BLEBY. THE VICTORIAN NAVAL BRIGADES. DUNBEATH, SCOTLAND: WHITTLES
By John Beeler, University of Alabama
Beeler is a professor of history at the University of Alabama and his
field of research specialization is Victorian naval policy. He has
published two books on aspects of the subject, British Naval Policy
in the Gladstone-Disraeli Era, 1866-1880 (1997) and Birth of the
Battleship: British Capital Ship Design Policy, 1870-1881 (2001). In
addition, Beeler edited Donald M. Schurman's Imperial Defense,
1868-1887 (2000) and is now editing the papers of Admiral Sir
Alexander Milne (1806-1896) for the Navy Records Society. The first
of three volumes was published in 2004.
Bleby’s work had as its genesis a Naval Review article on naval participation in the Zulu War (1878-79), to which he has added chapters on the Crimean War (1854-56), the Indian Rebellion (1857-58), the Abyssinian expedition (1867-68), the second Ashanti War (1873-74), the first and second Boer Wars (1880-81 and 1899-1902), the British occupation of Egypt (1882), the failed mission to rescue Charles Gordon at Khartoum (1884-85), and the Boxer Rebellion (1900). It is not, as he makes clear, a comprehensive history of such participation in Victorian military campaigns nor is it restricted to purely military activities—much space being devoted to Charles Beresford’s exploits on the Nile in January 1884, for example—although the focus is first and foremost on naval personnel fighting ashore. Beyond that, Bleby has concentrated on campaigns in which Royal Navy officers and men played significant roles. It is also, above all, a campaign history, with both the strengths and weaknesses inherent in that approach. Those in search of operational detail probably will not be disappointed, while those seeking the larger geopolitical or geostrategic contexts in which these military actions were situated may wish to consult more general works for such information.
It has been written with a general interest audience in view. Bleby relies wholly on published sources, split fairly evenly between contemporary accounts—often memoirs—and secondary accounts. It is to be regretted, however, that he evidently failed to consult volumes six and seven of William Laird Clowes’s monumental History of the Royal Navy from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (1897-1903), which, although more than a century old, remains an indispensable source for the navy’s activities, both at sea and ashore, during the Pax Britannica. Clowes furnishes succinct accounts of all of these campaigns, which would in many cases have provided valuable supplements to Bleby’s other sources, and furthermore provide the first names of many of the dramatis personae appearing in his volume. Clowes, furthermore, has recently been reprinted by Chatham Publishing (1997), and is thus easily obtainable, making his omission all the more puzzling.
In sum, this is a work with appeal to general readers interested in the Victorian Royal Navy, and in colonial military campaigns, but one unlikely to be of much utility for scholars, if for no other reason than it lacks an index. A final note: some readers are likely to be put off by some of the descriptive terms used for the naval brigades’ foes (and sometimes their friends as well) found in the sources on which Bleby relied and whom he often quotes. And it is a bit unsettling, in the wake of Abu Gharib and in light of the scandals surrounding the detention facility at Guantanamo and the illegal American policy of “extraordinary rendition,” to find the following episode recounted without any authorial strictures on the treatment of civilians: “The Safieh [Beresford’s vessel on the Nile] was conned upstream by a native pilot. Beresford...had told him that if the boat was successful in making the trip he would be rewarded but that if there were any indication of treachery he would be shot forthwith! He was stood on a box so as to see over the barricade round the wheel and handcuffed to a staunchion. Beside him stood an iron-faced petty officer with a drawn revolver.”(118)