The Battle of Quiberon Bay (November 20, 1759) may not be as famous as Trafalgar -- but possibly just as significant in demonstrating Britain's maritime superiority over its two nearest rivals France and Spain, opened the door for expanding trade links into North America, India and the Far East.
What has this got to do with me, you might ask?
The Navy at the time wasn't especially big or its ships necessarily more powerful than the French, but historians, such as N A M Roger and Tim Clayton, argue it was people management that won the day.
Along with brilliant tactics and great courage, of course.
Here are some of the reasons why the Royal Navy of the 1750s was better at organising its people than its enemies:
- Training: Operating a vehicle as complex as a warship took an incredible amount of training. Both the officers and crew did regular on-the-job training throughout their careers. Numeracy and literacy were relatively high among the crew and it was common for a tutor to be included in the complement. Junior officers were expected to climb the rigging and manhandle the sails alongside lower ranks of crewmen so that they could learn the ropes.
- Rewards: The Navy was more egalitarian than dry-land employers, with the lower ranks enjoying better pay and living conditions than they could expect as landlubbers. Conversely, officers who came from more privileged families had to accept tougher living conditions than they were used to. All ranks supplemented their wages with a share of prize money, won by capturing enemy ships. This proved a strong incentive to aggressively pursuing the Navy's goals. Aside from pay, officers and crew also gained a considerable amount of mystique from travelling around the world and risking their lives.
- Advancement: The power of patronage was as strong in the Navy as the rest of Georgian life. Officers manoeuvred themselves into roles and ships that were likely to result in promotions or prizes through their links to more powerful people within the organisation. A canny officer would make sure he was followed by key crew-members, who he would bring with him from ship to ship as he advanced, improving his chances of success. Good crew members attached themselves to promising officers, because the relationship increased their chances of being on the best ships in missions likely to result in big prizes. It was a practical meritocracy. The opportunities of moving up into the officer class were good for promising crew members and it was not unusual for an able seaman with a poor background to rise to the upper-ranks of the ship, if they were good enough and knew the right people.
- Flexibility: Far from rigidly adhering to strict regulations, ships at sea were relatively relaxed in terms of dress and discipline. The crew had to buy their own clothes and so were free to dress as their purse could provide. Contrary to the assumption of harsh discipline, punishments were very much down to the captain's discretion. Even desertion was treated leniently if the sailor returned. Officers were left to their own devices at sea and there was a good chance they would exceed their original orders (if there was a prize-worthy ship to consider, for instance) without the risk of censure from their superiors.
- Resources: The Navy in the 1750s was extremely well provisioned and took a sizeable share of the government of the day's revenue. At any one time, a good proportion of its ships were in dock for repair or refitting. Ships on active service were restocked while at sea for the first time.
One of the reasons why historians have chosen to study this subject is because of the access to a huge amount of documentation. The service's bureaucracy was very efficient in processing orders for goods claimed by tradesmen and sailors pay. In terms of procuring food and other crew consumables (such as alcohol), each ship functioned as a separate business unit. The ship's purser was responsible for supplying these goods, out of his own pocket, with the allowance of a reasonable profit.
Ideas such as employee engagement, equal opportunities and remote management -- they aren't as new as we might think.