Towards the end of the nineteenth century, many in Britain began to worry about her status as the only world power. Doubts stemmed from the rise of competitors to her trade, manufacturing and military power, particularly from the rising powers of USA, Germany and Japan, who joined her old competitors, France and Russia. British Imperialists looked to history, and could only come to one conclusion, that of the finite nature of empires. Even the mighty Roman Empire had fallen as its rulers became corrupted by power as their empire slipped away. They were determined to not allow the same to happen to the British Empire.
Consequently, Gladstone’s laissez faire attitude towards the empire was not happily received by imperialists. Particularly vocal against Gladstone were navalists who feared anything short of a wide ranging overhaul would sacrifice Britain’s naval lead, and therefore her status as the leading world power.
Bold claims from some navalists about Britain’s weaknesses as a naval power and the likelihood of a defeat in a lengthy war are hard to test – Britain would not get into a real naval war until 1914 - but an interesting perspective can be given by analysing what the ‘threats’ to Britain’s hegemony thought about her naval power.
An example of this is an article in the New York Times on March 6th, 1892. (Article available here). Although the USA was fast becoming a genuine economic power, there were still real worries about her naval strength. Although relations with Britain were largely cordial, they had, on occasion, soured, as they had done in the 1860s, and thus Americans had to entertain the idea of a war with her, something that could only end in ignominy and defeat. In fact, if this article is to be believed, the USA was in no position to be involved in a naval war with anyone. Although it is of course an alarmist piece designed to turn opinion in a navalist direction, it is interesting that it cites the reason for US naval weakness as the lack of coaling stations owned by the navy. A war in the near future, it declares, would see this dearth of infrastructure contribute ‘largely to the embarrassment and retardation of the operations of the war vessels [of the United States].’
The article goes on to cite examples of how this poor naval planning had inconvenienced American ships in the past, courting near disaster, and discusses where new stations should be founded in order to alleviate the current problem.
The map of British Coaling stations included in the article
The second part of the article is, for me at least, more revealing than the first. The article lists the ‘twenty-nine coaling stations’, emphasising how the global nature of the stations allowed the Royal Navy to circumnavigate the globe protecting Britain’s trade interests without ever being precariously distant from a fuelling station. Not only did British possession of these stations ensure a ready supply of coal, but they were also places of ‘actual political and strategically importance.’ Furthermore, in case of war, ‘each one is amply garrisoned and defended.’
The article is therefore almost in complete contradiction to what British sources were suggesting (although much had been done since the mid 1880s, when British criticism was at its fiercest). Perhaps most revealing is the last paragraph. While Britain was fretting about potential weaknesses in its naval grip on the world, one of its major rivals suggested that ‘with this enormous system under such splendid control... the British Navy can never be reduced to the humiliating and embarrassing situation that would necessarily involve the Navy of the United States in the event of hostilities with any country...’