Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772-1853

Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772-1853

Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772-1853

Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772-1853

Synopsis

Best known as the man who burned the White House following the British attack on Washington in 1814, Sir George Cockburn was the most influential serving officer in the British navy in the nineteenth century. The man who escorted Napoleon to St. Helena after Waterloo, Cockburn's greatest impact was as the admiralty Commissioner who presided over much of the transition of the British navy from sail to steam between 1818 and 1846.

Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition is a fascinating examination of the career of a formidable personality who maintained the interests and professionalism of the British navy through one of the most difficult periods of political and technological evolution it has ever faced.

Excerpt

Between the American War of Independence and the Crimean War, Britain and her navy underwent remarkable change. From an economy based predominately on the products of an agrarian sector, Britain became the industrialized ‘workshop of the world’. From the loss of her American colonies, Britain emerged the dominant power in Europe and embarked on a period of international maritime primacy. Her sailing navy, from being one among several great forces in Europe, grew to its greatest ever size, undertook war on an unprecedented scale, and subsequently embarked on a period of naval ascendency that has since been termed ‘pax britannica’. the British navy itself, reflecting change elsewhere in the British economy, reached the limits of pre-industrial technology and began a process of transition into iron, steam and shell.

These changes, fundamental and far-reaching, affected attitudes to the navy, both external and internal. Indeed, they were accompanied by political change that reshaped naval adminstration and demanded adjustments in standards and commitment both of naval officers and of seamen. For the historian, the task of tracing these changes and their interweaving strands poses problems of relativity and scale. This challenge is here approached through the medium of biography. Change through time on this level is here reduced to registration on a single individual whose service in the navy stretched from the years of peace following the American War of Independence to the years of growing fear of invasion from France in the age of steam. This means of examining the British navy in transition has permitted focus on a variety of interrelated but disparate themes: in particular the professional conduct of the officer corps, the management of seamen, and the politics of administration. While each could of course have been examined separately, one aspect of the navy had relevance for another, and the past had a legacy of experience that can only be appreciated fully by studying the life of an individual in all its aspects.

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