The Royal Navy 1793-1800 by Mark Jessop

The Royal Navy 1793-1800 by Mark Jessop

Considering the short length of the book (159 pp) this is an incredibly detailed look at the Royal Navy rising to the challenge of the French Revolutionary War, a war we did not choose. All manner of aspects are studied - shipbuilding and repair, armament, manning, life on board a wooden wall, victualling etc. Jessop usefully reminds us of the way the naval war impacted the lives of people far removed from actual sea service, in farm and forest and manufactory. We see how the naval war reached deep into the life of our country in all sorts of ways. All of this is backed up by very deep research and informed by the author's own RN sea service. It includes what are in effect monographs on, for instance, the Press and the surgeon and his role. Somehow the whole sweep is crammed in from the diplomatic, political and strategic to the logistical, with excellently clear accounts of major actions like St Vincent and the Nile.

I have a problem with the presentation. In order to tell his story Jessop invents anonymous fictional characters to whom are ascribed actions and thoughts which are used to illuminate and link the narrative. I found this intrusive and unwelcome; sometimes the boundary between fiction and fact seemed somewhat blurred. This is such a pity because Jessop's analysis and grasp of detail is absolutely excellent.

Removing these passengers might have made room for some of the footnote material (not the direct source citations) to find its place in the main text - but it was a relief, for once, not to have to run a second marker at the back of the book for extraneous titbits. The bibliography is extensive, the eleven black and white illustrations I thought well-chosen, and the ten maps are well conceived.

Jessop's subtitle is 'The Birth of a Superpower'. His theme is that it was in this particular period that Britain emerged as a superpower. I'm not sure that the case is made. There had been two competing powers in the previous two centuries, Spain and France, and the Royal Navy had put both back in their box in several wars before this one. We did not emerge totally victorious and triumphant until 1815 brought us the Pax Britannica, dearly bought on our bloodstained gundecks, by when we had wiped the deck with all competitors. The process of getting there can be traced back to Drake, who and whose successors imbued the Royal Navy with the necessary belief that victory was ours by right. I think Jessop's claim over-eggs the cake, which is a pity as his story happily stands alone as valuable naval history without that gloss.

My criticisms apart, the book is still a welcome addition to my naval history library.

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