a time when press-ganged United Irishmen were spreading revolutionary politics in the fleet. More patronised the common seaman; nevertheless officers who were worried about discipline and themselves moved by the religious revival to clear their consciences ordered SPCK tracts and Bibles in great numbers for the benefit of the men. Whether this resulted in greater piety and order on board is not clear; it did produce, however, a gradual change in the navy’s public image. By 1815 sailors could be represented as Bible-reading patriots, rather than unruly drunken louts. Thus the middle-classes were able to feel proud, rather than suspicious, of the navy and to see it as a symbol not only of British strength but also of its mission to civilise. Whatever individual chaplains felt about the seamen’s immorality and ignorance, the country at large could exercise the canting assumption that Britain’s imperial forces were there to do good rather than to get and protect wealth.

The next chapter concerns women and the navy. One of the most useful for literary Romanticists, it contains an account of the many ballads about women who went to sea in men’s clothes (although it does not print the text of any). Lincoln also discusses the narrative of Hannah Snell, who successfully posed as a male sailor. She raises questions concerning working-women’s ability to transgress the gender roles prescribed for proper ladies. Next, Lincoln considers women’s role as consumers of memorabilia of naval victories and argues that their enthusiastic collection of items from teapots and trinkets to ballads and songs (which they performed at family parties) helped make the navy respectable and its officers eligible marriage-partners. It also, of course, contributed to the uniting of the nation in patriotic identification with its navy. The chapter closes with a useful discussion of Austen’s shrewd and nuanced portrait of naval officers on land (now inevitably somewhat superseded by the more detailed treatment in Brian Southam’s monograph Jane Austen and the Navy).

The penultimate chapter concerns the navy and its doctors. Here there is much fascinating information about the fight to find means of preventing scurvy, that dreadful disease that left rotten gums and, in its more advanced stages, led old wounds and even healed fractures to open and split. Lincoln shows that naval surgeons, of low social status in the eighteenth century, improved their reputation and claimed greater authority by campaigning in the press to impose closer medical and moral control on crews.

The book concludes by discussing events after the defeat of Napoleonic France, when the fleet was drastically reduced. Lincoln shows that the navy’s reputation declined as the army’s rose, quoting Austen’s Mr. Parker in Sanditon wishing he had not named his house after Trafalgar because “Waterloo is more the thing now” (186). With moneyless discharged crewmen begging in the streets, sailors were seen as a potential menace to society. At the same time, publications detailed the naval custom of allowing prostitutes to live on board ships in port. Respectable opinion was shocked and campaigns against improvement and against flogging gathered momentum. As the book ends, a navy reduced in size and reputation, but nevertheless a navy which the public still fundamentally supported, sailed into the long nineteenth century of British domination of the seas.