Book Review: Nemesis by Andrian G. Marshall.


The secret weapon that changed Naval Warfare, Nemisis is a splendid evocation of the wild East during the crossover from sail to steam. 

Readers in Europe can buy the book via the History Press.
ISBN: 9780750967372
Published: 24-03-2016

Readers in U.S.A. And the rest of the world please order via NUS Press Singapore.
Publication Year: 2015
392 pages, 229mm x 152mm
ISBN: 978-9971-69-822-5, Paperback
Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World

From Homer right down to C.S Forester and Patrick O’Brian authors have turned to the isolated world of ships, as vehicles to tell a story, and in Nemesis all the elements are there. This however is not the story of men and their ships, this is the story of a ship and her men. Not unlike David Cordingly’s treatment of HMS Bellerophon, it charts the illustrious career of the first iron hulled war steamer, a revolution in naval warfare at that date

Nemesis is a famous ship, at least if you know anything about the Opium (or China Wars). Most usually seen in the marvellous depiction of her trial by fire at Chuenpee by Duncan which adorns the cover. Though often mistaken for a Royal Navy HMS she was actually was built as one of a batch of iron hulled steam warships privately ordered for the EIC (East India Company). The commission was top secret, which was apt, as these secret weapons were destined for the great imperial private enterprise that was colonising vast swathes of the East.

It was however an age of steam, the Navy had steamers, though as yet no iron ones. The poignant painting of Temeraire by Turner illustrates much of what this book is about. The handover of sails to engines. Now warships of Nelson’s day were increasingly being broken up or needing towed into battle position by lighter more manoeuvrable steamships that could go where they couldn’t. The role of the Victorian Navy is a neglected field of understanding, the navy of the Indian Presidencies is even more obscure, most people end with Trafalgar and pick up at Jutland. So it is a real pleasure to see someone trying to shed some light on it. This book is about the beginning of the Steam Age, when increasingly old wood and canvass ships were challenged by new technology. By the time of Nemesis the author capably demonstrates that traditional ships were fast becoming obsolete in all but open ocean.

Their effectiveness, size and armament however made them ideal for coastal work, and in the age of gunboat diplomacy vessels like Nemesis would prove their worth time and time again. Set against the tableau of burgeoning industrial warfare and colonial expansion Nemesis takes the reader on a voyage through the intricacies of steam warships, from building to implementation, and across the British empire’s campaigns in China and Southeast Asia, operations without the aid of sea power would have been impossible. Highlighting the vital role played by the Queen’s and Company’s navies in the east. Here among the rivers and coasts of China and Myanmar (Burma) Nemesis proved her worth as a highly manoeuvrable shallow draught warship, and indeed was likened in use to multiple line of battle ships.

These colonial wars in themselves form the main body of the book, as well as the little known anti piracy campaigns that followed. The author not getting bogged down in trying to explain culture and politics keeps these elements simple, though he does take the time to explain how they came about, and adopts a pragmatic view of the 1st Opium war. However he doesn’t stint at describing its tragic course. Sighting righteous Chinese indignation, and indeed British indignation, at fighting a war for profit and drugs. Marshall presents the fact that the war party saw it as the defence of free trade and not immoral at all. Correctly identifying the mutual cultural disinterest and superiority both empires felt for the other as the main trigger if not the cause.

The only hiccups I detected was was the slightly irking and simplistic use of the Duke of Wellington’s much misquoted “Scum of the Earth” quip and the curious assertion that British Regiments of this period were made up of 8 companies of 100 men each. (FYI A British regiment of this period was made up of one or two battalions each of 10 companies usually of 80 men each).

Apart from that this book was an unexpected delight to me, written with the pace of a solid adventure story, packed with detail and anecdote, humour too, about little known but fascinating subjects, and with detailed appendixes and three generous sections of some of the finest selections of images I’ve come across this well written book places this historic ship, the first of its kind, squarely in focus. Short chapters and an easy going style make for an enjoyable read about an exotic and exciting subject.

Alongside her are the other pioneering steam vessels that were involved in the myriad of local and obscure operations amongst the strait settlements, the Pluto and the Phlegethon to name two. For too long Nemesis and her sisters have been relegated to paragraphs and pictures, this book frees her from her painting and gives us the reality. From the men who sailed in her to right down to the rivets in her iron skin, now she can take her place alongside the other famous ships of the 19th century, not just as a painted image but as the forerunner of the modern navy itself.

A niche book perhaps, but for those with a love of the navy, or an interest in the British involvement in China and Southeast Asia, one surely not to be missed.

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