The Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th Centuries

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Between 1763 and 1914, it can be considered that the Royal Navy did not change. Since the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, which ultimately led to the beginning of the American War for Independence, the Royal Navy kept a constant role based on the uses for expedition, trade and militarism. The Navy kept up its role for the 151 years of the period to the extent that Britain’s involvement in World War I in 1914 was due to the competition with Germany’s Navy, at this time, the HMS Victory had only just been retired, being of the same class as ships used during the height of the British Empire, it shows a presentable continuity in the role of the Royal Navy. While the use of the navy may have remained largely unchanged, the Navy itself, both tactically and in prowess, had advanced substantially, and by the end of the period, Britain enjoyed the luxury of the largest empire the world had ever seen, mainly due to the ability of the Navy to explore and conquer. Britain’s investment and reliance on its Navy presented a need to change and adaptability of how the Navy went about completing what it needed to, whereas the role that was required of it, never changed. For the length of the British Empire, the Navy was required to uphold the empire continuously, no matter the opposition.

By 1763, the Royal Navy was the culmination of centuries of tactical and technological advancements, with the best ships and crews on the planet. They had perfected the advancement from the medieval warfare tactics of ramming ships to the broadside cannon barrage. This was where a ship would line its sides with cannons and fire them simultaneously as they sailed past an opposing ship. Victory in naval warfare relied on the strength of a ship, skill of the crew, maneuverability of ships and size of guns. Alongside the technology, the Royal Navy also perfected its tactics. Ships would approach opposing ships in a long line, this enabled a form of sustained bombardment as the ships would fire one after another as they passed each other. It also reduced damage, from both friendly and enemy ships; this is because none of the ship’s broadsides were facing each other, and therefore it reduced the possibility of friendly fire. At the same time, because they were in a line, it reduced the exposure of the sterns and hulls of ships, as they were a ships biggest weakness. Use of these tactics were crucial to the victories of the Napoleonic Wars, especially Admiral Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, even though that was his ultimate battle. The position of naval dominance made admirals reluctant to develop their ships. Yet with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, the development of steam-powered ships began. Steam engines enabled an advantage in terms of maneuverability as ships did not rely on a favorable wind to move and turn swiftly. Steam-powered ships had their introduction in the mid-19th century. After France commissioned the ship Napoleon that had 90 guns and was steam-powered, Britain realized that the end of their cheap naval dominance was near, and that it launched an arms race that lasted for the next century.

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The guns used in early naval warfare had arcing trajectories, a French engineer then developed the Paixhans gun, which had a flat trajectory that was beneficial for naval warfare, and used the explosive shells normally used for bombarding land; these shells could very easily destroy a wooden ship. The Royal Navy was quick to copy this which led to France launching La Gloire, which had iron cladding as protection to these new shells, these ships would become known as ironclads. As before the Royal Navy then imitated this and launched the first ironclad as the HMS Warrior. By the end of the American Civil War, ironclads had showed their power against wooden ships, and the development of wooden ships was stopped. The 1870s showed a turning point in naval warfare with the Royal Navy launching the HMS Devastation. This ship was coal-powered, had two 35-ton guns, and had 300mm thick hull armor. The age of sail was over and with it, Britain lost a substantial advantage: their superior seamanship. From the 1870s onwards, naval dominance relied more on the ability to produce powerful ships in higher numbers and faster, rather than the ability of the crews. This advancement allowed nations such as Germany and Japan to produce powerful navies in short spaces of time, even though previously they showed very little naval dominance.

Britain always felt they should follow the two-power standard, this meant that the most powerful navy should be as powerful as the next two combined. In 1889, Britain commissioned 10 battleships, 42 cruisers and 18 torpedo gunships to be made within 5 years, at a cost of £21.5 million. Germany, France and Japan saw this and also increased their production on ships. Admiral Fisher took control in 1904 and set to work on creating a warship so powerful it would make the ironclad ships obsolete, his ideas culminated in 1906 with the launch of the HMS Dreadnaught, a ship that was so powerful it finally made all others obsolete. Admiral Fisher and the creation of the Dreadnaught class battleship was not able to end the arms race, nations like Germany, USA and Japan were able to quickly produce dreadnaughts, whereas less industrialized nations such as France or Russia were unable to keep up with these developments. Throughout this entire period, Britain held the title of having the most powerful military force in the world, but by World War I, it did not have the luxury of the naval dominance it once had.

The Royal Navy had a consistent use within trade and commerce of the early British Empire. The Empire followed the ideology of mercantilism, this meant they maximized exports, but minimized imports; due to being an island nation, the ability to export goods relied very heavily on the ability to rule the waves and naval strength. Not only did Britain follow mercantilism, but also protectionism, protectionism is a way of introducing taxes and tariffs on foreign goods to prioritize domestic produce. In 1830, when the Whigs won the election, these policies began to change, the ideas of free trade were introduced; this minimized taxation and tariffs to make both domestic and international trade as easy as possible. Free trade is the antithesis to protectionism. This meant the Navy was no longer required to enforce strict rules on foreign trading ships as before, although it was still necessary for them to provide transport and protection for other trade, especially exports and imports from China and South America. In 1849, the Navigation Acts were put into use, this reinforced the strength of British export, as all exported goods had to be transported on British built and owned ships, similarly, goods from colonies had to go through British ports first before being reshipped onwards. The Navy had a responsibility to patrol the waters and make sure these rules were being followed. Ultimately, trade changed drastically, but the Navy’s primary responsibility remained relatively constant.

In 1768, the Royal Society proposed to the British Admiralty an idea to begin exploration of the seas, this was enticing to the scientific community as it allowed them to make discoveries, similarly, they wanted to use the transit of Venus in front of the Sun to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The idea was enticing to the Admiralty as they could lay claim to new lands and create new anchorage points for ships; this was necessary as, during the early years of the Empire, the biggest destroyer of British ships was rocks and bad weather due to sailing uncharted waters. Captain James Cook lead this mission and successfully circumnavigated the globe. Cook was able to take accurate measurements of Venus for the scientific community, but his mission was important for other reasons. It showed that a mission could stay at sea for extended periods without loss of crew as long as cleanliness and access to fresh food were maintained. Similarly, Cook was a cartographer and successfully made maps of the Pacific region that were used until the 20th century. Also, it allowed established Britain’s claims to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific. Cook voyaged out two more times for the admiralty before being killed in Hawaii. After his voyages, explorative sailing became much more common and more and more waters were being charted.

During the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, the Royal Navy’s key goal was the destruction of France and its allies. New ports became increasingly important as they chased France around the globe. Territorial expansion became increasingly difficult due to the reduced size of the Navy after the unfortunate events of the late 19th century and the common loss of ships in uncharted waters. By the middle of the 19th century, as naval warfare developed substantially on a global level, retention of naval dominance became increasingly difficult. Many officials began to attribute their dominant position to the control of key territories around the globe with the support of an unassailable navy.

One cannot say that the navy explicitly showed either change nor continuity, although the use of the Royal Navy was relatively constant, it showed development in other forms. Such as the development of tactics and technology in warfare. This is consistent across all roles of the Navy, the roles did not change, but how they did such roles did.

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The Royal Navy during the 18th and 19th Centuries. (2023, September 08). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 23, 2024, from
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