On the south bank of the Thames, in an eastern suburb of London, there is a complex of buildings that has been designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Though the area is beautiful and many of the buildings are masterpieces of British architecture, most people only know Greenwich as the place we all set our time to and the place the Prime Meridian has been set, 0° latitude.
But the true significance of Greenwich ranges far beyond these distinctions. It extends to every corner of the globe and into every sphere of Western cultural life. Indeed, persuasive arguments can and have been made that the institution represented by Maritime Greenwich has played an unsurpassed role in shaping the modern world, greater perhaps than the Roman legions, Christian missionaries or Mongol hordes. For Maritime Greenwich is the symbolic heart of the Royal Navy.
A view of the Queen's House from the rear. Beyond is the Old Royal Naval College and the Thames. The photo was taken from the Royal Observatory.
The Royal Navy of England hath ever been its greatest defense and ornament; it is its ancient and natural strength; the floating bulwark of the island.
– Sir William Blackstone
It was on the wooden walls of the Royal Navy that the British Empire was built, an empire on which the sun never set. An empire that, for good or ill held under its sway a fifth of humanity and a fourth of the world’s landmass. It was on the Royal Navy’s vessels that the English language, parliamentary democracy, the common law system, Enlightenment ideals and science, the Protestant work ethic, English literature and culture, were all exported around the world. Were it not for the daring and resourcefulness of Britain’s sailors in the turbulent 18th and 19th Centuries, the world today would scarcely be recognizable to us.
The buildings in Maritime Greenwich all represent aspects of the Royal Navy’s global reach. At the water’s edge can be found the Old Royal Naval College that once served as the Naval Hospital. Laid out in perfect symmetry, the two buildings mirror each other and lead the eye beyond to the Queen’s House, which houses a remarkable collection of paintings made by Britain’s explorers. Beside that is the National Maritime Museum, the largest such museum in the world and a repository of all Britain’s rich naval history. Even further beyond that, atop a steep hill, resides the Royal Observatory, scene of some of the most celebrated achievements in the history of navigation and astronomy.
On the left is the National Maritime Museum. On the right the Royal Observatory, which is set on a hill behind the museum.
It was at the Royal Naval College that the men who preserved the Royal Navy’s supremacy at sea were moulded and forged. It seems a fitting place to start, for it was from success in battle that all of Britain’s other success followed.
British global naval supremacy was never a foregone conclusion. Indeed, looking at the world of the late Middle Ages, it seems a fantastic notion that the rainy islands off Northwest Europe would come to dominate world affairs. Internal strife and a small population barred Britain from the first rank of European powers for most of the 15th and 16th Centuries. The powers on the Continent only had cause to sit up and pay attention to England when Queen Elizabeth’s nascent navy defeated the numerically superior Spanish Armada in 1588. There followed a string of wars with the Netherlands and France that culminated in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. These cemented Britain’s uncontested mastery of the seas. What followed was a century of Pax Britannica, where the Royal Navy was able to project power on a scale unparalleled in world history. Even today American admirals can only dream of the power to influence world events the Royal Navy once enjoyed.
A map showing the countries that have been invaded by the United Kingdom at some point in history. This amounts to just shy of 90% of the nearly 200 countries around today. Only 22 countries have not been invaded by Britain. No other country has ever been able to influence global events in the same way Britain once did.
If this success was far from assured 500 years ago, how then did it come about?
As an island nation Britain has always had a strong naval tradition and the seas shielded her from the need for the massive armies that ravaged the Continent. Fishermen from Devon and Cornwall traversed the Atlantic and Britain’s merchant fleet was consistently one of the largest in the world. Service at sea paid surprisingly well and offered better prospects than most other options open to the average 17th Century Englishman. This culture decorated the service with glory and funneled talented men into the ranks. The Royal Navy always had a huge pool of able seamen to draw upon.
A mother and her son, a naval cadet, admire a painting of Lord Nelson. This painting hangs in the National Maritime Museum.
These sailors were trained to a high pitch of readiness, skilled at the immensely complex task of handling a sailing ship’s rigging, giving British ships the best speed and manoeuvrability of the age. Many of the sailors in the French and Spanish navies were landlubbers and did not take so easily to the art of seamanship required in the age of sail.
Sailing along the coast of Spain, the frigate HMS Endymion came across a French frigate floundering on the rocks in heavy seas. Though the two countries were at war for the time, the Endymion's captain Sir Charles Paget went to the rescue of the French ship. Through careful manoeuvering and a stunning display of seamanship in these treacherous seas, the Endymion was able to get a line on to the French ship and tow it to safety.
