Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Merchant Ships Ruled the Waves

It's my pleasure to welcome Stephen Baines to the salon, to tell us of a time when merchant ships ruled the waves!


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History used to be taught in the United Kingdom as a series of battles on land and sea, usually depicted as heroic British victories. The 18th Century was presented as the glorious Age of Sail in which the Royal Navy ruled the seas, due to its wonderful ships and fearless Admirals. It was not quite like that. Two questions need to be asked: Why did Britain want to rule the seas? And how was it achieved?

A crucial factor in beginning to answer these questions was the merchant marine. In the mid to late 18th Century there were some 81,000 British-owned ships, of which the Royal Navy owned a mere 5%, and of those only 270 were ships-of-the-line. Not enough, by themselves, to rule the waves. 

The 95% were merchant ships, and The Royal Navy needed them. The Admiralty hired and bought merchant ships as victuallers, storeships, troopships, and for voyages of exploration.
The Endeavour Replica. Endeavour  was a merchant ship, then bought and later sold by the Admiralty, was again a merchant ship and was contracted out to the Admiralty as a transport.
The Endeavour Replica. Endeavour  was a merchant ship, then bought and later sold by the Admiralty, was again a merchant ship and was contracted out to the Admiralty as a transport.
The 18th-century marine contribution to warfare was largely overlooked until the work of Ralph Davis and David Syrett.
Money spent by the Navy hiring transports during the Seven Years War. £50,000 pounds then was roughly equivalent to a billion pounds today. (Data fromTNA 106/3524.listed in Syrett Shipping and Military Power in the Seven Years War.)
Money spent by the Navy hiring transports during the Seven Years War. £50,000 pounds then was roughly equivalent to a billion pounds today. (Data fromTNA 106/3524.listed in Syrett Shipping and Military Power in the Seven Years War.)

Reciprocally the merchant marine needed the Royal Navy because the reason why it was important to rule the seas was to protect and expand trade. An island like Britain must be a maritime trading nation, and to safeguard the wealth which commerce could bring, the merchant shipping had to be supported and protected by the government. 

The common assumption was that there was only a finite quantity of commerce, so the more that was had by other nations the poorer and weaker a country would be. Britain’s main trade rivals were the Dutch, the French and the Spanish; and the 18th Century can to an extent be considered as a struggle between these four countries to gain the largest slice of the mercantile cake.
The Custom House London, a temple to commerce.
The Custom House London, a temple to commerce.

Voyages of discovery, like those of James Cook, were undoubtedly scientific ventures, but primarily they were to refine navigation and to help find new territories which had commercial potential: either because they had a useful flora (and to a lesser extent fauna), or as customers for British products, or as a victualling stop. Ideally all three. As a harpooner claimed possession of a whale for his ship by being the first to plunge his harpoon into it, so an explorer planting a Union flag on an uncharted island claimed it for Britain. If another of the major maritime powers contended ownership, there were problems, as in the festering Falkland Islands, which escalated to the brink of war in 1771. Endeavour and the kit-ship Penguin played an important part in the aftermath. Clayton, master of Penguin, made a thorough scientific account of the plants and wildlife of the islands; but his main intention was to evaluate the usefulness of the islands. He concluded that the climate was ‘very agreeable to European Constitutions’ and that the Falklands could be ‘a good port to touch at for Refreshment in the Passage round Cape Horn’.

The goals of Enlightenment and Commerce frequently clashed. Joseph Banks was not simply finding and classifying new plants, but also ascertaining their properties and, if possible, transplanting them into different places where they could be useful and profitable. 

 A breadfruit tree, Artocarpus altilis.
 A breadfruit tree, Artocarpus altilis.

Benjamin Franklin helped persuade the French to join the Americans in their struggle for independence; the French sent them gunpowder manufactured according to Antoine Lavoisier’s latest and secret process. The details of Cook’s Endeavour voyage were shrouded in secrecy. 

But on the other hand Franklin persuaded the American Navy and also Louis XV not to attack Cook’s ships as his mission was for thebenefit of Mankind’. Banks, Franklin, Lavoisier and Cook were all Fellows of the Royal Society, where knowledge was shared.


Stephen Baines’ new book “Captain Cook’s Merchant Ships”, which has been described as ‘marvellous’ and ‘a must read’, is published by The History Press www.thehistorypress.co.uk.


Captain Cook sailed in or with eight ships which began as merchant vessels. This detailed history tells the story of these vessels and the people who sailed in them. In placing these ships and people in the personal, political, social, financial, scientific and religious contexts of their time, this book provides a comprehensive and readable account of the ‘long eighteenth century.’

Using contemporary sources, this gripping narrative fills a gap in Cook history and attempts to catch something of the exciting, violent, gossipy but largely untaught and unknown period through which these vessels and their people sailed literally and figuratively between the old world and the new.


Written content of this post copyright © Stephen Baines, 2015.

2 comments:

  1. I love this post! I've got a bit of a thing for those tall ships....

    ReplyDelete