Research project

Re-evaluating the Royal Navy

Project overview

This six-month scoping project on the global and imperial histories of the Royal Navy (RN) explores the Navy’s activities and purposes beyond military campaigns and battles.

There will be three connected points of focus: the RN and knowledge collection/production, including scientific research; the social, cultural, and collecting activities of RN personnel; and changing ideas about the global/imperial role of the RN.

The timeframe (1764–1876) was a transformative period for Britain as a maritime and imperial power, between the end of the Seven Years War and Queen Victoria’s accession as Empress of India. For the purposes of this project, it should also be understood as the period between the circumnavigation of HMS Dolphin, which marked the start of RN engagement in scientific exploration, and the return of HMS Challenger in 1876 from an expedition (1872–76) which defined the modern discipline of oceanography.

During this period, the RN was of central importance to Britain’s changing empire. The RN and its personnel were deeply invested in imperial transformations: from commercial agriculture in the Atlantic towards a global empire connected to an industrialised economy; from a political economy built around the transatlantic slave system towards one defined by the politics of anti-slavery; from a C18th mercantile fiscal-military state towards a C19th empire of free trade. Simultaneously, the RN and its personnel played a critical role in developing scientific disciplines and contributing to scientific research through surveying and collecting activities. Indeed the acquisition of nautical, geographical, and other forms of scientific data were intertwined with British geopolitical concerns – the acquisition of knowledge and power interlinked. This project will focus in particular on how those connected themes – the experience of empire and the acquisition of scientific knowledge – informed the everyday professional lives of generations of naval officers and men.


Lead researcher

Dr John Mcaleer

Associate Professor

Research interests

  • The British Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • The East India Company and its worlds.
  • Islands and empires.
Connect with John

Collaborating research institutes, centres and groups

Research outputs