British involvement in the Indian Ocean and Pacific began over four hundred years ago, with a series of voyages of exploration (combined with attacks on the Spanish) that opened British eyes to the commercial potential of the area. The result was the formation of the British East India Company, which for the first century of its existence was a commercial power, existing under the protection of the Mughal Empire. Only after the collapse of the Mughal Empire did the Company start to become a ‘country’ power, the first steps towards the creation of the British Empire in India. Although plenty of rivals remained in India, they were almost entirely land powers, so the main rivals for the British were normally other European powers – the Portuguese, Dutch or France.
The nature of British naval power in these areas was rather unusual. For much of the period the British East India Company provided most naval power in the area, but this was very variable in nature. The Company’s most powerful ships were the East Indiamen, some of which were similar in size to the smaller ships of the line, but their role was to sail between Britain and India, so they weren’t always present in Indian waters. When they were present they were normally too large for any Indian ships to attack, but were potentially vulnerable to European privateers. When they were absent the Company was left with the ships of the Bombay Marine, which were normally built in India and were much smaller, generally similar to the ships used by the Indian powers. Royal Naval squadrons appeared in the area at times of conflict, but often disappeared again with the return of peace.
One interesting thing to emerge from this book is that despite the long period of British dominance in the Indian Ocean it wasn’t the site of any of Britain’s major naval battles. Until the rise of Japanese naval power in the twentieth century Britain’s main naval rivals were all European, and could never afford to send really powerful fleets to the area. During the Second World War the Japanese made one major foray into the Indian Ocean in an attempt to find and destroyer the British Eastern Fleet, but they failed to find it. By the time the Royal Navy was able to return to the area in strength later in the war the Japanese Navy had suffered heavy losses in the Pacific and was no longer able to deploy powerful fleets in the Indian Ocean. For much of the period of British dominance the key to their control of the Indian Ocean was actually their control of Cape Town and with it the main approach route, effectively blocking any rival from getting into the ocean.
As the part headings suggest, this book pays equal attention to the activities of the Company’s ships and the Royal Navy, and within the company to the actions of the local ships of the Bombay Marine (and the Indian Navy that replaced it) and the larger East Indiamen.
This is an excellent study of the area that was at the heart of the British Empire and the constant naval struggle to gain and then maintain power.
Part I: The Company and the Bombay Marine
1 – The Company’s Early Struggles (1600-1625)
2 – The Company Survives (1625-1680)
3 – Interlopers and Union (1680-1710)
4 – Wider Interests, Greater Threats (1710-1750)
Part II: The Bombay Marine and the Royal Navy
5 – British Dominance Established (1748-1763)
6 – The French Threat Continues (1763-1782)
7 – The Decisive War (1782-1783)
8 – A Ring of Enemies (1783-1803)
9 – Destroying all Rivals (1803-1811)
Part III: The Royal Navy and the Indian Navy
10 – The Company Reduced, its Empire Expanded (1811-1838)
11 – Imperial Warfare (1838-1863)
12 – The British Lake (1863-1935)
13 – A Successful Defence (1935-1945)
14 – Imperial Withdrawal (1945 and after)
Author: John D. Grainger