- Series: Studies in Imperialism MUP
- Hardcover: 240 pages
- Publisher: Manchester University Press; 1 edition (February 1, 2009)
- Language: English
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From Jack Tar to Union Jack: Representing naval manhood in the British Empire, 1870-1918 (Studies in Imperialism MUP) 1st Edition
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From Jack Tar to Union Jack: representing naval manhood in the British Empire, 1870-1918, by Mary Conley, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2009, xv + 215 pp., GBP55.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-719-07534-6 There was a time when naval historians neglected the majority of the nineteenth century. Naval historians were interested in traditional topics, the lives of admirals and the anatomy of battles, which meant the Victorian portion of the century held little interest. 'Poor Victorian Navy; so far from Nelson, so close to Jacky Fisher,' was how one historian caricatured the attitude to the Victorian navy.1Hamilton, 'The Victorian navy', 471. View all notes The historiography of the 1980s and 1990s responded with valuable research on nineteenth-century naval reform, fiscal policy and naval strategy for a seaborne empire.2Hamilton, Anglo-French naval rivalry; A. Lambert, The Crimean War; N. Lambert, Sir John Fisher's naval revolution; Sumida, In defense of naval supremacy; Beeler, British naval policy in the Gladstone-Disraeli era. View all notes Written largely from the perspective of Admiralty officers and politicians, it delivered a history of the navy as an administrative, political and geopolitical institution. Recent scholarship, however, has presented a history of the navy as a social and cultural institution to provide new understandings of the navy's relationship with British society. Part of the continuing contribution to this new historiography may be found in the three books under review here. I trace some key trends in these books and highlight areas of tension between them and the existing scholarship. In order to appreciate the larger historiographical contributions of these texts, this review essay specifically focuses on the navy, national identity, and the representation and performance of identities. Taken together, I argue, these three volumes push the study of naval history into new and challenging areas of social and cultural history.3This change in approach to the navy is clear to see through the comparison of the books under review here and the scope of the books under consideration in a review article by N.A.M. Rodger, published at the end of the 1990s - see Rodger, 'Recent books on the Royal Navy of the eighteenth century'. View all notes What immediately follows is an exploration of the concerns that drive the contemporary historiography and how it furthers our understanding of the Royal Navy in the long nineteenth century. The core focus of naval scholarship was once dominated by admirals, battles and reforms, but now it emphasises issues as diverse as the nature of authority, the power of ritualised behaviour and the cultural shaping of technology. Such shifts bring naval history on to common ground with the ongoing research agendas in maritime and imperial history, making possible a fuller study of the role of the navy in Britain's maritime empire.4For useful conceptual overviews of maritime and imperial history see Lambert et al., 'Currents, visions and voyages', and Cannadine, '"Big tent" historiography'. View all notes This new historiography also appears to be flexible in terms of periodisation and invigorates the former lack of historiographical interest in large portions of the nineteenth century. The new historiography also goes a long way towards eradicating the Victorian-centric narrative of the navy in the long nineteenth century. It moves beyond traditional chronologies by focusing on the changing representation of events and actors through the past, instead of the boundaries drawn by the reigns of monarchs and the terms of office of various ministers. Notably, some of the leading studies produced for the 2005 Trafalgar bicentennial took a longue duree approach to Nelson and the battle in British history, and offered new insights on their cultural meaning and significance in the years that followed.5See Hoock, History, commemoration, and national preoccupation; Cannadine, Trafalgar in history. View all notes Similarly, the books under review here are not framed by a monarch, a century or the dates of a conflict. Still, they respect a sense of the power of tradition and history within the study of the past. The new historiography also expands the study of nineteenth-century naval history by examining the navy as primarily a social institution and cultural force.6Examples include Lincoln, Representing the Royal Navy and Jenks, Naval engagements. View all notes This approach aids in understanding its relationship to society, power and politics in innovative and important ways. In particular, these works use traditional sites and topics in naval history, such as naval theatre and the British sailor, to examine the navy's wider significance. To trace broader contexts, the authors utilise a sophisticated methodology to explore the role of the navy in the codification, representation and performance of attitudes, ideas and identities. In short, the navy is not just a socio-cultural symbol which reflects cultural attitudes, but also a socio-cultural force