The State of Aubrey’s Royal Navy

Caricaturist unknown. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Conversation Across the Water; John Bull and Napoleon

Just what kind of situation is Jack getting himself into when he takes command of the Sophie in Master and Commander?

The Naval Balance

The naval balance of power during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was one-sided, with Britain having so large and powerful a fleet it could match all the other sea-faring nations put together. Reasonably, but not completely, safe behind the “Wooden Walls” of the Royal Navy, Britain was able to continue its world trade and empire building knowing that an invasion by France would be extremely unlikely.

While a large number of ships were allocated to controlling the English Channel and trading routes, Britain was the only power to actively send its vessels out to attack enemy warships. For most nations, warships were too expensive to risk but, for Britain, whose industrial might and wealth were really beginning to blossom, it was a sensible policy to weaken or destroy navies that could pose a risk to the island nation’s home shores.

The authorities in London were ruthless about preventing France getting its hands on extra ships and in 1797, 1801 and 1807 sailed to destroy the neutral or French-allied vessels of Holland and Denmark.

At Camperdown in 1797, Admiral Duncan pitted his 16 ships against 16 Dutch warships under Admiral de Winter and destroyed the enemy fleet – capturing seven Dutchmen and allowing the rest to flee.

In 1801, the Admiralty sent an expedition against Denmark to break up a northern European agreement, the Armed Neutrality of the North, that threatened British trade and shipbuilding materiel – wood, rope, grain and tar – in the Baltic Sea. The naval battle of Copenhagen was a British victory that saw 12 of 18 Danish vessels captured and ended the threat to its trade.

In 1807, Britain again moved against Denmark when it became known there was a French move to grab the Danish fleet. Admiral Gambier took 20 ships of the line and an infantry force of some 20,000 men – including Arthur Wellesley – to prevent the vessels falling into French hands.

A two-week siege began and a Danish military move to break the blockade was ended by Wellesley’s infantry. The bombardment of the capital by the Royal Navy forced neutral Denmark to hand over its 18 ships to London.

In 1809, Britain launched the Walcheren Expedition and one of its aims was to destroy the large docks in Antwerp. Incompetence by its commander Lord Chatham and an appalling outbreak of Walcheren Fever, which cost 4000 troops their lives, meant the venture failed miserably.

While Britain’s efforts to maintain its naval supremacy may have seemed obsessive, figures show that it was right to do so. In 1807, France’s fleet – crippled by the disaster at Trafalgar – could count on 34 ships of the line. Britain, in contrast, had more than 100. However, within six years the French had 80 major warships – with a further 35 under construction – while the Royal Navy had 102.

When the other potentially hostile, or neutral, fleets are added to the mix, Britain no longer had such a massive advantage.

Conditions of the Fleets

At the start of the Revolutionary Wars the Royal Navy was not in top shape and it took several years before the cobwebs were shaken out of the ships and system. Many of the leading admirals were too old and the young commanders who would rise to greatness had yet to be given their opportunity.

Britain’s problems were nothing to those suffered by the French navy, which by the 1790s was but a shadow of a force that had, on occasion, looked like threatening the maritime power of the Royal Navy. Financially strapped, the French treasury in the late 18th Century was even more penny-pinching than its British equivalent.

On top of that, the best French sailors had fled the Revolution and their replacements were hamstrung by poor quality crews and their own inexperience. But, the French ships were – vessel for vessel – of a better quality than the Royal Navy’s and were very maneuverable and fast.

As the wars progressed the largely harbor-bound French, having been bottled up by British blockades, were no match for their enemy in a fight at sea. Regular gun practice while under sail gave the Royal Navy’s gunners a huge advantage, as did the new flintlock firing mechanisms that allowed for more accurate sighting on the cannon.

In an even more desperate state than the French, however, were the Spanish. Long a naval power, a lack of funds left Spain’s massive vessels rotting and its poorly treated sailors were almost useless. The officers were proud of their nation’s maritime history but, in terms of ability, did little study to keep up with rival modern navies.

Denmark and Sweden had powerful fleets, but these were limited to local waters in the Baltic.

Holland had a fine, efficient navy but, again, a tight government purse limited it to small numbers and it could not match its across-the-North Sea neighbor.

There were two navies, however, that were on the rise – those of Russia and America. Russia kept its maritime interests to the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea and, for the main part, was anti-French in its stance.

America’s small navy rivaled the British for ability and while it was never strong enough to end a Royal Navy blockade of its east coast, in one-on-one duels performed very well indeed.

Fleet Sizes in Jack Aubrey’s Day

Ships of the Line, 1808-1809
Britain France Spain Holland Russia Denmark Sweden Portugal
* Combined Fleets
Britain’s Ships of the Line
Divided into four naval commands: The North Sea Fleet, The Channel Fleet, the Mediterraenean Squadron and the Baltic Fleet.
France’s Ships of the Line
* Combined Fleet With Spain.
** Excluding 35 under construction
America’s Warships

Courtesy of The Napoleonic Guide.

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