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'There is reason to believe that many of our ships which, in the last war, gave laws to the whole world, were constructed from oaks planted at that time. The present age must reflect upon this with gratitude, and it is to be hoped that we shall be ambitious to receive from posterity the same acknowledgment that we, at this moment, pay to the memory of our virtuous ancestors.'
Dr Nisbet, Evelyn's modern editor, attributes a similar result to the publication of Hunter's massive quarto. It is a doubtful if a pleasant story, yet one very popular with authors. Isaac Disraeli talks of Evelyn's 'triumphant oaks.' Inquire,' he says, 'at the Admiralty how the fleets of Nelson had been constructed, and they can tell you that it was with the oaks that the genius of Evelyn planted.' The general wastage of the forests must have continued after the 'great planting'; and millions of trees were cut down for 'fewel,' men being 'more studious to cut down than to plant.' Evelyn tells us that acorns planted in hedge-rows have borne a stem of a foot diameter in thirty years. Pepys' Commission sat twenty-four years after the appearance of 'Sylva'; and had Evelyn's trees existed, the master-builders could not have failed to report on so goodly a store of
sapling oaks, which at Britannia's call,
May heave their trunks mature into the main,
There is no doubt, however, that the wastage continued unchecked. A Committee of the House of Commons appointed in 1771 only touched the fringe of the danger when it reported that the East India Company was building ships far in excess of the tonnage requirements of their trade, and recommended the Act, passed in the following year, limiting their activities to the Colonies and India. The evil was widespread. Dr Hunter recorded in 1776 that the cutting down of all kinds of woods is become so general that unless some effectual remedy be soon applied, it is more than probable that very little full-grown timber will be left in this island for the use of the ship-builder.' He added this grave warning: The most serious and positive proofs can be produced that, at this very moment, the Royal Navy is
in want of timber. With what zeal ought we to join in warding off the impending danger?'
The danger was even then at our doors; for it was in 1776 that De Vergennes' policy of secretly aiding the American rebels was definitely accepted by Louis XVI. France then began to collect timber and stores for rebuilding the fleet which was to deprive England of her supremacy at sea. In his article in the Dictionary of National Biography on the Earl of Sandwich, Sir J. K. Laughton says that in 1780 the dockyards were sinks of iniquity; but that at no time were they so utterly bad as during the War of American Independence. As a result of Sandwich's methods, the charge of departments was in the hands of men without qualifications:
'It is not to be wondered at that, when war with France broke out in 1778, the number of ships in the Navy was inadequate, and that of what there were many were not sea-worthy; that the naval store-houses were empty; that the ships sent to America under Admiral John Byron were rigged with twice-laid rope; that it was only with the greatest difficulty and after most vexatious delay that Keppel got to sea with a fleet still numerically inferior to that under D'Orvilliers; and that on his return to Plymouth, after the indecisive action of 27th July there were neither masts, nor spars, nor rope for the necessary refitting. This was at the very beginning of the war, but the same want of ships and of stores continued throughout.'
The incompetence of Lord Sandwich's administration of the Navy is matter of history; but for the lack of timber, and consequent shortage of ships, which brought us nearly to disaster, the nation at large is to blame.
A year before France declared war, steps were taken by the Admiralty to deal with the impending shortage of masts. In November 1777, the Navy Board reported that, although the magazines were well stored, 'there are but few large masts due upon contract, and the present contractor apprehends there may be difficulty in providing further supplies.' The Admiralty resolved that a mission should be sent to Russia to purchase such masts as could be had immediately, and to contract for a further supply; and Mr Butt, one of the principal officers of Deptford yard, was selected; and, in requesting Lord Suffolk's good offices for him, Lord Sandwich added, 'for tho', thank God,
we have a large store in hand, as our intercourse with America, which was our sole dependance, is cut off, it is absolutely incumbent on us to look forward and to provide ourselves in time from another quarter.' Butt's instructions were to visit Berlin, Danzig, Memel, Riga, St Petersburg, and any other places he thought advisable, 'to ascertain whether there are any timber trees upon the continent of Europe, of sufficient diameter to form masts (without piecing) for large ships of war, and so selected as to be a merchantable commodity, capable of being brought within our contracts for the supply of His Majesty's Navy.'
