England’s Maritime Heritage

Britons in the early twentieth century felt threatened not only militarily but commercially as well, and once again Germany was identified as the main enemy.  In November of 1895 a”Times” dispatch informed Englishmen that “Germany is by far the most dangerous of our industrial competitors at the present moment.”‘  1

Of particular concern to Britain was Germany’s threat to its shipping industry, since the nation’s traditional commercial strength was its domination of the sea.  “The menace which the German merchant marine offered to the prosperity and world leadership of the British maritime carrying trade loomed up at the close of the century.”   2  But while Germany was the primary object of suspicion, it was not the only threat to British maritime supremacy; the Americans were also a cause of great concern, especially after 1902, when J.P. Morgan purchased several important British steamship companies.

As a reaction to fears of national decay at the turn of the century there was an increased emphasis on England’s national heritage, with which the sea was inextricably linked, and what might be called a “cult of the sea” developed in England during this period.

England’s attitude towards the sea was expressed by the British statesman who told Parliament:

Ships, ships, ships. By them we exist as a nation, by them we advance, by them we exalt our national dignity. In area England is small, but England owns the Atlantic — the Atlantic is a British Pond.  3

Yachting and the Cowes Regatta

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Yachtsman

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Yachtsman

One manifestation of the Cult of the Sea was the interest in yachting among Englishmen of the late nineteenth century, and the great regattas, such as the one at Cowes, assumed tremendous importance to the members of English Society during this period.  The Kaiser was a regular guest at Cowes and his approach to the sport ensured that yachting became an arena for fierce Anglo-German rivalry. 4

The Kaiser’s domineering manner particularly infuriated his uncle, the Prince of Wales, who complained, “The regatta used to be a pleasant recreation for me, but now, since the Kaiser takes command, it is a vexation.”  5

England’s Maritime Heritage in Literature and Poetry

It was no coincidence that the hero of the invasion novel The Riddle of the Sands was a sailor-yachtsman whose nautical skill saves England from German invasion:  “A sun-burnt, brine-burnt zealot… he drew his inspiration from the very wind and spray.  He communed with the tiller.”  At one point in the novel the sailor, Davies, himself explains, “We’re a maritime nation.  We’ve grown by the sea and live by it; if we lose command of it we starve.” 6

The Edwardian period saw England’s maritime heritage celebrated by her poets as well. Rudyard Kipling, the best known of this group, viewed the sea as the soul of the British Empire: “He sang of the merchantmen of the world, of the engineers who stoked the furnaces of the great ships; he sang of the great schooners that hunted seal; he wrote of the great liners themselves, the tramp steamers, the whaling ships. He christened and immortalized the great age of the Seven Seas.”  7

Rudyard Kipling

Rudyard Kipling

For Kipling, the sea, like the colonies, was the rightful possesion of a nation which had paid for it in blood:

We have fed our sea for a thousand years
And she calls us, still unfed,
Though there’s never a wave of all her waves
But marks our English dead:
We have strewed our best to the weed’s unrest
To the shark and the sheering gull.
If blood be the price of admiralty,
Lord God, we ha’ paid in full!’

(Rudyard Kipling, A Song of the English8

Kipling’s volume, The Seven Seas, also included a poem entitled “The Liner She’s a Lady,” and “McAndrew’s Hymn,” a tribute to the men in the engine rooms of England’s steamships.   And in 1911, Kipling published A History of England, a collection of verse that included the poem “Big Steamers,” a dialogue between England and her merchant fleet, and “The Secret of the Machines,” in which he wrote:

You can start this very evening if you choose,
And take the Western Ocean in the stride
Of Seventy thousand horses and some screws!
The boat-express is waiting your command!
You will find the Mauretania at the quay,
Till her captain turns the lever ‘neath his hand,
And the monstrous nine-decked city goes to sea.

Henry Newbolt also dedicated several volumes of verse to England’s Navy and merchant marine. He frequently referred to the English as “The Island Race,” and used that phrase as the title of a collection of poems published in 1898. The title poem of another volume, “Admirals All,” is a tribute to the great English admirals who “left us a kingdom none can take – The realm of the circling sea.”  9

Next Page:  Cunard Line’s Mauretania and Lusitania: British Ocean Liners as Symbols of National Renewal

  1. “The Times”. November 25, 1895. 5e.
  2. Ross Hoffman. Great Britain and the German Trade Rivalry. (Philadelphia: 1933). Page 225.
  3. “World’s Work.” v. 17,  page 10931  (November, 1908).
  4. Andres Maurois,  The Edwardian Era.  (New York: 1933).  Page 86.
  5. Maurois.  Page 86.
  6. Erskine Childers.  The Riddle of the Sands.  (London: 1930). Pages 127-130.
  7. ” Seon Manley. Rudyard Kipling, Creative Adventurer. (New York: 1965). Page 129. 1965. p.129.
  8. Rudyard Kipling.  The Seven Seas.    (New York:    1898). Page 8.
  9. Henry Newbolt. Admirals All. (New York: 1910). Page 5.

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