shaping the formation of identities and their representation, whether (variously) of the navy, sailors, the nation, the British Empire or masculinity. This approach is vital to continue the work of connecting naval history to British history, pushing beyond the political, operational and economic focus of previous work, and writing a social and cultural history of politics, power and identity in the navy. Such work is not, however, without controversy. Challenging the foundations on which the history of the Royal Navy is framed within historical narratives brings a disciplinary concern: are these naval (or even maritime) histories? There are signs of ambiguity among naval historians towards certain new areas of research and analytical approaches. In a recent review article on the Royal Navy, N.A.M. Rodger notes positively that 'it is significant that naval history is now being approached from many different directions, and connected to many diverse areas of national history', and yet he seems dismissive of 'the latest "cultural" approach'.7Rodger, 'Historiographical review', 749. View all notes Mary Conley, Isaac Land and Jan Ruger all respond to this question. Land writes that 'War, nationalism, and the British sailor is not a work of maritime history' and that 'impressment is too important to be left to the naval historians' (10). The British sailor is his key actor and subject, despite this modifier: 'My emphasis is not on sailors as the nation-state's manpower problem, but rather the reverse: I consider the nation-state itself as the problem that sailors confronted' (20). Similarly, Conley remarks that her book 'is not a social history of the lives of the non-commissioned men who formed the lower deck of the navy, but more a cultural history seeking to explain how representations of their manhood were imbricated in larger narratives of naval and imperial manhood' (11). While Ruger is less explicit, his introduction positions itself within scholarship on Anglo-German relations, the history of ritual and power, and the interplay between politics and culture: 'In addressing such questions, this book understands the navy not only as a political and military instrument, but also as a powerful cultural symbol' (1). Taken together, Conley, Land and Ruger integrate the navy into British historiography in such a way that challenges the boundaries of naval history, making the subject richer and more diverse in the process. Each author presents a coherent critique of naval history in relation to traditional scholarship. Ruger characterises it by quoting N.A.M. Rodger: 'policy, strategy and naval operations; finance, administration and logistics, including all sorts of technical and industrial support; social history; and the material elements of sea power, ships and weapons' (209).8Quoting Rodger, The command of the ocean, lxiv. View all notes The authors invite naval historians respectfully to consider new research areas as well as to examine existing topics with fresh questions and conceptual tools. Ruger writes: 'If performance and imagery were just as important as - and indeed at times more important than - operational capabilities, then ideas such as the "command of the sea" and "naval mastery" need to be re-evaluated' (209). The task of writing a cultural history of the Royal Navy is complicated. Conley and Land note that writing the history of Jack Tar from a socio-cultural perspective raises the problems of discovering sources, their authorship and the almost entirely lost voice of British sailors. Conley reminds us that 'the Queen's Regulations forbade naval personnel to speak publicly about naval affairs' (8) (although, in practice, there appear to be plenty of exceptions), and Land notes that 'sailors who wrote books were not typical sailors' (26). These astute observations have led other historians to question the value of such unrepresentative memoirs and personal reminiscences. Rodger writes that they are 'less impartial chronicles of time past than contributions to the religious, social, or political debates of the 1830s and 1840s'. Rodger also maintains that sailors should be 'understood in their own terms'. This language, which oddly speaks to cultural historians as one of the unifying aims of their craft, suggests that the real point of contention in how to approach Britain's naval past is over the appropriate extent of contextualisation and creative engagement with the cultural context in which the navy operated. Conley, Land and Ruger position the navy within the contexts of identity, nationalism, imperialism, gender and popular culture, and produce scholarship otherwise absent in naval history and British historiography. Nation, national identity and the navyJump to section Identity has become one of the most important and widely employed themes in recent historical scholarship. Of the various types of identity historians have examined, the greatest focus has been on national identity. According to 'historians' folk wisdom', Peter Mandler writes, national identity is the 'trump identity'. Its appeal outweighs all other types of identity - regional, institutional or otherwise.9Mandler, 'What is national identity?', 272. View all notes This certainly appears to be reflected in a lot of scholarship on the Royal Navy and society wherein the navy is seen as a state tool for nation-building and the working-class common sailor is inherently loyal to the state. But, as Mandler argues, national identity does