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About this book

O'Hara presents the first general history of Britons' relationship with the surrounding oceans from 1600 to the present day. This all-encompassing account covers individual seafarers, ship-borne migration, warfare and the maritime economy, as well as the British people's maritime ideas and self perception throughout the centuries.

Table of Contents

Histories

1. Histories

Abstract
The last two decades have transformed British maritime history. Concerns central to non-maritime scholarship have colonised this field, which has then allowed oceanic history to influence other areas of study in its turn. Economics, trading and business once dominated the history of the sea, but the sub-discipline has been transformed under the pressure of globalisation. At least six new areas of study are noticeable in this respect, and they constitute themes that will then be pursued through the rest of the book. The first is the manner in which oceanic traders’ contacts and routes increasingly came to resemble those ‘networks’ that, contemporary social scientists and philosophers are convinced, characterise late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century societies in the developed world. The second major development is a renewed interest in the nature of oceanic regions, appropriate perhaps in a world grouping itself into political and trading blocs. Third, the ‘new’ maritime history is critically concerned with divisions of labour and social histories of those ‘below decks’, an understandable development in a globalising world often criticised for deepening international class divides through the free movement of capital without any concomitant liberalisation of migration laws.
Glen O’Hara

The Flowing Tide

Frontmatter

2. Merchants

Abstract
This chapter investigates Britain’s rise to world maritime commercial, trading and shipbuilding predominance. At the outbreak of the First World War, ships registered in the United Kingdom carried 40 per cent of all seaborne trade, and Britons owned one-third of the world’s merchant marine. This was an extraordinary transformation for the nations of the British Isles, which in 1600 were politically divided and economically weak, traded mainly with Scandinavia, the Netherlands and the Iberian Peninsula and, for the most part, exported only cloth in return for luxury consumables. How had this change occurred? It will be suggested here that it had four main components. An increasingly aggressive assertion of state power, as embodied in chartered companies and the seventeenth-century Navigation Acts, attacked Spanish and Dutch influence both in the Atlantic and in Asia. Secondly, Britain’s deep and secure western harbours, and a geographical position that made it relatively simple and quick to sail to the Americas, allowed the British to establish a plantation culture in the New World. Goods from these settlements then helped to foster a culture of consumption, novelty and fashion back at home.
Glen O’Hara

3. Renegades

Abstract
Between the 1660s and the 1720s, the so-called golden age of piracy saw many thousands of Britons fighting as renegades, not — as they later posed — as law-givers and benevolent peacekeepers. They had for centuries imagined pirates as ‘corsairs’ — Muslim privateers who seized thousands of Europeans in the eastern Atlantic or in the Mediterranean, and then sold them on into slavery. Britons who joined the corsairs were condemned as both religious and national traitors. Now that picture changed as Britain’s own pirates roamed the sea-lanes, at first striking at Spanish treasure routes on the lines of Elizabethan privateers, but gradually turning their attentions to any shipping that came within their grasp. This world was characterised by constant movement in and out of the realm of ‘legality’, as well as by the sudden and often-vicious application of violence. The Victorians’ invention of later romantic figures such as Captain Hook, excitingly evil as they are made to seem, distracted from much of this given the exotic nature of the villains. But the reality was usually more prosaic. Merchant captains would become privateers, fighting under crown commissions but primary for profit, and then — failing to secure employment at the peace — turn to piracy as a way of continuing to make quick and easy money in attacks on merchant shipping.
Glen O’Hara

4. Slavers

Abstract
For nearly 200 years Britain was the world’s pre-eminent slaving power. British ships transported over three million enslaved black Africans across the Atlantic, mainly to work on plantations in the Caribbean and South America. The entire Atlantic economy that the British built in the eighteenth century, including that of the 13 mainland American colonies, was built around this trade. There were few products that were moved across the oceans, and few ports, that were not implicated in the shipment of captive peoples. West Africa, from whence most of the slaves came, became a key outlet for British manufactures and commodities in the early years of industrialisation within Britain itself. The slaves helped to build up enormous fortunes for the planter classes of the New World — and for many of the maritime trading elites who built Britain’s port cities. Although the profits of the trade itself were not as high as previous generations of historians estimated, the classic ‘triangular trade’ and its various offshoots and guises formed one vital component of Britain’s trading system. A constant stream of human misery was carried on the seas: beatings and abuse were rife, conditions were appalling and suicides were common.
Glen O’Hara

