"Our Proudest Heritage": Masculinity, Nostalgia, and the Sailing Navy on Display, 1820-1920 Open Access
Through the nineteenth century, Britain experienced an extended period of naval anxiety. At the close of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the nation was secure in its position as the preeminent naval power in Europe, having concluded nearly a century’s series of French wars, and having specifically confirmed its naval supremacy at Trafalgar in 1805. There was no question in the early decades of the century that “Britannia ruled the waves,” but as the decades wore on, British popular culture could not say for certain whether the navy would look as glorious while demonstrating its power, nor whether steam-powered vessels created a capacity for heroism. The nineteenth century has been studied as a nostalgic time in British history, when the nation looked to its real and imagined past for a sense of shared identity. Nostalgia was present in the land-based mythology of “merrie England,” and in an emerging national interest in historic places, but this study examines how nostalgia was present in British conceptions of the navy as well. As the Royal Navy transitioned from sail to steam, the popular press expressed an increasing worry that the technologically- advanced fleet of the present may not be as heroic as the sailing fleet that had secured dominion of the waves, and that sailors of the present may be stripped of their chance for glory. Britain expressed its concern for the navy’s image through newspapers, popular magazines, literature, and prints, and also began to put its navy on display in new ways. Through exhibitions, galleries, and the preservation of sailing ships as floating monuments, representation of the navy in the public sphere created a narrative that overwrote modern realities with a glorified past. The sailing navy, in its commemorated form, became a symbol of Britain’s national character, and its sailors were portrayed as embodiments of British masculinity, morality, work ethic and patriotism. By looking to the naval past, displays argued, the nation could find something ancient in its character that could maintain Britain’s worth in a modern century. In the relatively peaceful early decades, the navy of the past provided a convenient framework to promote proper British conduct in daily life. From the relatively peaceful early decades, through the naval scares of the 1880s and 1890s and even through the First World War, the sailors of the historical navy came to be marketed as ideal role models for British boys. While nineteenth-century displays and representations of the Royal Navy hinged on the understanding that it was the modern fleet that protected the nation’s empire and maintained its position in the world, it was the navy of the past that embodied Britain’s self-image.
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