not necessarily lead to the subordination of all other identities. A responsible analysis of identity must carefully locate the various layers of identity and their relationships within a social group (groups being more accessible to a historian's enquiries than the self). This analysis must also be aware of the role played by context and situation, which can help to distinguish why, at any given time and place, some identities are more salient than others. And finally, as historians of national identity stake no claim to a static definition of Britishness, our histories must allow for change and the agency of powerful socio-cultural institutions, like the Royal Navy, in that process. What follows is a close analysis of the arguments concerning national identity developed by the three texts under review. It investigates the role of the Royal Navy in the nation-building process of the long nineteenth century and suggests how historians may further investigate national identity via the navy. Prior to this investigation, Linda Colley's often-cited Britons: forging the nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, 1992) must be mentioned as evident in the texts under review and in the historiography on navy, nation and identity, and the 'identity boom' of the 1990s. Colley's thesis - identity understood through the dichotomy of self and other - offers a narrative of nationalism that overshadows regionalism through the rivalry of local factions that endeavoured to contribute to Britain's struggle with overseas 'others', most notably France.10This model for understanding national identity borrows from Edward Said's understanding of self and other, which offers few insights for understanding the mechanisms by which identities are made and remade - see Said, Orientalism. Mandler argues that Colley's work, often cited as an important study of Britishness, has less to say about identity than mobilisation - see Mandler, 'What is national identity?', 291. View all notes 'They [Britons] came to define themselves as a single people not because of any political or cultural consensus at home,' Colley writes, 'but rather in reaction to the Other beyond their shores.'11Colley, Britons, 6. View all notes Colley's depiction of Protestant Britain, forged in war, presents an immediate problem for the naval historian: where do sailors fit into this dichotomy of self and other, especially as sailors also operate beyond Britain's shores? Each of these volumes speaks to Colley's thesis. Isaac Land most explicitly addresses it as his work makes the case for putting sailors back into the domestic politics of 1750-1850. In a concise and focused introduction, he specifically argues for further study of the sailor's part within the forging of Britishness, noting the absence of Jack Tar in the work of Colley and others. Land is particularly interested in moments of resistance, disobedience and disloyalty, noting that any study that either treats the Royal Navy as a homogenous social institution or as part of a Britain that 'was a hierarchical, deference-driven society where the best officer was one who knew his place instinctively' is misguided (3). Through a study of the press gang, impressment rituals, sailor subcultures (governed by linguistics, dress and sexuality) and popular representations of Jack Tar (chapters one and two), Land demonstrates that sailors were only slowly recognised as Britons and given the liberties which that identity entailed. Yet sailors were at the forefront of the nation-forging process, fighting for Britain against continental rivals, which by Land's reading of Colley's thesis should have guaranteed their Britishness. He writes: 'If sailors were among the last Britons rather than among the first, then we are left with a puzzle. We need to re-examine the cultural politics surrounding sailors and inquire why their assimilation to Britishness was so slow, so uneven and so difficult' (9-10). By questioning the relationship between identity and loyalty, Land examines the agency of sailors in creating a patriotic national identity. Land emphasises the tensions between the state's growing rhetoric of the navy as a defender of British liberties, the state-organised representations of the sailor, and the impressment and behaviour of the sailor. He suggests that within this context many sailors 'gambled on Britishness and lost', while the state that infringed personal liberties to mobilise a naval force 'risked open conflict with entire communities, as well as alienating many of its own frontline defenders' (5, 9). By briefly addressing the 1797 mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, one of the most significant yet under-examined conflicts between sailors and the state, Land highlights how loyalty to the state was resisted (and at a time when the French and Dutch had assembled invasion fleets). Land's study does not adequately explain the extent to which members of British society supported Jack Tars in their resistance to authority. Of his experience eluding the press gang, sailor John Nicol wrote that the waiters at the inn, where he pretended to be an author, would wilfully expose him. Later, Land writes that 'crowds often took the sailor's defiance as their cue to step in and back him up'. No distinction is specified in these events, but public shows of courageous defiance may have made a key difference (40, 43-4). The major theme of Land's introduction, the forging (he terms this 'framing') of nationalism, is only briefly addressed in the book. Indeed, chapters two and three are almost entirely on gender politics, and chapter six on pro-natalist campaigns, photography and nostalgia. The issue of nationalism is briefly revisited at the end of chapter four as Land employs his analysis of the layers of Jack Tar's identity to highlight the 1797 naval mutinies. In the end, Land agrees with much of Colley's argument: 'I concur with her suggestion that popular patriotism could be as dynamic and creative as any form of expression' (167). His sailors, like Colley's Britons, selected identities for personal gain. 