ROGER KNIGHT

Author and Historian

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and the Contractor State (with Martin Wilcox)

(Boydell and Brewer, 2010)

Provisioning the fleet, and the army overseas, during the French Wars of 1793-1815 was a major undertaking. This book explains how the Victualling Board in London handled this enormous task, focusing in particular on contractors - that is the merchants and brokers, who provided a vast range of commodities including flour and biscuit, salt beef and pork, as well as huge quantities of fresh water and coal, and every other item needed. It shows how these merchants could be large or small concerns, and provides detailed case studies of different kinds of contractors, including examples of contractors based both in Britain and in the navy's overseas bases.

The book demonstrates how overall the contracting system represented the mobilisation of a substantial part of the British economy for war; how the performance of contracting was effective, with little or no corruption; and how the contractors took considerable financial risks and made only reasonable margins. It assesses the performance of the Victualling Board, arguing that this was good, and that the problem in the major area of weakness - accounting - was quickly addressed following a major crisis in 1808-09. It concludes that this was "an impressive performance" by the state, but that the overwhelming advantage was the resilience of the market, and that it was "upon the success of the contractors that the war at sea was won."

 

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