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Book Review, NRJ 59.2

May 15, 2014 12:00 PM | David Eddy

Nelson : Navy & Nation: The Royal Navy & the British People, 1688-1815

Quinton Colville and James Davey

During the “long eighteenth-century,” the British Royal Navy played an integral role in shaping and supporting British life and culture. The relationship between the navy and nation and the roles each played in creating Britain’s overseas empire is the subject of the book of collected essays entitled Nelson, Navy & Nation: The Royal Navy & the British People 1688-1815. The book is the product of a group effort by the National Maritime Museum and naval history scholars to tie the British Navy into the larger history of eighteenth-century British culture.

The central idea that inspires each chapter is that the Royal Navy became inseparable from British national identity. As a nation surrounded by water, the British people relied on a strong navy to preserve their lives, security, and trade. Yet, the authors skillfully describe the many other ways for which the nation identified with and relied on their navy. Brian Lavery examines how the industrial complex surrounding shipbuilding benefitted both navy and nation. Elite shipwrights expertly constructed the Navy’s ships, while the people secured employment in times of war. Additionally, the completed ships acted as symbols of their nation’s power and prestige.

Margarette Lincoln demonstrates the central role the Navy and its preeminent officers played in British popular culture. While the press could ruin naval careers and public confidence with bad publicity, it was also the foremost outlet for expressions of commemoration. Letters, poems, and ballads as well as heroic tales of naval success united the British people through shared patriotism. Prints, paintings, and jewelry abounded to commemorate the actions of naval heroes, but none received as much recognition as Admiral Horatio Nelson.

By the late eighteenth century, a recruit’s gentlemanliness became more important than his nobility, or lack thereof, and officer recruits emerged from more diverse backgrounds. Admiral Horatio Nelson embodied this new gentlemanliness expected of a British naval officer. Both Andrew Lambert and Marianne Czisnik establish Nelson’s place in British maritime history and his virtual deification by the British people. His unmatched character, courage, humility, and instinctual intelligence gave the British people a savior of sorts that made them feel protected, secure, and proud. Nelson became a part of the British identity and represented the ideal naval officer that few men would ever match.

Nelson, Navy & Nation covers a variety of other related topics that paint the cultural and maritime history of Britain from 1688 to 1815. Each chapter is brief, and though the volume is not designed for in-depth research, its value lies in its accessibility to a general audience. Glossy, high-quality images of artifacts, paintings, and political cartoons enhance the volume’s worth by embellishing the historical accounts. Nelson, Navy & Nation is a perfect resource for those who attend the National Maritime Museum’s new long-term gallery, “Nelson, Navy, Nation,” and wish to expand their knowledge. Overall, it is an ideal starting point for anyone wishing to begin research on eighteenth-century British naval history from a cultural, rather than a military, perspective. 

  • Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013
  • 7-3/4” x 10”, hardcover, 240 pages
  • Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. 
  • $37.95
  • ISBN: 9781591146032 

Reviewed by Katie Riesenberg, University of West Florida

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