'Sailors like John Bechervaise', examined in chapter five, 'did not reject a national - or imperial - identity; rather, they saw opportunities in both and chose to exploit them' (166). A very different account of the relationship between the navy and the nation emerges in the second half of the nineteenth century and beyond, largely in response to the internal challenges of empire and the external threat from Europe. These concerns form the backdrop of Conley's and Ruger's respective studies of naval masculinity and naval theatre from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the Great War. The relative silence of Jack Tar meant that others often spoke for him (see discussion below). Jack's flexibility as a placeholder for representations of manhood, character and virtue was central to the changing relationship between the navy and the nation. Conley notes that late nineteenth-century naval men were cast 'as symbols of respectable British manhood celebrating their duty to nation and empire and their devotion to the family. The construction of the naval man's image as both patriotic defender and dutiful husband and father stood in sharp contrast to the image of the brave but bawdy tar of the Georgian navy' (3). In effect, a diverse group of actors domesticated the Jack Tar symbol to help present the virtues of Britain's imperial project. Public representations refashioned the sailor's duty to the nation within the lines of Christian militarism, self-control and domestic responsibility. This domestication involved philanthropists and missionaries (chapter two), the consolidation of class distinctions (chapter three), and the fashioning of a 'rugged naval manhood' that would serve as an exemplar for all male Britons who wished to protect the empire (chapter four). Conley's study of naval men within British imperial culture (the subtitle, Representing naval manhood in the British Empire, 1870-1918, is a misnomer) provides fresh insight into the imperial dimension of British national identity, and a much-needed gender study of the Royal Navy in the latter part of the long nineteenth century. Her focused study is impressively researched and argued with clarity throughout. Taking up the history of Jack Tar roughly where Isaac Land's analysis ends, Conley places representations of Jack within a series of national discourses on the navy and its relationship to society. Central to her book is the criticism that previous studies of military and imperial culture have 'overlooked the possibility that the Jack Tar stereotype could also be recast', and Conley examines how Jack operated in Britain's changing imperial culture (11). Conley opens promising areas for research into the navy's relationship with British society, and elucidates interpretations of specific topics beyond naval history. For example, her analysis of late nineteenth-century navalism and naval estimates makes use of a gender interpretation of sailor identity, linking his responsibilities to family with responsibilities to empire. By helping to fashion a domesticated representation of naval men (highlighting bodily purity and domestic duties) to secure favourable legislation, navalists 'cast off Jack Tar'. In a representation far removed from the impressment rituals and public face of Jack in sailortown, 'Naval men came to be represented as defenders not only of British interests abroad but also of Britishness' at home (125). Not only was the sailor now a recognisable, even celebrated Briton, he was also an exemplar of Britishness: hard working; of high moral character; dutiful to country and family; adaptable to industrial life (in the iron age of navy); and interested in self-improvement. Ruger similarly approaches the navy and nation through metaphors of Britishness as he traces their changing function and meaning within the context of naval theatre: fleet reviews, ship launches and naval entertainments. His study is a welcome addition to naval historiography and a necessary account of Anglo-German antagonism. It employs a comparative approach to navy, symbolism and identity during the 'age of empire'. As with Conley's, Ruger's subtitle does not indicate a study of imperialism or imperial culture, except where the fleet is examined as a symbol of imperial unity (175-83). Overall, imperialism functions as a framing device roughly to cover the period from 1887 to the Great War - with an epilogue to bring the reader to the present. Ruger's book is structured thematically, with the aim of bringing the significance of the naval theatre into full view. The first chapter grounds the naval theatre as a space with specific functions, which is done by tracing how naval reviews were transformed from fleet inspections into public rituals for the monarch, nation and empire. The following chapters build on this to examine how this space may be