British Naval Supremacy: Some Factors Newly Considered

“As for a man-of-war, it is either an autocracy or it is nothing, nothing at all – mere nonsense. You saw what happened to the poor French navy at the beginning of the Revolutionary War…” – Jack Aubrey to Stephen Maturin, The Yellow Admiral

British Naval Supremacy: Some Factors Newly Considered
By Mitch Williamson

Strategic Considerations

Until after the defeat of the French invasion attempt of 1759, no British government was altogether sure how much internal Jacobite support would rally to a French or Spanish landing in such force, nor at the end of the Eighteenth-Century could anyone be sure of Irish reaction if such a force landed there. The year’s events of 1796, showed moreover, that in particular weather conditions even the Royal Navy could not be a certain protection against such landings.

French colonial trade grew in value from an average 35.2 million livres per annum in 1715-20 to 137.9 million livres 1749-55. The size and value of French overseas commerce continued to expand until 1790. Its share of world trade grew from 8% in 1720 to 12% in 1780, and its merchant fleet from 150,000 tons in 1730 to 574,000 in 1785. This obliged the French to send out their Navy to defend that trade and empire, which exposed it to defeat as in 1747, and it enabled Britain to fight effectively on its strengths at sea and overseas, rather than on France’s strength on the Continent-provided Britain could shut off France’s ability to dispatch that naval strength overseas. By contrast Britain and her dominions had 16,079 merchant ships in 1792, amounting to 1 ½ million tons of shipping, employing 118,286 men during that year of peace. By 1800 there was 1.8 million tons of merchant shipping, this expansion despite the warfare and privateering waged upon the oceans. This expansion demonstrates and underpins Britain’s fundamental economic strength and effective naval strategic advantages.

In 1759 the decisive crippling of French naval strength, was triumphantly achieved by the Western Squadron, which simultaneously defended Britain from invasion and protected British attacks on the French Empire in Canada and the West Indies against interception from France.

The invasion threat was finally smashed by Boscawen and Hawke in 1759. During 1740-60 the combined fleets of Spain and France would have stretched the Royal Navy considerably. This was also assisted by Austria (Britain’s ally of the 1740’s, during the War of Austrian Succession) delaying the breaking of Spain’s neutrality till 1762. Thus the Royal Navy could concentrate on destruction of the French Navy and therefore the French overseas empire. The Royal Navy expanded from 173 ships (100,000 tons) in 1688 to 755 ships (over 500,000 tons) in sea service in 1809.


One policy that the Royal Navy developed far ahead of its French rival was the establishment of naval bases overseas: Minorca in 1709, English Harbour, Antigua, and Port Royal, Jamaica, in the 1730s, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, between 1757 and 1759. Careening, naval stores, supply, victualling and hospital facilities were established at these bases, thus enabling the Navy to maintain an all round presence in permanent stations as opposed to the French practice of sending out squadrons from Europe for short periods each year. Two naval yards in the Caribbean, where France had none, enabled Britain to establish local superiority for most of the mid-eighteenth-century wars, while the establishment of a permanent naval presence at Halifax in 1757 was a vital part of the throttling of the French supply line to Canada which in turn led to French Canada’s final surrender in 1760. During the wars against Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France the main overseas bases had increased to Cape of Good Hope, Malta and Bermuda, with store depots at Barbados, Minorca, Martinique, Lisbon and San Domingo. Also temporary bases had been established at one time or another at Ajacco and Alexandria during this time. Even the island of Heligoland, taken from the Danes in 1807, had a British naval harbourmaster appointed to control naval affairs. The East India Company’s Bombay and Madras ports were also supporting the British Navy. Indeed a dry-dock was established at Bombay as early as 1750, several more built over the years following. One enabling the dry-docking of a ship-of-the line as large as a 74 being partly completed in 1806 followed by another in 1810.

A major factor extending the parameters of British naval power were the number of dockyards which facilitated the major overhaul of warships, with twenty-three home dry docks in 1793-6 as against eight in French and eight in Spanish yards, the Royal Navy could turn around more ships at a faster rate than its rivals. Britain’s private shipbuilding capacity enabled her to free her naval dockyards to concentrate on the operational maintenance of the fleet.

Private yards built 29% of SOL in 1688-1755

52% of SOL in 1756-1815

This was a resource which the French were acutely conscious that they lacked.

Manpower Problems

During this period Britain had built a vast merchant marine. In 1785 it equaled: 2 times France’s 4 times Holland’s and 10 times Spain’s. It was difficult to recruit merchant seaman into the Royal Navy as to not devastate Britain’s trade by taking too many merchant seamen. The comparison of the personnel available from the merchant marine and the Royal navy’s peacetime establishment is as follows:

1793: Britain’s merchant seamen 118,000

1792: Naval peacetime level 17,000

By comparison in 1793 there were 60,000 French merchant seamen, so the French naval recruitment base was about half that available to the British.