5. Migrants

Abstract
For three centuries, Britain experienced Europe’s most sustained long-term migration, as well as divesting itself of the most people relative to its population among the larger European powers. British migrants peopled large tracts of the world, first in the Caribbean, then in ‘mainland’ North America and then across the world in Britain’s new acquired colonies and territories. Three hundred million people could claim descent from the peoples of the British Isles by the end of the twentieth century. Very high proportions of Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders, in particular, could trace their lineage back to British roots. Many in the early days of North American settlement emigrated out of a desire for religious redemption, though even among the ‘Puritans’ there were many simply searching for more and better paid jobs and cheap land. Some migrants were being driven off the land, many of them from the Highlands of Scotland and especially in the second part of the eighteenth century, or being made redundant from their recession-prone crafts, the experience of many ‘Irish Scots’ from Ulster’s linen industry. It is these privations, quite apart from Scots’ general and long-noted tendency to leave their native country for work, that help explain the presence of so of their countrymen among the British migrations.
Glen O’Hara

6. Warriors

Abstract
The Royal Navy was the most obvious, and the most important, symbol and tool of British maritime power. New technologies, skilful crewmen and high morale granted Britain a long period of being the most important naval power in the world. From around the time of the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, to the rise of German naval power in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Britain’s navy unquestionably ‘ruled the waves’. The period from 1815 to the 1890s is even known as the pax Britannica — the ‘British peace’ — and the power and prestige of the Royal Navy rose to its height in this period. The ‘two power standard’ formally adopted towards the end of that period meant that, not only could British ships defeat the next most powerful fleet, but the two largest rival navies in the world in alliance. But what explains this dominance, and this insistence on a ‘blue water’ strategy that could project force anywhere in the world? This chapter considers the rise of English and then British naval power to the point where it became the most important strategic force in the world. It traces the rise of naval dominance to the mid-seventeenth century, a time of ideological and economic disputation with the Dutch Republic that ended in three wars and that helped put England on the road to maritime supremacy.
Glen O’Hara

The Ebbing Tide

Frontmatter

7. Victories?

Abstract
Histories of Britain’s war effort in the twentieth century have often been dominated by a ‘declinist’ outlook — painting each defeat or retreat as part of an overarching and in some ways inevitable decline, by which Britain was replaced by the USA as the world’s foremost military and maritime power. The historical narrative has also remained dominated by images of trench warfare during the First World War, and Fighter Command’s defence of the UK itself during the summer of 1940. Such approaches often underestimate the vital role, and the victories, of the Royal Navy during the prolonged struggles of 1914–18 and 1939–45. Without Britain’s preponderance of naval might over her enemies, the country would not have been able to feed itself, re-equip its industries or move its armies. At key moments of national crisis below the oceans’ surface, when German submarines threatened to end the British war effort — in the spring of 1917, and during 1941–43 — British naval forces were able to forestall and deflect the threat. Her ability to threaten surface naval forces with decisive defeat was also a crucial reason why Britain was not effectively blockaded during the First World War, and it helps explain why Britain was able to continue with her war effort at all when she fought on alone against Nazi Germany in 1940–41.
Glen O’Hara