understood in relation to late nineteenth-century mass politics and culture, national identity and cohesion, militarism and, finally, Anglo-German antagonism. The book's premise is that naval theatre was a key component of Anglo-German antagonism as a site that linked political and cultural relations: 'The two were inseparable in the celebration of the navy and the sea: ritual and theatre merged with power and politics' (2). The book's main contribution to the historiography of navy and nation is located in chapter four, 'Nation, navy and the sea'.12Some of the points from this chapter also appear in an article in which the following analysis of Britishness is made the core focus and argued explicitly in connection with the relevant historiography. See Ruger, 'Nation, empire and navy'. View all notes Utilising Michel Foucault's concept of 'heterotopia' (physical and mental spaces of internal tensions that single them out, a label Foucault himself uses to understand ships), Ruger examines how the fleet played on the imagination of the nation. Through this capacity, the British fleet in moments of naval theatre could 'reconcile otherwise divergent ideas of nationhood and belonging' (140).13For heterotopias see Foucault, 'Of other spaces'. View all notes One can begin to appreciate how fragments of the British Isles, with their own cultures and symbolisms, were united within, and reconciled to, a greater imagined entity. The fleet and the naval review provided a stage to present an idea of British identity. Particular examples of this include the naming of ships (after 1901, cruisers were named after counties and cities), the triggering of regional civic events connected to specific ships and complementing the white ensign with nationalist symbols and celebrations. In these practices, one can see a different strategy to that taken in the late eighteenth century, when regional groups competed to make the greatest claim to Britishness.14Ruger uses the same approach to understanding naval theatre as a stage for imperial identities; see Ruger, Naval game, 175-82. View all notes Instead, confronted with growing imperial uncertainty and nationalist revivals, the navy became an active agent in the negotiation, reconciliation and refashioning of Britishness. Alongside the ritualising of national displays, the Admiralty changed the vocabulary surrounding naval theatre to one of island rhetoric based on British insularity rather than English tradition. Ruger argues that 'the change in terminology demonstrated how keenly aware of the navy's public role the Admiralty was, stating publicly that a redefined sense of Britishness should govern the celebration of the fleet' (169). All three books examine the extent to which the Royal Navy was national. The assumption in the historical profession, articulated here by Colin Matthew, has tended to be that 'the Royal Navy's structure ignored the sub-nationalisms of the islands it defended, and the navy was the most thoroughly unionist of all government departments in its organisation, as well as being its most prestigious'.15Matthew, 'Introduction', 22. View all notes Ruger effectively traces the construction of this idea to the end of the long nineteenth century, but there are other dimensions to the problem of how to fashion metaphors for national identity. While the navy was an increasingly popular national cultural symbol, how national was the navy as a social institution? Ruger contrasts the navy with the army in its ties to regionalism: army recruitment was traditionally linked to regional identities, while 'the navy offered itself ideally for a British, unionist and imperial emphasis' (166) - just as it is in Conley's account. Yet for the majority of the nineteenth century, the navy continued to recruit sailors from a small group of maritime communities. Land reminds us of Stephen Conway's observation that 'the defence of "country" was often a thinly veiled defence of "county"' (4).16See Conway, 'War and national identity'. View all notes Indeed, Conway argues that Britishness remained subordinate to local identities in important and revealing ways.17See Conway, War, state and society. View all notes This was particularly true for sailors whose physical connection to the nation was through port towns. This was where Jack grew up, lived and was seen; it was also where, Land argues, his loyalty remained, just as much as it did to the Atlantic world (the recent focus of early modern maritime historians).18See Rediker, Between the devil and the deep blue sea. View all notes Land underscores this point by noting that sailors observed regional differences on board ship through humour, insults and even violence. Like Foucault's heterotopias, port towns connected the nation-state, the sea and a peculiar maritime culture that distinguished them from the nation at large - they are places where the boundaries of the state are experienced in unique ways. Land examines sailortown as a place in which ritualised behaviour distinguished Jack from other Britons, marking him as part of the boundaries of Britishness. We need more research on the dynamics between port, nation and empire that seeks to understand the identity politics and national and imperial culture of these places.19John M. MacKenzie makes a similar point in 'Lakes, rivers, and oceans', 127. For examples of this type of work see Taylor, Southampton; Haggerty et al., The empire in one city? View all notes Future studies might follow