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Forests and French Seapower 1660-1789 Review


Navies before the 1850s were based on ships of wood and men of iron - but while there is plenty of memories in popular culture about press gangs to get the men, the long work of getting wood for the ships was an equally vital part of a navy! A single ship in the Age of Sail could use thousands upon thousands of trees, and it is not without exaggeration to say that a fleet would require an entire forest being felled for its construction. What is more, not any tree would do: good solid timber like oak was needed for much of a ship's construction, with particularly large pieces required for the keel, while the masts required massive hulking singular trees, most commonly pine. The ability to be able to command massive timber resources was the prerequisite for building any Age of Sail Navy, and it was no different for the French navy. As explained by Paul Walden Bamford in his excellent book "Forests and French Seapower, 1660-1789" the French pursued a long battle for procuring sufficient supplies for their fleet, both at home with sweeping forestry laws which sought to ensure that French forests would be kept intact for timber production for their fleet, and abroad with purchases of supplies, particularly masts, from the Baltic. The struggle for timber both shaped French society, but also the French navy, dictating its mentality and doctrine and placing limitations on its freedom. Bamford has written a wide-ranging and still highly relevant book, despite the decades which have passed since its publication, which touches upon an often ignored aspect of naval power.

French forests, shown here during the early Third Republic

French forests, shown here during the early Third Republic

Chapter 1, "Dynastic Policy and French Maritime Power" looks at the reason for why a French navy was developed and the legacy of the long time of limited interest in naval affairs. Colbert's development of a powerful navy was based on his mercantilist interests, promoting French trade, and providing for the glory of the king across the world - but even Louis XIV was himself little interested in his powerful navy. It was only after the Seven Year's War and with the quest for revenge against Great Britain that the French navy was given the full support of the state, and the haphazard quest for timber supplies reflect this.

"Masts, Ship Timber, and the French Forest Law", the second chapter, clarifies what types of timber specifically were needed for constructing ships, particularly oak with up to 4,000 oak trees being required to build a single first rate. Fir meanwhile was used for the masts, and required exacting quality. Colbert's sudden expansion of the French navy in the 1660s led to the realization of these issues and a program to protect and nurture French forests to provide sufficient timber, after centuries of neglect for the existing patchwork of forest laws. This was a massive project of centralization and governmental oversight, which aimed to both codify existing laws and impose new ones, mostly guarding what had existed before but with commissionaires ensuring that it was strictly enforced. As a result the ordonnances would dramatically alter the relationship of the French with their natural resources, but even this would be only imperfectly enforced and would vary from region to region. Despite the gains made by the ordonnances and the focus on naval provisioning, there were still many local exceptions and large national loopholes: these should not detract from the French success in managing to mostly supply themselves with timber up until the ending years of the ancien régime.

The third chapter, "Timber Cuts and Contracts" describes the actual system of harvesting wood, with the distinction between the system of "enterprise" or private contracting, and régie, or government-operated woodcutting, as well as relationships with the owners of the woods which were cut. Contractors for naval supplies engaged in plenty of corruption, but were never able to gain the independent negotiating power to dominate the navy, as happened in England. Both contractors and the navy had cause to complain as the navy's poor credit and ramshackle financial structures and abusive cuttings hurt the contractors as well.

Chapter 4, "Transport of Naval Timbers and Masts," examines how the cut timber and masts were actually transported to dockyards. Only Rochefort in France was directly accessible along a river from the hinterland among the principal French docks. Transport overland was extremely expensive, utilizing corvée, albeit paid, labor of local inhabitants and their animals. Canals and rivers were a better transport method, involving roping timber together and pushing it down the river in large rafts, but here the proliferation of toll and custom barriers along rivers would raise prices and add to delay, even when only inspection was performed. Once at the coast, masts and timbers were moved by gabares, ie. coastal freighters, or flat bottomed barges. But during wartime English coastal blockades heavily interrupted French coastal traffic and led to severe shortages at French ports, particularly Brest. Even without defeating the French fleet itself, control over the sealanes could thus tremendously weaken it.

Chapter 5, "Forest Depletion", looks at the increasing tensions in the French economy between the usage of forests for consumer consumption, building, industry, agricultural land, and shipbuilding. Forest laws were insufficient for appropriately promoting the cultivation of non-deciduous trees and thus did not protect some forests, such as spruce and fir, and birch, of little use to the navy, grew increasingly preponderant. Many forests were exempted from the royal forest codes, and devastated as a result. After mid-century, the state consistently supported industrial expansion, to the detriment of forests, and in contradiction to the navy's vested interest in forest conservation - although the navy itself was responsible for significant cutting of timber. Many officials were corrupt, especially lower ones who were poorly paid and easily bribed, but by far the largest corruption was the state sale of forests or their exploitation for financial reasons, a necessity for a Bourbon dynasty which increasingly faced bankruptcy in its final years.

