Book Review: Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy


by Sarah Kinkel

Harvard University Press, 2018. Pp. viii, 310. Illus., table, notes, index. $45.00. ISBN: 0674976207

The Controversial Foundations of British Naval Supremacy

Prof. Kinkel (Ohio) explores not the how of Britain’s attainment maritime supremacy, but rather the why, that is the development of the foundations on which that supremacy was built.

Kinkel’s primary concern is the political controversy that arouse during the Georgian era as some Britons strove to establish the more sophisticated economic, administrative, financial, and political institutions, which was stirred much turmoil. Advocates of a stronger navy and imperial expansion were also advocates of a more powerful, more centralized government, with greater control over the individual and the economy, and institutions such as the Bank of England, developments which were seen by many as a threat to personal liberties.

Kinkel opens with a look at the seventeenth century foundations of the Royal Navy, an institution no stronger, and often weaker, than its French and Dutch rivals. This began to change during the “Walpolean” era, which introduced a new and more sophisticated imperial policy, that argued for a strong navy to protect British colonies and commerce.

Kinkel lays out the evolution of the relationship between this newer navy, a professional force, but in contrast to English tradition, a more authoritarian one, which only gradually won popular acceptance. She traces the growth and service of the Navy through the eighteenth century, with its triumphs in the Seven Years’ War, and less success during the War of the American Revolution, arguably a war in part engendered by these new institutional trends.

A volume in the series “Harvard Historical Studies”, Disciplining the Empire is an outstanding piece of scholarship, and an essential read for anyone interested in the history of the Royal Navy or the British world in the eighteenth century and of the bureaucratic institutions that underlay the rise of the modern nation state.

Note: Disciplining the Empire is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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