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

AuthorFord, Amanda
PositionBook review

Kinkel, Sarah. Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018. 1+305 pages. Hardcover, $39.51.

In 1899 the British government formally declared its intentions to ensure that the Royal Navy's strength was equal to the next two strongest naval powers. (1) This announcement would not have come as surprise to the majority of the British public of the time, nor would historians consider the move unusual. It seemed only natural that an island nation which depended on free trade, and the sea power that assured the continuation of that trade, would value its naval forces. Industrialization, with its attendant imperial processes, relied upon a strong navy to keep the flow of money and power running. Historian Sarah Kinkel's Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy seeks to complicate this straightforward narrative by examining "not how, but why Britain became the world's greatest naval power" (p. 1). She argues that British naval supremacy was not inevitable, it was subject to intense political debate throughout the eighteenth century, and was not universally beloved or prioritized by Parliament or the public. It was only through an intense professionalization process that the navy was able to emerge as a truly dominant force by the end of the century.

Disciplining the Empire is divided into five chapters with a conclusion and an epilogue. Her narrative is broadly chronological, beginning with the restoration of the monarchy and culminating with the end of the American Revolution. Each chapter highlights a particular political fight or professionalization program in the navy as the loosely defined and organized political parties of the time attempted to push forward their own ideologies. The heart of Kinkel's argument is chapter three, "Disorder, Discipline, and the Politics of Naval Reform," which describes the professionalization programs of the 1740s. Rather than accept the traditional periodization for the authoritarian shift in British politics and society, Kinkel moves it back forty years to the 1740s. She sees this turn occurring simultaneously with the professionalization programs put in place by authoritarian Whigs, culminating with the 1749 Navy Bill. While many historians argue that these reforms were largely apolitical and uncontroversial, Kinkel places them at the heart of her argument regarding the very political nature of...

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