Discussions on the history and historiography of Australia's New England

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

History revisited - revolution born out of England's loss of war

Chatting to a friend the other day, I was asked why the British Empire became such a successful power. Books have been written on this subject, often focused on the Navy or economic developments. Samuel Pepys, I said. My answer surprised.

Today, Pepys is best known for his famous diaries, his love of fashion and his varied love life. However, he was far more than that.

The Second Dutch War (1665-1667), one of four fought between the English Van_Soest,_Attack_on_the_Medwayand Dutch for control of the  trade routes, was a disaster for the English side. Inefficiency and endemic corruption had sapped the strength of the navy. A humiliated England found itself humbled by a rival with a quarter of the population.

The painting by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest shows the Dutch Attack on the Medway, June 1667. The captured ship Royal Charles is right of center

Bitter recriminations followed. This provided Pepys with the opportunity to reshape the English Navy as a professional naval and industrial force. The Navy with its dock and shipyards became the world’s largest industrial complex. Pepys’ reforms also helped create a competent and professional civil service.

The power of Empire rested on the shoulders of its public servants. They recorded the letters and processed the payment orders flowing in from around the world. A naval captain in a strange place thousands of miles from London could issue an order for supplies because he and the supplier knew that the order would be honoured.

This may sound remote from modern Armidale, It’s not as remote as might seem, for the city’s existence and shape have been influenced by the things that I am talking about. Fairly obviously, the city would not exist at all without the decision to send the First Fleet. However, it’s more than that.

Published in 1975, Australian Space, Australian Time explored the impact on the Australian landscape of Government decisions in London and the colonies over the first hundred or so years of European settlement.

In London, the key early figure was the Third Secretary of State dealing with war and the colonies, a Cabinet member. He operated in the political environment, while day to day business rested with his Under Secretary, the top civil servant. In Sydney, power rested with the Governor, supported by the Chief Secretary as his top civil servant. In both cases, power slowly shifted to the officials.

The varying lay-out of our cities and towns, the names on our maps, all represent the interaction between London and Sydney.

There were always tensions between the needs and desires of metropolitan Government and local conditions. From 1825 these became more acute as Westminster sought to impose metropolitan theories of land settlement on NSW. The conflict that resulted would lead to self-government for NSW. But that’s another story.

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express Extra on 11 September 2013. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the columns are not on line outside subscription. You can see all the Belshaw World and History Revisited columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012, here for 2013.

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