Gunnery in the Royal Navy attained the status of high science, and British gunners achieved rates of fire two or three times that of their less nautically inclined French counterparts. It helped that the guns forged at Woolwich, just downstream from Greenwich, were some of the best in the world. French naval guns occasionally blew up on their operators, an occurrence that cannot have been beneficial to crew morale.
Some of the dangers of battle in the age of sail. On the left is a Spanish bar fired at Trafalgar that killed 8 Royal Marines. Centre is a round of grapeshot, used to rake the quarterdecks and kill enemy officers. Right is a short carronade carried on a heavily armed East Indiaman.
Just as important as the ship’s crews were the men schooled at Greenwich who commanded them. Royal Navy doctrine produced and glorified men of daring and aggressive spirit, foremost amongst them Lord Horatio Nelson. His victories at the Nile and Trafalgar are still embedded in the national psyche and his famous signal “England expects that every man will do his duty,” is known to every schoolchild.
On the left is the uniform Lord Nelson wore on the day he commanded the Royal Navy to its greatest ever victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, preserved in the National Maritime Museum. In the centre you can see the hole from the sniper's bullet that killed him near the end of the battle. The uniform is still stained with dried blood. On the right are Nelson's breeches. The dried blood on them is not his own. In the opening minutes of the battle a cannonball killed his secretary beside him, splattering Nelson with blood.
Reforms by Samuel Pepys in the 1600s ensured that commands would be doled out on the basis of merit, rather than by accident of birth, a concept foreign to most militaries of the time. The Duke of Medina Sidonia who commanded the Spanish Armada, for example, was prone to sea-sickness and had never commanded a ship at sea before. On the other hand Admiral Rodney, victor over the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, was born into abject poverty.
I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else.
– Oliver Cromwell
The Navy’s officers were not content to rest on their laurels and a spirit of innovation flowed through the ranks. Britain spearheaded the adoption of virtually all the revolutionary naval technologies of the 19th Century, from ironclads and torpedoes to dreadnoughts and aircraft carriers. This willingness to stay ahead of the times cemented Britain’s lead and translated into colonial possessions and economic might. Success bred success, and by the middle of the 19th Century the United Kingdom had become history’s most successful thalassocracy, an empire of the sea.
Being unchallenged and unchallengable, Britain was able to exercise her maritime imperium of the Pax Britannica at remarkably modest expense. The British defence burden fell progressively to a minimum of 2 percent (of GDP) in 1870. Britain's dominance flowed not so much from the size of her active fleets as from the vast potential strength implicit in the reserve fleet and, behind that, the unrivalled capacity of her industry.
- Pugh, Philip
HMS Warrior. Launched in 1861, she was the world's first armour-plated iron-hulled warship. Iron hulls, steam propulsion and screw propellers all spelled the end of the age of sail.
The consequences of British naval power were vast. Most obviously it facilitated the movement of millions of people around the world. Wave after wave of English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish emigrants washed over foreign shores, my parents and grandparents amongst them. They established the dominions of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the nation that would eventually become the United States.
But these mass migrations had a dark side too: Millions of enslaved Africans were transported to the new world on British ships, to be worked to death on Caribbean sugar plantations. For the indigenous peoples already inhabiting these lands, the result was nothing short of disastrous. Canadian First Nations and Australian aborigines were dispossessed and sometimes exterminated while a tiny imperial elite presided over the entire Indian subcontinent.
Manacles used to restrain slaves taking the horrific Middle Passage on a Royal African Company ship. Though British companies oversaw the brutal transportation of millions of Africans to the New World to live lives in bondage, Britain was among the first countries in the world to ban the slave trade and throughout the mid-19th Century the Royal Navy actively sought to suppress the trade.
In tandem with the movement of people was the movement of ideas. The English language, which has today become the global lingua franca, the system of parliamentary democracy, the English common law system and more than we could possibly list here were spread around the world.
Yet in addition to spreading Europeans and their ideas, the Royal Navy helped expand Europeans’ own minds, knitting the world’s disparate threads together as part of the world’s first era of globalization. In the Queen’s House, a marvellous Palladian style building next to the Maritime Museum, an exhibition of paintings recounts Britain’s voyages of discovery. George Stubb sailed with Captain Cook to the South Pacific and his paintings of Tahiti and Australia hang there today, reminders of how these voyages of exploration captured the world’s imagination.
