Book Review – ‘Empire, Technology and Seapower: Royal Navy crisis in the age of Palmerston’ by Miles Taylor

By Miles Taylor, published October 2020


This study is in some respects a prequel to the author’s 2007 monograph on ironclad technology and Anglo-American sabre-rattling during the Civil War era. This time the canvas is broader, taking in the Crimean War, the arms race with France and the early stages of the American conflict. As with his earlier work, Fuller successfully combines an analysis of innovation and change in naval hardware with a wide-ranging and detailed account of the politics of naval supremacy. The book centres around three ironclads: the French Gloire, the British Warrior and the Union’s Monitor, and the frenetic manner in which great power naval strategy emerged in the age of Palmerston. Some of the best parts of the book are devoted to a new account of the Anglo-French naval rivalry and its outcome. Here Fuller tells the tale from the politicians’ viewpoint, less so from the Admiralty, about which C. I. Hamilton has written so well. Palmerston, unsurprisingly, comes over as the master of huff, puff and bluff – keeping the French guessing, but also keeping the Royal Navy out of any conflict in the seas around Europe that might have exposed its lack of both metal and mettle. But also in this account Palmerston also proves the master prime minister, managing the forces of retrenchment (Gladstone and Cobden) alongside dealing with the Admiralty, and the warmongering media. It is good to see ‘Mongoose’ (as the ageing Palmerston was dubbed) feature so centrally.

However, the book also has a larger purpose: to debunk some of the currently fashionable historical views of mid-Victorian naval policy. Fuller argues that the idea of British naval supremacy in the period was just that: an idea or ideal …

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Filed under: Atlantic | English Channel | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Battles & Tactics | Navies | Strategy & Diplomacy

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