8. Immigrants

Abstract
By the twentieth century the British had been pouring out into the world for 300 years. They had peopled an entire Empire in successive waves culminating in the great emigration of the Edwardian period. They took and brought with them their language, habits, customs and ideas. But in the twentieth century the Empire itself began to ‘come home’. Hundreds of thousands of Imperial and Commonwealth citizens came to Britain itself, especially during the 1950s and 1960s, fundamentally altering the United Kingdom itself. ‘British’ culture — food, music, cinema and even the language itself — changed given the impact of these new immigrants. Those changes were slow in coming, and the indigenous population often resented and resisted them: racism, preconceptions and ingrained prejudices were all very common throughout the second half of the late twentieth century, though they abated somewhat as time went on. The new immigrants themselves had usually come by sea, at least initially. That meant that many of their experiences paralleled that of emigrants’ lives in the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Crowded bunks, slow and indirect journeys and seasickness were all just as prevalent as they had been in the previous great movements of Britons across the oceans.
Glen O’Hara

9. Collapse

Abstract
Much that was ‘British’ in the mid-twentieth century was still identified with the sea. Shipbuilding and shipping were the industrial image of Britain’s seafaring past and future. Seaside holidays constituted the popular image of how Britons spent their leisure time. Fishing was a large and vibrant industry, and ‘fish and chips’ the nation’s signature dish. The Royal Navy had won two conclusive victories over the German fleet. But this interlocking system would collapse very quickly after 1945. The crisis in shipbuilding and shipping was the most prolonged, since the entire free trade system upon which they had relied up to 1914 was destroyed by the First World War. Tariffs rose, trade contracted and the world economic crisis of the Depression caused demand for ships to stagnate or fall. After the Second World War, the inherent conservatism and failure to re-equip that characterised this industry became more evident with the rise of more ‘modern’ competitors such as Sweden and Japan: Britain’s share of the shipbuilding market contracted rapidly after the recession that affected the industry in the late 1950s. In shipping, ‘flagging out’, the practice whereby developed world companies employed ships flying flags of convenience to avoid high taxes and labour costs, caused the British rapidly to lose market share in that industry as well.
Glen O’Hara

10. Afterglow

Abstract
In 1982 the British Royal Navy went to war to re-assert British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, a tiny British territory off the coast of South America. The conflict was to usher in a new age for the navy, in which it was to be seen as more relevant to Britain’s defence needs. Although its numerical decline was to continue, the speed and depth of that process were slowed during the 1990s by the obvious continued need for amphibious forces. ‘Small wars’ — the increased number of far-flung conventional conflicts to which Britain’s service personnel were committed — also became important in the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. Taken together, these two facts prevented the continued run-down of the navy. Instead, it was re-equipped for a newly internationalist role in peacekeeping and enforcement, though it was still capable of largescale commitments against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. The confirmation of two new aircraft carrier orders in 2008 demonstrates that the Royal Navy can no longer be thought of as in even relative ‘decline’. Rather, its role and scale have necessarily shifted since the mid-twentieth century. This chapter argues, more broadly, that the general impression of disengagement from the sea, and the collapse of traditional maritime industries, has been exaggerated.
Glen O’Hara

11. Conclusion: A Star to Steer By?

Abstract
Britons’ trade, piracy, slavery and slaving, their migrations, technological breakthroughs and their writing home, were all fundamental to the rise of Britain’s transoceanic Empire and to the British peoples’ sense of themselves. The collapse of many of her maritime and coastal industries were yet one more symbol and cause of the post-industrial Britain that was forged late in the twentieth century. To that extent, these narratives are a necessary antidote to the narratives of land and air forged in a twentieth century dominated by the twin myths of the Flanders trenches of the First World War and the ‘finest hour’ of the RAF in the summer of 1940. ‘Blue’ and ‘grey’ stories of the ocean now seem more likely to take their proper place alongside these images, given the passing of time and its provision of increased detachment. Historians are now beginning to reassemble the maritime world that Britons once thought of as peculiarly theirs. One reason for this is the environmental crisis which faces the world’s oceans, increasingly a matter of public discussion and concern in the early twenty-first century. But there are many other sources of likely historiographical innovation in the next decade or so, all driven by the social and academic changes that are transforming contemporary Britain.
Glen O’Hara
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