As part of the ongoing research for a new gallery, provisionally called ‘Navy, Nation and Nelson, 1688-1815′, I have recently been investigating the Museum’s collections relating to the Royal Navy in the 1740s. The simple premise is that by analysing what a nation read, bought and consumed during this period, we can begin to gauge how it thought about itself. During the 1740s a number of well-publicised naval victories struck a chord with the British national consciousness. Britain as a political and legal entity dated back to the 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, yet the concept of ‘Britishness’ understandably took time to sink into the nation’s collective heart. As the museum’s collections demonstrate, British naval victories during this decade were celebrated by various sections of society, while the navy began to be used as an emblem of national identity.
This found its truest expression in the widespread and unprecedented celebrations that followed Admiral Vernon‘s victories in the Caribbean in 1739-40. Ceramics with Vernon’s image emblazoned on them were purchased across the country. In the NMM’s collections is a swathe of material culture from the period, hinting at a widespread public engagement with Vernon and the navy.
Plate showing the taking of Porto Bello by Admiral Edward Vernon (AAA4352)
Vernon’s victories overlooked regional loyalties, being celebrated across England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland and North America. Prints, poems and ballads promoting Vernon as a British hero appeared across the nation. One poem implored, ‘Come loyal Britons all rejoyce with joyful acclamations’. This they did, in great numbers, by acquiring personal items that spoke loudly of a newfound patriotism. Many coins were produced in celebration of Vernon’s victories; indeed, more medals were stuck in Vernon’s honour than any other figure in the 18th century. The NMM alone has 219 medals related to Vernon.
Medal commemorating Admiral Edward Vernon (MEC0890)
Consumption crossed regional and class divides. Some of the medals were of cheap metal; although demonstrating poorer workmanship, they remained highly patriotic in sentiment.
Medal commemorating the capture of Porto Bello, 1739 (MEC0901)
Naval patriotism was not limited to ceramics and medals, and encroached onto a curious array of 18th century possessions. Echoing a modern day penchant for celebrity perfumes, Havana snuff that ‘came directly’ from Admiral Vernon was advertised widely. Who actually bought it is slightly unclear, but it is not too fanciful to imagine it being a helpful talking point at Georgian dinners. There was something for female consumers too; fans were produced prominently displaying Admiral Vernon and portraying him as a national hero.
An ivory and paper fan printed with a depiction of Vernon’s victory at Portobello, 21 November 1739, hand coloured, 1740 (OBJ0421)
Written on the fan was the verse:
‘How the Briton Cannon Thunders
See my lads six ships appear
Every Briton acting wonders
Strikes the Southern World with Fear…’
Words like ‘Briton’s’ and ‘Britain’ embellished a variety of material culture inspired by Vernon. In doing so the navy was assisting in the creation of a ‘British’ identity.
The use of naval figures to propagate patriotic fervour was not limited to Vernon. Admirals Anson and Warren were also celebrated in a wide range of prints, pamphlets and material culture. Anson’s capture of a Spanish treasure fleet made him a national hero, with the treasure triumphantly paraded through the streets of London, helping to restore national self-esteem. His victory off Cape Finisterre in 1747 elevated him still further in the popular mind.
Medal commemorating the Battle of Cape Finisterre, 1747 and Admiral Lord Anson’s voyage, 1740-4 (MEC1134)
Accounts of his exploits were vastly popular. Crucially, he was judged as upholding fundamentally British characteristics; after the battle of Cape Finisterre, the Gentleman’s Magazine (also to be found at the NMM) highlighted ‘that truly British nobleman’ who had fought so well. Anson made sure the most widely read literature recorded a favourable account of his exploits, and loaded it with patriotic language. The art of self-promotion was an important part of the naval officer’s skill-set.
George Lord Anson Vice Admiral of Great Britain, Admiral of the Blue Squadron of His Majesty’s Fleet, 1751(PAF3416)
Both Anson and Warren, were celebrated in song:
‘To Anson and Warren your Bumpers life high,
They’ll chase the French Squadrons beneath ev’ry Sky…
…O’erjoy’d they fail forth and come up with the Foe,
Determin’d like Britons to strike a bold Blow.’
Anson and Warren: A Song. Words by Mr Lockman, set to music by Lewis Granom Esq. Printed for J. Simpson, London, 1747
This was stirring stuff; self-consciously patriotic and undeniably popular. The navy was a national symbol capable of crossing regional and social divides. In doing so, it was to make a significant contribution to the process of cultural nation building during the 18th century.