Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Tennyson and 'The Fleet'

This poem appeared in The Times on April 23, 1885, and was concurrently  printed in the Pall Mall Gazette. Written by the Poet Laureate, it appears to have been largely forgotten (if a Google search can be taken as evidence). The poem was a response to Stead’s The Truth About the Navy (which I discussed  here). In it, he espouses the views of the Blue Water School, arguing that Britain’s Navy was woefully underfunded by a government who did not recognise its importance of the navy to Britain and its Empire’s security.

The poem was the last of a series of Tennyson’s poems published in periodicals in which he tackles political issues. Using his position as Poet Laureate and as the hugely popular ‘poet of the people’, Tennyson was able to command great influence. This was precisely why Stead had sent him a copy of the article he intended to publish, in the hope the sentiments might be echoed by the poet, and that he would add his substantial weight to the campaign. As if to emphasise this, when the poem was published in the Pall Mall Gazette it was preceded by the title ‘A Warning by Lord Tennyson’ and included an introduction by Stead which highlighted the patriotic nature of the cause.[1]  

The use of Tennyson’s poem was a stroke of genius by Stead, whose campaign gathered momentum throughout 1885. Gradually it attracted other parts of the press, as well as politicians to its cause. The resulting pressure precipitated the Naval Defence Act in 1889. This put into law the ‘two power standard’, which began a building programme, and consequently a naval arms race which lasted into the twentieth century.

[1] K. Ledbetter, Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context (Ashgate, 2007)

Thursday, 14 March 2013

An interesting direction for maritime history?

It has been over ten years since Karen Wigen and Jessica Harland-Jacobs asked ‘what if seas were shifted from the margins to the centre of academic vision?’[1] Although it was in a geography journal, it is a powerful question for anyone studying maritime spaces. Perhaps this is a tad loaded, as I have attempted though some of my work to utilise this method, but its strikes me that such an approach to maritime, and especially naval, history, might bring new perspectives to many areas of research. After all, the Royal Navy’s primary activity was at sea, not in offices at the Admiralty or in Whitehall, nor in the shipyards that built warships. That is not to suggest that histories of the Admiralty, or indeed naval technology, do not have a place in naval history, but that different approaches may enlighten and supplement these histories. Focusing on the maritime spaces that naval ships inhabited (and in this I include those places on the fringes of oceans such as bases, ports and coaling stations), the activities of the navy, its part in global politics, the actions it was involved with, and the infrastructure that allowed it to function become more important. They are also put into a global context, where distance, foreign dangers, and geographical features help to explain the priorities and actions of the navy. For instance, knowing the French had several bases on Madagascar helps explain the importance of Mauritius, just as the impending creation of the Panama Canal helps explain the renewed importance of Jamaica. Furthermore, by examining the vast distances between British stations abroad, it is easy to understand the need for telegraphic communication, and indeed why the Admiralty were concerned about these places being attacked by cruisers. By examining trade routes, it becomes clearer why stations such as Simon’s Town on the Cape of Good Hope, Suez, and Hong Kong were important.  This approach can also explain the cultural and social aspects of the navy, by exploring the hybrid and contested nature of the places that sailors found themselves in, especially at stations far away from home. Certainly it would help to better knit together histories of empire and histories of the navy. These are merely examples for the period 1870-1914, on which I have focused, but I am sure that this could be fruitful for other periods too. Perhaps these histories have already been written and I missed the boat?

Anyway, I would be curious to know what you think. Does this sound interesting/useful/crazy?