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Rodney's Ramblings: Two Navies And The Mail

"It is hard to imagine how Britainís territorial interest could have been established, let alone maintained and defended for so long, without her two navies. When they declined in the late 20th century, the empire itself was drawing to a close, as power and control moved to the US,'' writes Rodney Gascoyne.

I contend the British Empire would not have been created and could not be maintained, without the presence of Britainís two navies, the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy. The creation of the second, and its growth into the largest fleet afloat throughout the world, during the period from the mid 1800s to the late 1900s, would also not have worked as well without the creation of Royal Mail Contracts. These three institutions were the cement and foundation of the power and control they exerted around the world.

In the late first millennium, Britain needed to maintain ships for her defense and to project power locally, to transport troops and provisions or goods in trade, mostly across the Channel. King Aethelred and others maintained a fleet by means of levies or taxation. This declined after the Conquest but merchant ships were still occasionally needed and pressed into service. Wars by then were mainly with France and with a base on the Continent, there were no real reasons to maintain a permanent fleet. During the 100 Years War, France did become a menace and so a fleet was built to end the threat with the Battle of Sluys in 1340.

The Royal Navy was created during Henry VIIIís reign, with his building of the Mary Rose and other ships. He realized the importance of a powerful fleet, as moves were made to explore further afield and a start to establish settlements abroad. Attempts by the French or Spanish to challenge Britainís naval power were repulsed, but oddly it was Oliver Cromwell who expanded the fleet into worldwide dominance, not questioned for over 300 years.

Privateers and merchant vessels were commandeered to help transport troops and military supplies, but many conflicts were local in nature, before the Seven Years War, when the war zone expanded to North America, the Caribbean and India at the same time battles were fought in Europe. The Royal Navy also carried Marines and other troops into action when needed. Leaders like Nelson and Wellington then ensured that Britainís interests were maintained when challenged.

With the start of the industrial revolution, Britain needed a larger and more organized merchant fleet to transport her goods abroad and to bring in supplies, plus to exploit trade routes with her overseas possessions . Parliament introduced the Navigation Acts as trade grew, requiring all goods coming and going to be transported in British ships and this created the conditions for the Merchant Navy. Because Britain gained an enormous lead through early industrialization, it did not take long for her to establish a shipping dominance that was not changed until well after World War 2.

Private ships transported passengers, but the growing empire and its far flung members needed a regular, reliable service to properly connect countries. At the same time, regular communications within Britain became organized with the Royal Mail and Penny Post, early in Victoriaís reign. It was soon realized that similar means were needed to maintain the proper administration of the colonies.

The obvious choice was to have competitions among companies to supply a regular and strict schedule on major select routes. The main winners were Cunard for North America, ultimately P&O for the Far East and Australasia, and Union-Castle for Africa, plus smaller contracts for other areas. The winners built new fleets of fast ships to maintain a weekly service between Britain and her main dependencies, for the Royal Mail, plus passenger services and also cargo carrying capacity. This remained in force till the early 1970s when jumbo jets, bulk carriers and containerization killed off parts of their main trade.

It is hard to imagine how Britainís territorial interest could have been established, let alone maintained and defended for so long, without her two navies. When they declined in the late 20th century, the empire itself was drawing to a close, as power and control moved to the US. Conditions since have not really changed, as they need an extensive and advanced fleet to project their naval power in a very similar manner to the Pax Britannica. This may soon have to change as all advanced nations are so deep in debt, it will be far harder to find the finances and taxes, to project similar power again, except for growing Chinese ambitions in Asia.

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