the model cast by Catherine Hall in her study of how the inhabitants of mid-nineteenth-century Birmingham perceived the British Empire through their urban environment.20Hall, Civilising subjects. See also Driver and Gilbert, Imperial cities. View all notes Such a geographical focus would complement an investigation of the sea as a social and cultural space, an approach that Ruger takes in his study of power and identity projection in the North Sea. The mobilisation of manpower in the navy would be a productive subject for a study of the national identity of the Royal Navy. The navy increasingly drew recruits from industrial centres across the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom with the promise of continuous service. Conley cites the statistic that, in the early 1870s, 350 of the 600 people recruited at the Liverpool station came from Ireland and Scotland. This changing demography of naval personnel underlines the navy's transformation into a British institution, but Conley concedes that 'most boys continued to be drawn from the south and south-west of England (especially London, Plymouth and Portsmouth)' - an issue which also concerned the navy's relationship with urban working- class communities (7, 43, 82). What were the implications of this regional distinction for how sailors experienced naval life? Conley notes one particularly problematic obstacle for sailors from non-maritime communities: inland recruits were more likely to have developed their interest in the navy from romanticised representations, while recruits from maritime communities were more likely to have learnt from experiences and word of mouth. Existing knowledge and levels of expectation doubtless affected how recruits got their sea legs, and Land's and Conley's brief studies of naval fiction illustrate the potential for further research in this area. Another connected consideration is how the inhabitants of towns like Portsmouth and Plymouth came to see themselves as exemplifying Britishness. Conley does not explicitly respond to this query, but she does imply that the fashioning of sailors into model males effected their transformation into model Britons. Further research may explicitly clarify elements of this process within the training and agency of sailors themselves. As usual, sources on - and the general silence of - the British sailor present an obstacle to investigating their loyalties. Another way of understanding the relationship between port-town inhabitants and the nation would be to study naval memorials and commemorations to examine the function of ideas of region, Britain and empire in symbolism, rhetoric and ritual behaviour - such as those surrounding the funeral of the boy hero of Jutland, John Travers Cornwall. .So far I have shown how the books under review consider the relationship between national identity and the Royal Navy and highlight the continuing significance of other types of identity - i.e. social, gender, imperial - to society's relationship with the navy. The claim that national identity did not necessarily trump all others can be substantiated, and from here we can examine the complex issue of how different identities within the navy - social, occupational, gender, regional, national, imperial - linked together through representation and performance. Particular attention must be paid to how identities function, how they relate to representational practices and the agency of those being represented. The lead actor in both Conley's and Land's work is the common British sailor, who, as Conley notes, became a placeholder for British national and imperial characteristics. The representation of the common sailor as a domesticated servant of a civilising empire was far from the representation of Jack Tar as a drunken, violent, sexual menace (as seen in the work of social historians like Jesse Lemisch).21Lemisch, 'Jack Tar in the streets'. View all notes Taken together, Conley and Land chart how the representation of the British sailor changed over the long nineteenth century, challenging studies of Britishness and empire that rest on the deployment of a Jack Tar with a static identity. Thus we now have a study of Jack Tar that is conscious of how his identity changed over time and the historical contexts in which we can understand those transformations. What is contentious in these books is how Jack Tar's identity was represented, the extent of the agency available to Jack to shape those representations and, lastly, how that identity changed not only over time but also across geographical space. Taking the last of these points first, representations are often fashioned on perceptions. Moreover, as the previous section indicated, naval men were to be seen by society within the field of sailortown (and, to a lesser extent, fleet reviews). The perception of British sailors - who they were and what they did - was, thus, largely an imagined perception rarely constructed through first-hand witnessing. Conley underlines this point by exploring the distance between real sailors and the representation of sailors, fictional or otherwise. This highlights the importance of how a representation is constructed, circulated and received - and, consequently, the obstacles -- Don Leggett Journal for Maritime Research 20111130
About the Author
Mary Conley is Assistant Professor of History at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Massachusetts
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