The Royal Navy’s expansion to meet wartime manning levels is indicated below.

War Establishment Manpower:

War of Austrian Succession 44,861 in 1748

Seven Years War 84,797 in 1762

American War of Independence 107,446 in 1783

Napoleonic Wars 142,098 in 1810

Manpower – particularly vital skills; which would take at least two years of sea-going experience to acquire; was a significant factor in the efficiency and the backbone of any Navy. This elite group of petty officers and able seamen who could work the sails aloft constituted only a fifth of a ships of the line’s company, but without them the ship could not be sailed.

This important point serves to highlight an often unappreciated factor behind British success in its two most successful naval wars of the period, the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic War, in that by catching so much French shipping at sea by an unexpected attack before the declaration of war (1756) or by a surprise declaration of war (1803), the Royal Navy was able to inflict an initial crippling blow on its French counterpart by capturing large numbers of these skilled and indispensable French petty officers and able seamen. By May 1757 over 14,406 French seamen lay in British prisons, including 4,703 petty officers and ables – sufficient to work up to thirty ships of the line. The British were also loathe to give these skilled French seamen up, exchanging on a ‘man for man’ basis only the unskilled or invalid prisoners, thus ensuring the a manpower experience superiority. During the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars relations between the British and French governments was at a nadir. This lack of civil communication meant that prisoners of war of both nations had to endure long periods of debilitating confinement. As there was a great disparity of seamen/officer prisoners in favour of the British, this created difficulties in such rare prisoner exchanges as occurred. The British insisting on parity of exchange in rank and numbers. It became increasingly difficult for the French to find enough prisoners of suitable rank, leading to British retention of the greater bulk of their prisoners of war. Only 12,000 British naval prisoners were held in French prisons between 1803 and 1815.

Recent research has re-established the qualitative differences between service in the Navy and in the merchant marine, and has overthrown previous assumptions by showing a balance of advantages by no means unfavourable to the Navy. It shows how, in these circumstances, personal relationships which encouraged volunteering could play an important part in naval recruitment, either by professional acquaintance to secure the ables, or by local connection to secure the landsmen and ordinary seamen necessary to haul on ropes and man the guns. The admiralty’s replacement of this personal recruitment system by increasing use of the Impress Service in the later eighteenth-century broke that bond and heightened problems of recruitment, retention and relations or board ships.

Was the Impress necessary due to the demand of the personnel establishment? The Navy was always short of crew. Desertion was endemic in the wartime Navy: probably some 40,000 of the 185,000 enlistments in the Seven Years War. The figures for the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary War being 42,000 for both. It was a drain, but its impact can be exaggerated. The desertion rate in the Seven Years War was contained at a replaceable seven per cent per annum. Higher pay would always be bettered by the merchant marine, so that better treatment in the Navy, greater attention and care by officers for their crews, was the necessary remedy.

Hygiene and Medical Welfare

The British seem to have made greater efforts in hygiene and medical welfare than their maritime rivals, particularly in the second half of the eighteenth-century. On the two occasions when the French established control of the home waters, in 1690 and 1779, it was the violent impact of disease which drove them back to port rather than the effort of the Royal Navy. Typhus and above all scurvy were the main scourges. The former was containable through better hygiene, the later through regular revictualling with fresh meat and vegetables. Sir Gilbert Blane and Dr Thomas Trotter, both medical men, should be given greatest credit, as they were instrumental in having fruits and juice made available on a permanent basis. That combined with better education and awareness among captains and admirals, meant that by 1795 the British Navy had far less incidences of scurvy, the main killer disease of ships’ personnel. However the regularity of supply had to be painstakingly and expensively constructed; and it was always precarious. When in the American War of Independence it broke down, of 175,993 men raised between 1776 and 1780, 18,545 died of disease, compared to 1,243 killed in action.


1. British Privateering Enterprises in the Eighteenth Century

David J. Sharkey 359.000941 1990 BRI

2. Parameters of British Naval Power 1650-1850

Edited by Michael Duffy 359.941 1992 PAR

3. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization 1793-1815

Brian Lavery ISBN 0 85177 521 7 Revised Edition 1990

The author wishes to thank Albert C.E. Parker for the invaluable additional information and his insightful suggestions.

Appendix One

Courtesy of Mitch Williamson*.
Image: The Battle of Copenhagen by Nicholas Pocock.

*Does anyone have contact information for him? I was unable to contact him to ask for his permission to post this…

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

Recently Entered in the Log

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1 Comment on British Naval Supremacy: Some Factors Newly Considered

  1. Did US shipyards build any French ships following the War of Independence? Outside of privateers. Interesting read, I had no idea the French didn’t keep any far flung bases to resupply their ships.

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