The first thing that is needed is to define the gunboat. They are best known for their role in Victorian ‘gunboat diplomacy’, but that didn’t automatically require actual gunboats. The classic gunboat evolved from small screw powered wooden vessels that were produced in a hurry for service in the Crimean War, and that were designed for the naval bombardment of Russian fortifications. This produced a large number of small shallow draft vessels that weren’t suitable for long distance voyages, but that were very effective in their intended role, and some larger gunvessels, which were more versatile. The ‘classic’ Victorian gunboat owed more to these larger gunvessels than to the small gunboats (both names were used at the time, but most of the later classes were officially gunvessels or sloops).
In many ways these vessels resemble the later destroyers – small enough to be produced in large numbers, but large enough to make an effective statement of British naval power, and to carry out lengthy ocean voyages, and with the ability to operate in shallow waters and rivers. However they were never really meant to be used against serious naval opponents, and towards the end of their time were the ships described as being ‘too weak to fight, and too slow to run away’.
The bulk of the book focuses on the ships themselves, looking at the technical specifications of the quite sizable array of different types of gunboats, vessels and screw driven sloops that carried out the gunboat roll.
We only get three pages dedicated to the gunboats in action (although this focuses on the ‘classic’ gunboat diplomacy – their use in the Crimea is covered earlier. However even in this short section we get a good idea of the wide range of activities performed by these small vessels, which ranged from helping to put down riots on Jamaica to taking part in the anti-slavery campaign, protecting British traders or dealing with pirates. This is enough to give some idea of their flexibility, and also why they slowly fell out of use, but I must admit I’d have liked more. However despite that minor quibble this is a useful look at a famous type of Victorian warship.
Design, Development and Function
- The Crimean gunboats
- The gunvessels
- From wood to iron
- Changing roles
- From gunvessel to sloop
- The last Victorian gunboats
Gunboats in Action
Author: Angus Konstam