As we discussed in this post about British vs. French shipbuilding techniques, the alleged superiority of French shipbuilding during the Napoleonic Era is not accepted by all historians. The following article is a condensation of the text for an exhibit of rare nautical-themed manuscripts, and gives yet another perspective on that debate.
In general, Britain invested less in the design and modernisation of its fleet in the eighteenth century than the continental powers. British ships of the line tended to be shorter and smaller in tonnage than their French and Spanish counterparts; as a result they were often faster and more manoeuvrable. Because they were expected to see several decades of service (HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar, was launched at Chatham forty years before the famous battle), they also tended to be built of more durable materials.
The lasting popularity of Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine, first published in 1769 but reprinted several times between 1771 and 1802, appears to testify to the stability of British ship design; even in 1805, the publishers did not find it necessary substantially to revise text or illustrations, although some minor changes were made to reflect technological and terminological changes.
David Steel, in his preface to The Elements and Practice of Rigging and Seamanship, writes
In Great Britain the naval arts are indigenous, and flourish with a superiority, which is the result of a vast demand for their various labours. But, singular though it is, the British Nation cannot boast of having taught or considerably improved them by the efforts of her press.
He goes on to compare the paucity of British writers on naval matters with the wealth of French writers on the subject, attributing the latter to the French “consciousness of practical superiority”, which is in contrast to the “almost proverbial” reserve of the British. In compiling this work, he set out to record, articulate and illustrate best practice in British shipbuilding and rigging, a task made difficult not only by the reluctance of British shipwrights and seamen to divulge for publication what were prized as secrets of the craft but also by the fact that those he interviewed were generally “inexpert in the use of the pencil”. The result, however, provides an invaluable record of British naval practice on the eve of the Napoleonic period.
The British excelled in all the techniques of rigging; the superior use of ropes and sails was one of the reasons why French ships captured by the British and turned into British ships of the line generally sailed much faster once in the hands of the Royal Navy.
Courtesy of Katie Sambrook and King’s College London.