I had the honour and pleasure today of giving a talk to members of the Swedish Naval Academy, in the Board Room of the Old Admiralty Office. The OAO – officially these days known as the Ripley Building – is one of the most historic buildings in Britain, an early Georgian complex on Whitehall in the heart of the government quarter and for over 260 years the seat of naval operational management.
Since the OAO was refurbished in an extensive programme at the beginning of this century I have given formal and informal talks there quite a few times. Gaining permission to see the room at all is difficult as the whole building is part of a busy government department. Very occasionally it can be arranged for special groups, with the benefit of good contacts – today was organised by Captain Peter Hore through the good offices of the First Sea Lord. Every time I visit this wonderful room, built in 1695 for an earlier Admiralty Office and reconstructed in Thomas Ripley’s Office of 1726, I immediately feel the weight of history. This room has seen some of my country’s most significant decisions, and all the great British characters of the Golden Age of the sailing navy spent time here, many, like Admiral Nelson, taking part in strategy and executive planning at times of great danger.
As Peter and I Boxed-and-Coxed our way through the dramatic story of Lieutenant John Lapenotiere and the Trafalgar Dispatch, our audience sat in those red leather Georgian chairs like so many Admiralty Lord Commissioners and senior naval officers of earlier times. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rising as I told of William Marsden working at this very table late on a foggy night in November 1805, tired and apprehensive, waiting for news from the fleet far to the south. When Peter banged on the door and burst in, blurting out the news of the victory of Trafalgar and the death of Nelson – just as Lapenotiere had done over 200 years before – our little group gasped. They too felt the history.
Over a delightful lunch in The Clarence afterwards one of our guests said he thought that the British were more aware of their history than most other people. I’m not sure he was entirely right, in today’s world where British politicians and most of our people are sea-blind, and where history has been reduced to media presenters preening themselves in every shot, their own image deemed more important than the artefacts and events they are supposed to be discussing. But it got me thinking about the nature of naval history in Britain.
So for this blog I dusted off an article I wrote some years ago – if you read it in the BNRA Journal then, or on this website in the first two days after we launched on 16 September, you will have seen what follows; but visiting that lovely old building on Whitehall today, and discussing naval history in congenial company over a decent lunch prompted me to present it again. Let me know what you think.
Is our maritime and naval history relevant to Britain in the modern world, or is it just romantic, out-dated fodder for fiction? My own view, as a former naval officer, a business executive and now an academic historian, is that the history-as-heritage industry has confused the clear view we should have of the importance of a strong maritime base to our economy. It has become fashionable to dismiss advocates of a strong navy as crusty admirals harking back to a golden era that never existed, dusty antiquaries arguing about the minutiae of ship’s rigging in the age of sail, or half-grownup little boys endlessly re-enacting the battle of Trafalgar. The reality is that history has lessons which we must learn, and the evolution of global maritime power driving dynamic economies in the West was neither the first, nor the most important such event in world history, nor will it be the last. Asian states are rising again in economic and political power and their interest in the maritime economy is clearly linked to emerging strategic geo-policy and strengthening naval capability.
No matter what President Putin might say, Britain is not a small island, it is one of the largest maritime states on a maritime planet and we lose our maritime capability at the peril of losing our prosperity. Our naval history is an expression of that, and our naval heritage is one way in which the British people keep in touch with it. But in recent years the ‘heritage’ aspect has become more and more a part of the entertainment media, to the detriment of the appreciation and understanding of the real ‘history’ of our islands.
The resources available to the official custodians of historical records such as the National Archives and the National Maritime Museum in the United Kingdom are limited. It is after all, our money they spend and taxes have to fund much else of importance. But in recent years such funds have become stretched further, by the economic climate (hardly ‘austerity’ to anyone who remembers food rationing but certainly restricting for public institutions), and less understandably by the management of these bodies who seem to want to appease every vocal opinion, and have used their budgets to mount – in some cases – dumbed-down pastiches of their great collections. Increasingly, much of the materials they are employed to preserve and to make available to us, languish in distant repositories which are almost impossible to access by any but the most dedicated (and sometimes only the most favoured) researchers.
This makes the role of “amateur” naval history organisations such as the Society for Nautical Research, the Navy Records Society, the 1805 Club and the Britannia Naval Research Association, even more relevant and important. The 300th anniversary commemoration at Westminster Abbey and the House of Commons in 2007 – organised jointly in 2007 by the BNRA and The 1805 Club – of the loss of the Association and the death of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell showed just how important the work of our volunteer bodies can be in the current absence of the official recognition of such dramatic (and in that case, scientifically important) history.
We must of course have fun, and our activities must be attractive if we are to encourage like-minded people to join our organisations, to take an active part, to harvest the fruits of our members’ research and to contribute their own. We certainly need to attract the attention and the involvement of young people if they are to learn the lessons of history, and that means we should sometimes have a less rigorous, less dry and less academic approach – “History Lite” if you will. We should enjoy the more colourful aspects of our subjects; there is nothing at all wrong in tradition, a little play-acting, an indulgence in the heritage of our naval past.
But we have a more important purpose too. We must ourselves take on the role which our official custodians seem loath to do. We must seek out and preserve the history of our navies – all of it, “soggy wood or rusty iron” as Captain Christopher Page, former Head of the Naval Historical Branch puts it, with the addition of today’s plastics and electronics too. The stories of Howard and Drake; Anson and Cook; Nelson and Cochrane; Fisher, Beatty, Cunningham and Mountbatten. The work of the Navy’s political leaders such as Pepys and Sandwich, Barham and Churchill. The successes and limitations of the first broadside-armed carracks, of dashing 36-gun frigates under sail, coal-fired Dreadnoughts, Type 23s, nuclear subs, the very latest Daring class Type 45s. Distant operations like the Falklands in 1770, 1914 or 1982; the Mediterranean in the 1790s and the 1940s. Trafalgar, yes, but close-run actions and failures too like Corunna, Gallipoli and Jutland. And we must learn the lessons of Iraq in the 1920s, the 1990s and in the last decade, if the Gulf is not to be on our horizon still in the 2020s and if the body count – of innocent civilians as well as our own service people – is not to rise and rise.
There are valuable lessons from all of these, no matter how unlikely that sounds. We must seek out our naval history and preserve it, but we must also make it relevant to today and to tomorrow and make it available, if we are to have a future Navy fit for purpose.