Review: Colonial naval culture and British imperialism, 1922-67 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2015)

Book review: Colonial naval culture and British imperialism, 1922-67 (Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2015), Daniel Owen Spence


In the history of the British Empire, the overwhelming importance of the naval dimension to the colonisation and maintenance of the imperial project is rarely appreciated fully in the literature. The power and projection of the British navy as a tool for imperial might is something that is of course widely recognised, but in the historiography of empire it is an instrument which is assessed little beyond strategy and battles. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that during the inter-war period the efforts to create volunteer naval forces in several British colonies and protectorates barely features in the broader narratives of empire, let alone World War II. Indeed, the small number of people that were actually involved in these efforts has perhaps been a barrier to broader studies into their creation, impact, and significance. In this book, ‘Colonial naval culture and British imperialism, 1922-67’, Daniel Owen Spence makes the case that these colonial naval forces deserve greater recognition, particularly in terms of providing a framework for a deeper understanding of British imperial concerns, the question of imperial ‘over-stretch’, the nature of colonialism in specific locations, the inter-relations between colonised and coloniser, and importantly the impact on culture. Embracing an ambitious comparative approach that spans a diversity of geographic locales, including the Cayman Islands, Kenya and Hong Kong, the book offers a fascinating insight into the ways in which naval reach (or lack of) impacted upon these regions of the British Empire. The book is based upon an impressive array of research, covering archives from seven nations, as well as interviews from surviving members of these volunteer forces. The outcome is an interesting and well-research contribution that adds another layer to our understanding of the British Empire and the role that these specific navies had in fostering attachments to the colonial project.

The book is divided into four main parts, with individual case-studies utilised to advance the analysis: The Caribbean (Trinidad and the Cayman Islands); East Africa (Kenya and Zanzibar); South East Asia (Malaya and the Straits); and finally East Asia (Hong Kong). Each section broadly covers the motivations behind the creation of these naval forces, before embarking on an assessment of the roles and interactions between local elites / the admiralty and indigenous populations, the impact upon cross-cultural sensibilities, and finally their deployment during World War II, and a discussion of their post war viability. The British Empire was far from homogenous, and through an investigation into the specific colonies, Spence is able to effectively demonstrate the diversity. By adopting a case-study approach, Spence is able to provide a neat in-road into some of the nuances of how individual colonies interacted with the metropole, and specifically the effects of these volunteer navies upon local populations. By examining these very different regions, Spence is able to make instructive comparisons, highlighting where imperial practice dovetailed, while importantly, highlighting the flexibility and fluidity of British control in the context of the volunteer navies, particularly when responding to specific local demands and conditions.

In this book, Spence is able to convey how the British Admiralty, facing enormous pressures on its resources and a growing inability to meet its imperial responsibilities, turned to local solutions to try and solve its problems. The creation of volunteer navies was, in part, devised so that the Royal Navy could lessen the financial burden of maintaining its fleet, by devolving responsibility to the colonies. However, as Spence is able to demonstrate, there were challenges in trying to create naval cultures in these locales, and wider problems in encouraging popular public support from the European and indigenous populations alike. Some of the examples concerning how the Royal Navy would use, what Jan Rüger termed, ‘naval theatre’ to encourage enlistment and support are intriguing, such as: film shows; tours of the ships; sporting competitions; and demonstrations of technological and military prowess. Conscious (by and large) of local sentiments, the British would enact very different tactics in the Caribbean, Asia, or East Africa to encourage support. One of the most insightful components to the book is the analysis into the attitudes of the colonised towards the British more broadly, and specifically the navy. For example, in the post-World War Two era, in which Britain began the re-colonisation of Hong Kong, the admiralty had to refine its tactics to appeal directly to Chinese moral sensibilities and values, because of London’s perceived ungentlemanly conduct towards the colony during the war (p.216). I thought the book offered a thoughtful and well-argued assessment of the various factors at play, and effectively showed the multifaceted nature of the British Navy’s role in wider cultural imperialism.

I found the discussion and analysis of martial race theory, or in terms of this book, seafaring races, across the different regions illuminating. Premised upon the assumption that certain groups were more warlike than others that had stemmed from colonial conceptualisations of Indian soldiers, the British authorities chose to use a similar notion in regards to the sea, categorising certain ethnicities as ‘natural’ sailors. The British used this pseudo-racial hypothesis to good effect in order to engender a sense of imperial loyalty, and to encourage specific ethnic groups to volunteer for these newly created naval forces. The way in which Spence is able to navigate the nature of identity, and imperial conceptualisations concerning race across these spatial divides is informative. Furthermore, the case-studies neatly demonstrate the extent to which certain groups ‘bought into’ the invented historical traditions and external manifestations of their identity; the manipulation of cultural and racial sensitivities by the naval elite is fascinating. For example, a myth invoked by the British, was that the Cayman Islanders, were the ‘best sailors in the world’ (p.66), a notion the people readily bought into and utilised for their own purposes; however, this claim was disingenuous as historically the Cayman Islanders had very few external interactions. Yet, the creation of ‘us’ and ‘them’ as part of a divide and rule tactic based on race, or in some cases even social class, was not always successful, and the navy found it difficult to placate its own perceptions / stereotypes, against the realities in the colonies.

Although the book focuses largely upon the cultural dimensions of these colonial naval forces, I would have liked to have seen a bit more detail upon their roles in the war effort. Many of these indigenous volunteer navies were established because of the looming threat of World War Two, and a greater assessment and analysis of the contributions, successes and failures, would have been beneficial. This has been done in part, especially concerning Hong Kong and Singapore, which I found intriguing, but I was left wanting more – even if these naval forces did very little in World War Two, then why not? Furthermore, from a personal perspective, I would have liked another African case-study in the book, especially from West Africa. In my view this would have sharpened and deepened the analysis, and would have ensured a greater degree of comparison across the British Empire. In places, I wasn’t sure about the civilising mission dimension to the naval endeavours across the world, and given the small size of these forces, I was unsure how much of an influence they could have in the cultural propagation of British imperial values; that said, I think that Spence has done a good job in demonstrating how the navy certainly did play a part in this projection of empire.

However, these are minor criticisms. Overall, this is an insightful book, and one which I believe has provided a thoughtful, comparative analysis of the role of these volunteer navies under review within the British Empire. The colonial navy is rarely associated with political, social and cultural dimensions of imperialism, and this book has provided an excellent assessment of these. By using case-studies as an analytical tool, Spence has effectively highlighted how local navies acted as cultural and social vehicles for projecting imperial power across the world, in very different settings. As such this is a useful and interesting addition to the historiography, and adds another level to our understandings concerning the complexity, and adaptability of the British Empire.


Matthew Graham

University of Dundee