Why "Gunboat Diplomacy" got to be called Gunboat Diplomacy

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright August 2013

The fossil fuel revolution started in England in 1712 with steam engines pumping waste water out of mines. (‪Newcomen atmospheric engine) As they were perfected, these engines did this pumping faster, better and cheaper than human or horse power, and inventors started developing other applications. One of the pioneers in making early steam engines work better was James Watt. These first engines were huge and clunky, but they inspired. As this Wikipedia steam boat article describes a whole lot of inventors around Europe and America in the 1700's worked hard at adapting the steam engine concept to powering boats and ships. The first commercial success was created by Robert Fulton on the Hudson River in 1807.

His success fired a revolution in transportation. Steam boats could go places sailing ships could not, such as small and shallow rivers. This revolution opened up Great Lakes and Mississippi River commerce in the United States. "Go West, young man, Go West." made a lot more practical sense when that west could be serviced by the iconic river boats of the mid-1800's.

And war making was changed as well. In addition to aiding routine supply efforts, steam ships could carry big guns to new places. Think of the pictures of Civil War cannon (here is the ‪12-pounder Napoleon). This was as big as a cannon was going to get if it was moved from place-to-place over rough terrain by a team of horses. And 12 pounds was as big as the cannon ball was going to get.

But... if you can move a cannon on a ship! Hmm... The first Civil War example of this technology revolution was the Monitor of Battle of Hampton Roads fame. From the article, "The use of a small number of very heavy guns, mounted so that they could fire in all directions was first demonstrated by Monitor but soon became standard in warships of all types.‬" This first monitor could mount a pair of 15 inch guns which could fire 130 pound rounds -- ten times the punch of horse drawn. And things rapidly got bigger and better from there. The HMS Dreadnought (1906) and the Bismarck (1940) are famous icons of the improvement.

This ability to bring both big firepower and support ground troops wherever there was navigable water was the root of Gunboat Diplomacy. One war where this made a notable difference was the First Opium War between Britian and China (1839-42). While the Western European and North American powers had an edge in these technologies, this ability was decisive in the conflicts between nations and cultures. And the diplomats of the times recognized this, hence the name.

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