Butt's report has unfortunately not been preserved; but in May 1785 Sir Charles Middleton reported that the stock in hand of masts was very large, though many, but probably not all, had come from Nova Scotia. The French, waiting to declare war as soon as they were ready, were already in the market. In July 1776, it was known that they had
'purchased great quantities of naval stores, and particularly ships' timber from Riga, and from that part of Poland of which His Prussian Majesty lately took possession; and this circumstance, added to the frequent visits which the Prussian Minister in Paris has lately made to M. de Maurepas, has given rise to the report that a Treaty of Commerce is in agitation between the Courts of Versailles and Berlin, in which the latter will stipulate to furnish France with a certain quantity of bois de construction.'
The anxiety consequent on the shortage of timber continued throughout the French Wars. The evidence given before the Commissioners of Land Revenue in 1791 was the same as had been given before the Parliamentary Committee in 1771; and in 1796 the position does not appear to have improved. In 1810 Lord Melville, who had himself been at the Admiralty, wrote a long letter to Mr Perceval, referring to the apathy in the matter of planting oaks during the last forty years, and emphasising the general alarm.
The development of a foreign, in aid of the domestic, policy must now be briefly traced. The demands of the dockyards being far in excess of the home supply, there developed a trade with foreign countries. The parties
to the contracts on which this trade was based were: on the one side, the purchasing Government, acting through, or as the above correspondence shows, on behalf of, its contractors; and on the other, the vendor, an individual merchant; in the case of naval stores, the ships' chandlers; of timber, the owners of private forests.
It is not probable that timber from State forests would be available for foreign Governments, for the navy of the smallest maritime Power was Royal, and its upkeep would, as in England, be primarily dependent on the Royal forests. Moreover, the fulfilment of contracts with foreign States for the supply of State timber might, in the event of war, give rise to awkward questions of neutrality. Frederick the Great, following his traditional practice of playing off France against England, would not be affected by such considerations. But this trade, even in peace, would need protection, e.g. from excessive export duties, or arbitrary interference by the Government; and this would be sought by means of commercial treaties. These treaties are alliances for the limited purposes of commerce; but they prepare the way for political alliances. The necessity of the State is the mother of its policy; and thus gradually England's policy of ships' timber and naval stores, in its external development, took shape. In Fox's words, 'alliances with the Northern Powers,' the great storehouses of ships' timber and naval stores, 'ever have been, and ever will be, the system of every enlightened Englishman.'
The rivalry between France and England to place contracts for Prussian timber brings us to the manifestation of English policy in time of war; and we get at once to the heart of the controversy which raged in all the great wars. For, some thirty years before, Frederick sought to maintain, by many devious means, that ships' timber and naval stores were not contraband by the Law of Nature, on which the Law of Nations was based. This position, consistently maintained through the second half of the 18th century, still finds supporters. In a modern German work,* the authors assert that in seizing these cargoes in Prussian ships in 1744-48, England gave a very wide extension to the conception
* Preussische Staatsschriften,' Berlin, 1885.
of contraband. There never was any question that in its true conception 'contraband' was synonymous with 'munitions of war'; but England maintained that ships' timber and naval stores came within the meaning of that term, for the simple reason that war at sea could not be carried on without them.
It is strange that a question apparently so elementary should have given rise to such fierce debate. Space will only allow me to deal with it broadly, though I hope clearly. Rutherford, in his 'Institutes,' puts the matter in a nutshell thus:
'Where a war is carried on by sea as well as by land, not only ships of war which are already built, but the materials for building or repairing of ships, will come under the notion of warlike stores.'
The definition of contraband adopted in the Jay Treaty in 1794 included 'timber for ship-building, tar and rosin, copper in sheets, sails, hemp and cordage, and generally whatever may serve directly to the equipment of vessels, unwrought iron and fir planks only excepted.'
In defending this article against the attacks of Jefferson and his party, Alexander Hamilton* adopted Rutherford's view as a precise idea, and, it must be confessed, not an irrational one.' And he added
'In wars between maritime nations whose dominions cannot be attacked or defended without a superiority in naval strength, who moreover possess distant territories, the protection and commercial advantages of which depend on the existence and support of navies, it is difficult to maintain that it is against reason or against those principles which regulate the description of contraband, to consider as such the materials which appertain to the construction and equipment of ships.'
Timber serves a double use-for houses as well as ships-hence the emphasis on ships' timber. But there were merchant ships as well as men-of-war; and this difficulty the English Prize Courts solved in a practical and equitable manner. Enemy destination, as the test of contraband, was held to be satisfied only when timber was going to a port of naval construction exclusively used for the building of warships.
In the 33rd Camillus' letter.