Salt water in the blood
Race, indigenous naval recruitment and British colonialism, 1934–41
in A new naval history
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The British Empire reached its greatest extent at the end of the First World War, but the Royal Navy’s ability to uphold Britain’s global interests was limited by economic downturn and the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. To mitigate this imperial overstretch, over 40,000 Asian, African, Caribbean and Pacific sailors were recruited into colonial navies and reserves by the time of the Second World War. These units physically and psychologically fortified British colonialism against internal and external dissidents, indoctrinating imperial discourses of power that reinforced racialised systems of hierarchy and control; ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ and ‘Orientalism’ delineated chains of command where paternalistic British officers instructed ‘native’ ratings in their ‘civilising mission’ to ‘develop’ the ‘character’ of a ‘modern’ navy. ‘Martial race’ theory, which ethnically categorised ‘natural’ soldiers, served to ‘divide and rule’ by promoting imperially loyal groups over those threatening the status quo, and for naval recruiters a distinctly ‘seafaring race’ theory evolved around maritime semantics with a similar imperial purpose. Utilising transnational research which reconciles ‘official’ and ‘subaltern’ sources from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, this chapter examines the social and cultural impact of naval-indigenous interactions upon racial identities, colonial ethnic relations, imperial power and decolonisation at the end of the British Empire.

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