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Book Review, NRJ 59.2

May 15, 2014 12:00 PM | David Eddy

The British Navy, Economy and Society in the Seven Years War

Christian Buchet

"Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics" is an aphorism among those who fight wars for a living. In most naval history books, however, logistics is generally overlooked. This alone would make The British Navy, Economy and Society in the Seven Years War, by Christian Buchet a welcome addition to anyone’s maritime history library. The book was originally written in French and published in 1999. This edition is the first English translation of the book.

It is a rare study on maritime logistics. It focuses on the Admiralty’s Victualling Board during the middle of the Eighteenth century. The Victualling Board provided the Royal Navy’s rations.

The book is more than just a dry catalog of facts. It is also informative, readable, and revealing. Buchet provides a comprehensive look at the Victualling Board. He presents a look at the mission and organization of the Board, the bases it used and how they were run, the markets they created, and the men that supplied them. 

Buchet presents a picture startlingly different from the one often-read in popular history or maritime fiction about the sailing-era Royal Navy. Rather than the corrupt and inept organization of popular imagination, Buchet shows that by 1750 the Victualling Board was efficient, effective, and economical. It provided sufficient quantities of good quality food and beverages to Royal Navy warships. It cut prices paid for most commodities over the Seven Years War without sacrificing quality.

Buchet backs this assertion with copious statistics and thorough documentation. He even presents the likely source for modern myths about Royal Navy victualing: an individual fired by the Victualing Board in 1745 for producing spoiled and rotten provisions who wrote a muckraking pamphlet.

Buchet’s conclusions seem obvious in retrospect. A navy whose sailors were fueled by rotten beef, musty flour, rock-hard cheese, and putrid beer could not long remain at sea, much less project power as the Royal Navy did from 1750 to 1815.

His book is also filled with information as amusing as it is informative. The Victualling Board:

  • Avoided excise taxes on imported wine by supplying it only at Guernsey—a port exempt from import duties
  • Held surplus sales of food past their “use by” date or spoilt in storage, some of which was purchased by non-naval contractors to feed prisoners of war.
  • Not only regularly inspected the items it purchased, it seemingly took delight in publicly exposing shoddy contractors. 

These nuggets, with others like them, add a human face to a dry academic topic.

Readers whose interests lie only in the naval architecture of the period, wargamers, and pure model-makes may decide this book is outside their scope of interest. For hard-core maritime and naval history buffs, this is a book worth reading. If you plan to write about the era, it is must-have and must-read. Buchet’s book presents a fresh look at an often overlooked aspect of naval history.

  • Translated by Anita Higgie and Michael Duffy
  • Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 2013
  • 6-1/2” x 9-1/2”, hardcover, xiii + 302 pages
  • Tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, index. $115.00
  • ISBN: 9781843838012

Reviewed by Mark Lardas, League City, Texas

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