The British Empire was the result of maritime expansion. From the seventeenth century new maritime growth underpinned the evolution of an international trade network. British economic, military and cultural influence was felt globally. As the British government and private firms developed they protected this infrastructure through an intimate economic partnership. This alliance provided new goods and fashions to the growing British markets, while acting as a catalyst for future industrial growth.
Britain competed for territory with the French, Spanish and the Dutch navies. While wars were won as well as lost, Britain’s dominance was not simply confined to the acquisition of land. The ‘informal empire’ also extended its influence through increased trade and mass migration. Millions of people emigrated great distances in search of work. Many never reached their destination, most never returned home and some put down new roots in the countries to which they had moved.
During this time the British liked to assume that their role was essentially peaceful. They believed they were only protecting their existing empire while trade and culture was allowed to spread. However the reality was an almost continuous record of invasion and aggression between 1783 and 1870.
The seventeenth century saw a transition in shipbuilding from merchant to war ships. Previously some merchant ships had been armed but only for protection. Increasingly ships were designed specifically as warships. They carried a larger number of guns, went much faster and contained little room for goods and cargo.
At this time wood was a vital material for Britain. It was used in everything, from the construction of houses to the production of ships. Britain’s rapidly expanding navy consumed an enormous amount, as the creation of each ship used at least 2000 large trees.
The rise in demand for wood and the rapid expansion of the navy may have both contributed to the British navy’s change in production methods. In 1796 Sir Samuel Bentham, the new Inspector-General of the Navy Works and the younger brother of Jeremy Bentham, introduced some power-driven machinery to the naval dockyards. His re-organisation of the dockyards and the installation of a steam engine meant that dockyards began to lead the way in the development of industrial production methods.
Britain’s naval superiority did not simply result from its ability to apply science and technology to the seas. It also lay in its ability to borrow money.
In the seventeenth century the British copied an economic system of national public debt from the Dutch. This allowed the government to borrow from its citizens at low interest rates. This system was funded through a stock exchange where bonds could be bought and sold. It was used to fund large-scale projects like wars and to create the Royal Navy.
For over half of the eighteenth century Britain was at war, principally against France. The number of seamen and the fleet of ships increased so rapidly that the Royal Navy became the largest industrial enterprise in Europe. The British government used its ability to raise taxes and loans to support its aggressive military policies and, combined with technical prowess meant that by 1815 Britain had achieved dominance of the oceans.
As the number of ships increased so did the number of naval dockyards. These were the special work yards where ships were built, fitted out for their voyages and repaired when necessary. The naval yards offered unrivalled productivity and efficiency, enabling Britain’s Merchant and Royal navies to be more effective forces in developing trade and empire.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were six Royal Navy dockyards in England: at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham, Sheerness, Portsmouth and Plymouth. As Britain’s imperial power increased, dockyards were built in its new territories. The Royal Navy had a number of outports in England and overseas yards. It built new ships in Bombay and maintained ships in Gibraltar. These distant dockyards spread knowledge about shipbuilding and brought together the craftsmanship and expertise of local people to strengthen Britain’s abilities in shipwrighting.