Dancy on Malcomson, 'Order and Disorder in the British Navy, 1793-1815: Control, Resistance, Flogging and Hanging'

Thomas Malcomson
J. Ross Dancy

Thomas Malcomson. Order and Disorder in the British Navy, 1793-1815: Control, Resistance, Flogging and Hanging. Rochester: Boydell Press, 2016. 304 pp. $120.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-119-1.

Reviewed by J. Ross Dancy (US Naval War College) Published on H-War (November, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52105

On June 18, 1812, the United States of America declared war against the United Kingdom, catching the British government, for the most part, by surprise. By the summer of that year, Britain had been at war for nearly two decades, and the sheer scale and length of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had stretched British finances, infrastructure, and armed forces to the extremes of their capabilities. Britain fought France on the seas and on the continent, and invested tens of millions of pounds to prop up continental allies, all while Napoleon experienced victory after victory. Multiple British-led coalitions fell apart. In 1812 the situation looked bleak. The addition of an adversary across the Atlantic, capable of intercepting British West Indies and Canadian shipping, made a bad situation only worse. Although vastly larger than any other navy in the Atlantic world, the Royal Navy was stretched thin blockading continental Europe and supplying Wellington’s peninsular campaign. A week later, Napoleon launched his Russian campaign, which proved disastrous and set in motion a series of events that eventually led to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.

Understanding the British situation in 1812 is important for contextualizing Thomas Malcomson’s book, Order and Disorder in the British Navy, 1793-1815. This book relies on the examination of muster books, captains’ logs, and correspondence between the British Admiralty and naval officers of the North American and West Indies stations from 1812 to 1815. Malcomson’s book uses this archival research to pull together a discussion of how the British Admiralty and officer corps used standing orders, training, patronage, the structured day-to-day life of naval service, and corporal punishment to maintain order. He also covers the reverse of the story, how men and even officers created “disorder,” most commonly through resistance, profiteering, embezzlement, and the use of alcohol. This book does not paint a picture of a floating hell controlled by sadistic officers but one of general order with occasional problems that were dealt with by ships’ officers, occasional courts martial, or even the Admiralty, depending on the issue at hand.

This book has several attributes that make it worthy of a reader’s time. Significant archival research provides the foundation of this project, particularly the use of muster books cross-referenced with ships’ logs, a tedious and time consuming task. Malcomson has also closely examined the Royal Navy’s “Articles of War” along with Rules and Regulations, publications that the Admiralty used to provide a foundation for the orderly running of British warships. Through these documents, the author has provided us with a view of how naval policymakers envisioned order in the Royal Navy at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The book’s lengthy discussion of the system of patronage and the Admiralty’s process of centralizing the promotion and appointments of officers is especially noteworthy. Here Malcomson has intelligent things to say about how senior officers on the North American and West Indies stations were, by 1812, losing some of the independence and authority provided by geographical distance that they had enjoyed earlier in the eighteenth century. This book also has interesting and valuable things to say about race and racism in the Royal Navy. Less than 5 percent of Royal Navy seamen were of African descent, according to Malcomson’s research. However, he leaves questions open concerning descriptions of seamen’s complexions that were sometimes recorded as “dark.” Others were specifically described as “black” or African, which questions whether “dark” may be describing individuals from Mediterranean countries or seamen who may have weathered skin from years of exposure to the elements. He also discusses the blatant and open racism that took place aboard warships. In both cases this rebuts Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s claim that 25 percent of Royal Navy crews were black, and that they were largely accepted without racism based on their skill as seamen.[1]

This book also has some problems that detract from its value. First and most important, it is mistitled. All of the research for this book concerns the Royal Navy’s North American and West Indies stations from 1812 to 1815, and cannot be considered applicable to the whole of the Royal Navy from 1793 to 1815. The author’s doctoral thesis from 2007, from which this manuscript derives, “Creating Order and ‘Disorder’ in the British Navy: The North American and West Indies Station, 1812-1815,” is a better description of the argument it sets to make.[2] Pressure from publishers concerning titles, particular in the case of an author’s first book, are often driven by a desire to sell the book but should never lead authors to mistitle their work. In adopting this title, Malcomson has stretched his evidence to make some thin conclusions, which would have been perfectly viable had he maintained the time and space of his original project. The fact that this 2016 book comes primarily from a 2007 doctoral thesis means that it is missing discussions of the latest historiography, which has been very active over the last decade, and means that some of the book’s claims are based on outdated concepts. Many of these newer works found their way into the bibliography, such as Roger Knight’s Britain against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815 (2014), but are largely absent from the text, except where convenience allows their use. Malcomson also does not appear to understand the value of officers’ desire to clean ships and run gun drills without live firing the guns. He considers dry-firing the great guns to be a “sham,” used to keep men busy (p. 74). Going through the motions of loading and firing cannon or weapons training in general were critical to a crew’s ability to use these weapons during the extreme stresses of combat. Such “dry-firing” is still commonly practiced in modern militaries. This book would have also benefited from the use of graphs within the text. Tables in the appendix are difficult to comprehend, and in several cases it is difficult to find any correlation among the data found within them. Long sections of the book tediously describe statistics that would be much more easily presented in a pie or bar graph, providing more value to the discussion within the text. Finally, through no fault of the author, the book is unrealistically expensive at 120 dollars.

What, then, is the value of this book? The author has put a lot of effort into the research, and there is clearly value to be gained from reading this book. Had it been better titled and more thoroughly updated since 2007, then only minor quibbles would remain. Is it worth reading? Yes, there is value in what the author has to say, as long as the reader takes some of the abovementioned issues into account.


[1]. Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), 311.

[2]. Thomas Malcomson, “Creating Order and ‘Disorder’ in the British Navy: The North American and West Indies Station, 1812-1815” (PhD diss., York University, Toronto, 2007).

Citation: J. Ross Dancy. Review of Malcomson, Thomas, Order and Disorder in the British Navy, 1793-1815: Control, Resistance, Flogging and Hanging. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52105

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