Professor Jeremy Black, prominent lecturer and author, has given us in 370 pages an extensive history of England as shown through her merchant fleets and navy over hundreds of years.
Starting in the Middle Ages, when England was part of a Scandanavian Empire, all the way through to the late 20th century Canary Wharf, which at one time was a large dockland lauching pad for ships but is now converted to modern high rise buildings holding financial institutions and corporations (and much to the chagrin of Prince Charles, who called it a rash of carbuncles) Black takes us along a journey of centuries, of the building up and the breaking down of the tradition that is England and its seaborne adventure.
Being an island, it has always been evident that England would take to ships, for not only fishing, but exploration, trade and import/export. Initially, shipping was used as a logistical means of moving superior English wool and cloth to the continent. Along with this, came the development of the navy. Naval strength in the 16th century was the single most costly, and technologically advanced weapons system of the period. Warships were effective mobile artillery platforms that were not possible on land. Advances in technology allowed for heavy cannon that could propel solid shot at long distances accurately, and would allow a stand-off naval battle, thus preventing boarding, although ships did come in close quarters and boarding was of importancce in a sea battle.
The largest crisis to face England in the reign of Elizabeth I was the Spanish Armada, and although outgunned and outnumbered, British tenacity held firm, and nature favored England after the battle by destroying much of the seemingly impregnable Spanish fleet.
The West Indies were exploited as a result of seaborne operations, where tobacco was swiftly introduced and brought back to England from St. Christopher, Barbados and other islands. British ships unfortunately also did a huge business in transporting slaves. Between 1691 and 1779, 2,141,900 slaves were taken from African ports (with the consent of local tribes)and Briish colonial ships took another 124,000. Most ended up in the West Indies and the balance in America.
It was through ships that settlers went to America and Canada and points farther away such as Australia, New Zealand and Africa. The dispatch of convicts to provide labor in the colonies (along with indentured servants) was important and a good instance of how colonies were to accomodate what was seen as a surplus population.
By 1650, England was engaged in a long naval struggle with the Dutch, which was not always successful, but by 1694 the Bank of England was established which facilitated trade across the globe and allowed England to create a funded national debt to help pay for the cost of war and trade.
In the years leading up to World War I, England was engaged in a costly arms race against Germany and her drive to build a large navy. For an island nation, a formidable navy is not a luxury but a necessity, and both sides poured enormous amounts of money into a race that drained resources and left other programs lacking, but during the war, England was able to thwart Germany's moves against her as far as surface ships, but the undersea boat was another matter.
In the years after the war, the empire faced difficulties in various regions. A rebellion in Iraq cost 40 million pounds to suppress, as well as the 25 million pounds per year to garrison troops there. With the accumulated debt from the war, austerity became more important. Winston Churchill made matters worse, when in 1925, as a sign of imperial power, he took the country back to the gold standard, which was disastrous for the economy. It was a futile gesture as more and more of the remaining colonial possessions were starting to show problems.
The world Depression of the 1930's reduced investment for colonial development and caused great financial difficulties at home and in the dominions.
By the time of World War II, when England did survive her darkest hours, it was evident that her place was to be greatly reduced in the world, and yet, the influence of a seaborne England are still very much with us today, in various parts of the globe and most importantly in the English speaking people all over the planet. There are those revisionists that attempt to defame the British colonial experiences (see Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revoltas well as others, but Black quickly denounces this as ahistorical.
I enjoyed this book very much. It is not a casual read. Professor Black does not waste words. His writings are concise but full of information and I would recommend this book for the serious historian.