chapter  2
15 Pages

The idea of naval strategy in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries


It is doubtful to what extent the idea of naval strategy existed in eighteenthcentury Britain, nor for a good part of the nineteenth century. Though there are very many books and articles by modern historians professing to explain British naval strategy in this period, contemporaries did not, and could not, discuss it, for the simple reason that the English language did not have a word for strategy. That word itself first appeared in English about the year 1800, as a borrowing from French.2 At that time, and for long afterwards, it was used in a sense close to the Greek original; it referred to the art of the general, rather than the admiral, and chiefly at what we would call the local or tactical level. Not until late in the nineteenth century can we say that the phrase ‘naval strategy’ was current in English in the accepted modern sense, and only then did it become the subject of public debate. To discuss ‘British naval strategy’ of the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century is to impose an anachronistic modern category on the thinking of the time. The idea of British naval strategy must really mean the strategic element in British naval policy, as far as it can be isolated with the benefit of hindsight.3