Daniel Spence: Maritime Histories of Race and Power

Daniel Spence is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Read more about him here. He is a visitor at the University of Sydney, sponsored by Race and Ethnicity in the Global South. He arrives a week from tomorrow, and will be in Sydney from 21-31 October. He outlines his recent history and current project below.


Over a decade ago now, as an undergraduate student at Sheffield Hallam University, I was extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to study under two great imperial historians in Professors Peter Cain and Barbara Bush, whom I must accredit with sparking my interest in issues of race and ethnicity in the British Empire. I once considered a career in the Royal Navy until a recruiting officer said he thought academia made me too ‘free-thinking’ to be ‘moulded’. This personally resonated with documents I read in the UK National Maritime Museum when researching my MA dissertation on the 1946 Royal Indian Navy mutiny, in which British officers voiced their distrust of higher educated Hindu recruits who were thought to be ‘Nationalist minded… on account of the higher standard of education’,[i] and a ‘veneer of book learning overlaying their gullible nature’ which made these matriculates ‘God’s gift to the unscrupulous politician’.[ii] The Indian Navy’s chain of command reflected a racialised hierarchy which, like similar systems of colonial control, was designed to prop up British hegemony with the support of ‘loyal’ ethnic groups and exclusion of those deemed threatening to imperial rule. Empirical ‘knowledge’ was gathered to justify this institutionalised discrimination, creating ideological beliefs about the professional aptitude of different ‘races’. One of the most influential for the military was ‘martial race’ theory, which dominated the Indian Army after the 1857 rebellion and spread to colonial recruitment elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Yet despite the maritime essence of Britain’s empire, little academic attention has been afforded to colonial naval forces beyond India, which numbered fifteen in territories as culturally diverse as Trinidad, Zanzibar, Hong Kong and Fiji.

World Map

My PhD addressed this historiographical gap, and revealed for the first time not only the influence of martial race theory among naval recruiters, but also that a distinctly maritime variation evolved from it appealing to the unique nautical requirements of the Royal Navy and the environment of its colonial recruits. Whereas qualities such as courage and discipline (which by extension meant obedience to colonial rule) were still valued, the traditional ‘martial races’ were drawn from more rural areas inland and knew nothing of seamanship. Thus a search for ‘seafaring races’ preoccupied naval discourse, though like its military antecedent, this identity was fluid and became shaped by both coloniser and colonised as each sought to improve their position in response to the political, economic and social pressures of the 1930s and 40s.

The Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, 1944.[iii]

My current research develops this strand of my book, ‘Colonial naval culture and British imperialism, 1922-67’ (forthcoming this December in Manchester University Press’ ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series) which examined colonial naval forces in the Caribbean, East Africa, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong, by deepening the ideological focus and extending its transnational analysis across other areas of the British Empire. While t his opens up regions such as West and Southern Africa, and the Pacific, it also includes relative professions such as the mercantile marine for whom ‘invented traditions of ethnic specialism’[iv] were already established (most notably South Asian lascars) and lay precedents for the naval policies which followed.

I have spent the last month burrowing away in the Canadian archives, unearthing some fascinating documents relating to ‘Eskimo’ naval cadets and the Newfoundland fisheries (the oldest colony) which formed the first colonial division of the Royal Naval Reserve, becoming renowned as a ‘nursery of seamen’ which ‘breeds a splendid seafaring race’[v] and provided a benchmark for the Navy. I arrive in Sydney on the 21 October (coincidentally ‘Trafalgar Day’, another ‘invented tradition’ used to cultivate colonial navalism…), where I will begin two months research in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji investigating naval discourse regarding Aboriginal Australians, Torres Strait Islanders, Norfolk Islanders, Papua New Guineans (who formed a division of the Royal Australian Navy), Maori and Fijians (both considered ‘martial races’). I will be presenting a research seminar at USyd’s ‘History on Mondays’ series on the 27 October alongside local PhD student Harry Sargent who works on British militarism and martial races, and am most grateful to the Race and Ethnicity in the Global South group for kindly offering to host my visit. I look forward to sharing lots of stimulating discussions during my stay in Sydney, and encourage anyone interested in meeting to email me at spencedo@ufs.ac.za.

Daniel Owen Spence is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of the Free State, Innovation Scholar with South Africa’s National Research Foundation, and Fellow of Leiden University’s African Studies Centre.

[i] National Maritime Museum (NMM), GOD/43, Vice-Admiral J. H. Godfrey, Naval Headquarters, ‘Future of the RIN: First Impressions’, India 1943-1946, Vol. III., 8 March 1946, p. 2.

[ii] NMM, RIN/5/3 (6), MS88/043, Commodore Jefford to Mr. Justice Ayyangar during Commission of Inquiry, The Times of India, 24 April 1946.

[iii] Imperial War Museum, K 7520, uploaded to Wikimedia Commons 13 March 2013, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Trinidad_Royal_Naval_Volunteer_Reserve_(trnvr),_September_1944_K7520.jpg [10 October 2014].

[iv] John M. MacKenzie, ‘Lakes, rivers and oceans: Technology, ethnicity and the shipping of empire in the late nineteenth century’ in David Killingray, Margarette Lincoln and Nigel Rigby (eds.), Maritime Empires: British Imperial Maritime Trade in the Nineteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2004), pp. 111-127, 125.

[v] Address by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keys, House of Commons, March 1936, appendix A in Robert C. Parsons, Courage at Sea (St. John’s, 2014), p. 193.

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