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Empire Of The Seas feature – interview with Dan Snow

Britain's surprising naval history

Dan Snow presents Empire Of The Seas

Empire Of The Seas

Friday 15 January BBC TWO

"Are we at peace, or at war?" the French sea captain called to his British counterpart. The reply, says historian Dan Snow, was emphatic: "At peace! At peace!" Moments later, the French ships, bound for their colony in Canada, were shattered by a devastating broadside. It was 1755 and this "naked act of aggression" heralded the first truly world war.

The Seven Years War, Dan Snow explains in Empire Of The Seas, his four-part history of the Royal Navy for BBC Two, was nothing less than a battle for global supremacy. The two nations fought wherever their interests clashed and the outcome changed the world for ever, writes Programme Information's Tony Matthews.

Two other events in the Seven Years War did much to establish a new world order based on British maritime supremacy. In the spring of 1756, Admiral John Byng's fleet arrived off Minorca to find the British garrison under siege. Withdrawing his ships to the safety of Gibraltar, Minorca was lost and Byng subsequently directed his own execution, prompting the French philosopher Voltaire to observe: "In this country it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time... to encourage the others." It achieved exactly that, from then on Royal Navy officers were set on a course of relentless aggression.

Within three years, Byng's successor, Admiral Edward Hawke, had effectively won the Seven Years War. Setting up supply lines to keep his ships in fresh produce from Plymouth, Hawke blockaded the French fleet in Brest harbour. Their forces in India and America, cut off from vital supplies and reinforcements, capitulated and Britain's church bells were said to have worn thin ringing out in celebration of the Annus Mirabilis – the greatest year of victories in British military history.

In the late autumn gales of 1759, Hawke finished the job with a perfect display of British naval aggression. The French fleet had at last escaped from Brest and Hawke pursued them into Quiberon Bay, a treacherous area of jagged reefs and rocks for which his officers had no charts, his squadron then removed any lingering chance France had of recovering her colonies... Britannia ruled the waves.

With enthusiasm and passion, Dan mostly tells the story of the navy from the decks of ships on which he clearly feels at home. "My interest goes back years," he says. "As a kid I loved reading books and watching movies about it – I've developed a real passion for the navy. I've also done a lot of sailing and have visited many of the ports and great cities of Europe to get a sense of their importance, and I've crossed the Atlantic twice. With my dad, sister and cousin, I sailed a 40ft boat from the Canary Islands to St Lucia, following the route the slave traders used to take with the Trade Winds blowing behind – it was fascinating."

Empire Of The Seas offers an intriguing take on British history, one in which the navy takes centre stage. So has its importance been underestimated? "Yes, of course," Dan says "In this series we talk about big events such as the Industrial Revolution, the Glorious Revolution, The French and American Revolutions. The navy is a thread that runs through this extraordinary story of how a little island in the middle of the North Atlantic became a world conquering empire. It explains a lot about the modern world.

"What caused Charles I to lose the Civil War? What caused the Industrial Revolution to happen when and where it did? What caused the growth of the modern state? If you look deeper to see what was driving these events, it was actually the navy. A hundred years ago people would have been very aware of how important the navy was – these days maybe it's not as visible and people don't see the links."

A year in the making, but based on research which goes back years, Dan combines finely detailed social history with epic stories. "We didn't just want to make a traditional series about big battles," he says. "We wanted to look at what was going on beneath the surface. It covers ordinary things like the supply of nails or food and the impact it had on the rest of Britain. At the end of each programme a climactic battle demonstrates everything we've been talking about."

The series opens with victory over the Armada in 1588 and explains how the navy emerged as "the most complex industrial enterprise on Earth", transforming Britain economically and forging a new culture and national identity. Britain's sense of destiny in the 18th century was founded on an "awesome military machine" fuelled by the wealth of the City Of London, he says. Rule Britannia became part of the DNA of Britain and "liberty commerce and mastery of the seas rolled together in a defining moment of Britishness..."

There are many key moments in this history, but it was actually a series of crushing defeats in the late 17th century that proved the catalyst for this "relatively insignificant island clinging to the fringes of Europe" to rebuild itself as a global power. "In 1690," Dan says, "France ruled the waves and England was at her mercy... the English had no choice, they had to build a navy capable of resisting the greatest power in Europe." But the treasury was empty so, in 1694, a new institution, the Bank of England, offering generous interest rates to investors from the King to humble tradesmen raised £1.2m in just 12 days, half of which was used to rebuild the navy.

Dan explains the transforming effect this had on the British economy. The north east soon boasted Europe's largest iron works, supplying the raw material for the five tons of nails each new ship needed. Furthermore, each ship contained the wood of more than 2,000 trees, 7,000 square yards of canvas and 10 miles of rope. Within 10 years, the Royal Navy had quadrupled to number 44,000 men – bigger than any city outside London. Feeding them transformed agriculture – output went up by a third.

"Without the Navy, there would certainly have been less British trade and Britain wouldn't have kick-started the industrial revolution in the way that it did," says Dan. "The modern world, with its English-speaking business-friendly global economy, came about because Britain was dominant in the late 18th early 19th centuries. Had it not been for the Navy, there wouldn't have been all these little versions of Britain. Most of modern day America in 1690 was owned by France – the reason it became English is because the Royal Navy destroyed the French Navy and took it off them."

Empire Of The Seas doesn't shy away from dark chapters in British history. Drake and Hawkins, the heroes of the Armada, for example, were slave traders, and the empire was built on often merciless aggression. "Absolutely," says Dan. "The British were often pirates and the people wanted wars to get rich, steal other countries' colonies and take their trade. They took millions of slaves across the Atlantic. This is not a jingoistic story saying: 'Aren't the British brilliant?' It's heavy stuff – we don't want to shy away from that."

Perhaps the greatest strength of the British was their ability to learn from disaster. "One of the big things we want to say in this series is that, actually, British history is littered with defeats," Dan agrees. "It's the decisions that people made after those defeats that made Britain a great power. There are many differences with France. Some are natural – Britain has loads of brilliant harbours and is in a good place to dominate the sea and focus all its energy on the Navy, whereas France faced different enemies all around. Also, the quality of iron in Britain is better with less sulphur – a bit of natural luck that meant the Royal Navy had better cannons and could fire more often than the French and Spanish. But, in other ways, it was human decisions that were important."

While most British people are aware of Horatio Nelson, Dan says he is just one of at least 25 great admirals produced by this country. The inspired organisation and ship designs of John Hawkins gave England a crucial advantage over the Armada; the ingenuity of George Anson introduced rank, uniform and greater meritocracy in the promotion of officers; the courageous Edward Vernon drove Britain's presence in the Caribbean; then there was Samuel Pepys, who, in making the officer corps more professional, "transformed the administration of the Navy like no-one before him".

While the first three programmes in Empire Of The Seas explain how Britain established itself as the world's greatest power, the final episode explores what Britain did with that power, concluding at the end of the First World War when British maritime dominance draws to a close. "The British had won but were bankrupt and no longer the world's top dogs," Dan says. "Britain, in 1918, finally had to admit that it could no longer expect to have the biggest Navy in the world and would just try to keep level pegging with the Americans."

By this time there was a new mood among the people. "They were tired of the old order and more interested in social things like schools and hospitals," says Dan. "They were proud of their empire but didn't want to just keep fighting; I think there was a feeling that they wanted to concentrate on building a better society at that point."

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