These expeditions not only sought to fill in the blank spaces on the map, but to expand our knowledge of science. The ostensible reason for Cook’s first voyage to the South Pacific in 1768, for example, was to observe from Tahiti the transit of Venus across the sun’s disc. Measurements of this celestial event would allow Royal Society astronomers back in London to determine Venus’s distance from the sun, and from that extrapolate the distances between the various bodies in the solar system. The famous botanist Joseph Banks sailed on this expedition, assembling an impressive collection of flora and fauna from the lands they visited, forming the basis of Kew Gardens’ world-leading collection, another World UNESCO site on the outskirts of London. The impact of Cook’s three voyages has echoes through the ages, reflected in the naming of two space shuttles after his ships HMS Endeavour and HMS Discovery.
And we cannot forget that on a later voyage to the Galapagos aboard the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin formulated his theory of evolution, perhaps the most important development in the history of science.
The ability to accurately navigate and chart waters on the other side of the world was a feat in and of itself that would not have been possible without sustained scientific advancement, in particular the problem of accurately judging a ship’s longitude. Measuring latitude was done easily enough: by checking the sun’s altitude at noon against a series of charts.
A sextant used in the 18th Century to judge the angular distance between objects, necessary for calculating one's position.
Longitude—one’s position east or west—was another matter altogether. In the 17th Century it could only be determined by dead reckoning. This made accurate navigation on transoceanic voyages treacherous, perilous and frequently fatal. King Charles II, recognized the problem and in 1675 announced the foundation of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich which would, he hoped, “find the so-much desired longitude of places.”
The curious-looking Royal Observatory set atop a hill beyond the Maritime Museum. It was once the site of a Tudor palace.
This odd little building overlooking the rest of the Greenwich UNESCO site holds a special place in the history of science. The first attempts at solving the longitude problem looked to the stars, hoping celestial measurements would provide the answer. Britain’s foremost astronomers worked from the observatory making great strides in telescope technology and recording many new astronomical phenomena, including the first definite sighting of the planet Uranus in 1690 (though it would not be properly identified as such until a century later by the astronomer William Herschel who was also working in London).
But the problem of longitude defied the astronomers’ best efforts and proved so vexing that in 1714 the British Government offered a ₤20,000 prize ($5 million CAD today) to whoever solved the riddle. The Spanish and Dutch governments had offered similar prizes but had signally failed to produce results. It took over 50 years for a solution to be found, and it didn’t come from one of the illustrious astronomer royals, but from a humble Yorkshire carpenter and clockmaker.
John Harrison sought to solve the problem by building the first precise clock that could tell navigators exactly what time it was at a given point—Greenwich. This knowledge would allow a completely accurate longitude calculation. But a clock that could work accurately from a moving ship, survive the hardships of sea and not be affected by fluctuations in temperature, pressure and humidity was thought impossible by many, including giants like Sir Isaac Newton. Yet in the 1760s Harrison built such a clock, called H4, accurate enough to be adopted and revolutionary enough to represent a giant leap forward in the immensely complex science of clock-making.
The deceptively simple H4 Chronometer built by John Harrison that revolutionized navigation. At first the Admiralty refused to believe Harrison's claim the clock only lost 5 seconds over a 61 day sea voyage, thinking it was too good to be true.
Now with accurate charts possible, voyages like Cook’s were possible to accurately map the world. Suddenly naval cartography became stunningly accurate. Some of the charts created by Captain George Vancouver during his surveying of British Columbia’s coast in the 1790s remained in use until the advent of GPS. Now all of the Royal Navy’s charts set Greenwich as the Prime Meridian, Longitude 0° 0' 0''. Today it runs through the centre of the observatory compound, a steel band along the ground. You can stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and the other in the west.
By the late 19th Century British ships using chronometers set to Greenwich Time and calculating their longitude in relation to the Royal Observatory dominated world trade. When railways and communications necessitated the creation of an international standard for time (prior to this every town set its own time) Greenwich was the obvious choice. In 1884 an international convention voted Greenwich as the world’s Longitude 0, “the centre of world time and space.” This is the basis of our system of time, Greenwich Mean Time.
Today the Royal Navy is but a shadow of its former self, succeeded as global naval hegemon, perhaps fittingly, by the United States Navy. Yet the years of 18th Century British naval dominance and 19th Century Pax Brittanica had incalculable effects upon the world’s future development. It is impossible to understand the world today without some understanding of the role the Royal Navy once played in it. At Maritime Greenwich, inside these breathtaking buildings, we can recapture a sense of the Navy’s former glory and come to grips with the perplexing concept that this small, rainy archipelago once, for a brief yet crucial period, set the world’s course.
Next: 2. Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump →
Also On This Spot
Then and Now Photo Essay
Then and Now Photo Essay
Be sure to follow On This Spot on Facebook and Twitter or subscribe to the mailing list to keep updated with the latest Then and Now photo essays and history-travel writing!
Subscribe for Updates