The results of this are covered in detail in chapter 6, "Domestic Timber Shortage and the Navy," which shows the French increasingly acquiring wood from Italy and the Ottoman Empire in Albania due to decreasing internal supplies. Italian timber was easily exploitable and good quality, although much more expensive than domestic timber. By the end of the ancien régime, despite the introduction of Corsica's timber, foreign imports were much greater than domestic supply in Toulon. Rochefort and Brest also came to increasingly depend on timber imports from Northern Europe, utilizing Hamburg as their main entrepôt, if not to the same extent as Toulon.

One can see easily just by looking at masts that extremely long and high quality timber pieces were required, and alternatives such as composite masts were simply not as good.

One can see easily just by looking at masts that extremely long and high quality timber pieces were required, and alternatives such as composite masts were simply not as good.

Masts are a very particular and crucial piece of wood for ships, as shown in chapter, 7, "The Quest for Domestic and Colonial Masts and Spars." Masts drawn from the Baltic were the highest quality, but were very expensive. The French constantly tried to harvest masts domestically, but were just as consistently disappointed by their quality and costs often ran high as well. Insufficient attention and effort was put into procuring masts in Canada, which as also hampered by lack of shipping, problematic preparation, and high local wages. Thus the French went North.

This is the subject of chapter 8, "The Northern Market in Naval Stores", which lays out the distribution of naval stores in Scandinavia and the Baltics, with principal ports of sale being Riga and St. Petersburg. Hostility between France and Russia however, greatly impinged on French efforts to secure supplies, as well as commercial incompatibility. The British were ultimately able to much better utilize the naval supplies of the Baltic, and this led them to dominate the position of merchant houses and negotiators, who the French had to pass through and deal with to get supplies. The Dutch often presented another layer of intermediaries and shipping costs, while the northern forests too began to suffer from forest depletion over time. Shipping problems during wartime amplified these difficulties, and the quality of masts which reached France was often mediocre. Costs during wartime furthermore, tended to be far higher than during peace.

Chapter 9, "Merchant Shipping and the Timber Problem" hits upon another key problem of the French and their naval store needs: that French shipping was all but absent in the Baltic, and more expensive than the shipping of the Dutch. The French gave insufficient protection to their own merchant marine and over-regulation drove up costs, particularly due to excess manpower with large numbers of men to be embarked onboard for training, while ships were built less efficiently than in the Netherlands. As a result French shipping costs were far higher, and attempts to introduce French shipping firms into the naval stores trade failed. Neutral shipping was particularly necessary during war years, to enable some cargo be brought through English blockades, but the English declared naval stores to be contraband and confiscated it, leading to tremendous problems. The French were able to keep supplies moving after transshipping them in the Netherlands during the American Revolution thanks to the increasingly dense canal network of the Low Countries and Northern France, but this was expensive and only used during wartime.

There were two potential breakthroughs to deal with this unfortunate situation at the end of the French monarchy, as laid out in chapter 10, "Black Sea and North American Markets after 1776." Rebellion in the Thirteen Colonies led to Britain being denied a major source of its naval stores, and the potential for France to profit from it. Next to no masts could be shipped during the American War of Independence, but inspections did happen after the war, and the French failed to place sufficient energy into examining American masts despite one tour of investigation and quickly formed a poor opinion of the products they received in France. Instead the French turned to the Baltic once more - but indirectly, to the new Russian port of Cherson on the Black Sea, promising a more protected route back to France and a new access point to the masts of the Western Russian Empire. Cherson however, faced commercial prejudice from its hinterland and tensions between the Russians and Ottomans in the region, which combined to prevent the project from seeing much success - if it ever was seriously pursued as a commercial project, since it probably also served as cover for French aid to the Ottomans for rebuilding their navy and constructing fortifications.

The conclusion of the book looks at the French and British experience with naval supplies in comparative perspective, and how the differences in supply and the limitations imposed on the French enforced various handicaps on them. Command of the sea and the wood which was a cornerstone of naval construction were deeply intertwined: they formed a potent weapon in England's arsenal against France.

Bamford has managed an impressive work of knitting together the French ambition for a powerful navy, changes in French law to promote the necessary forest supplies, their origin, the systems of acquisition for procuring lumber, shipping, and the impact of the French timber system and their more limited supplies compared to England on the broader state of the French navy and its development. A very holistic book which manages to analyze a complex system, and relate it to both broader French policy and to the performance of the French navy.

While the book does do a good job in talking about the broader picture behind the state project of forest management, this could have been improved. This was an unprecedented intrusion into traditional custom and people's lives, which would have been resented as an imposition of state power. Comparison to the practice of saltpeter collection, another major intrusion of state power, would have been a good comparison and contrast, and it could have been directly talked about in regards to the growth of central state power in France.

Furthermore, the scientific bent was insufficiently analyzed. While it is mentioned that the French forest code was drawn up by hundreds of individuals over the course of years, there is little talk and discussion about the degree of involvement by scientists and experts, how much their opinion was taken into account, and the state of science on the matter at the time. This continues to assert itself throughout the book - there is mention of defective forest practices, but it is not explained as to whether this was the result of incorrect implementation of existing knowledge on forest management, or rather that forest management was a science which was not fully understood at the time. Comparison to other countries would have been useful in this regards too: the book mentions that the Italian states tended to be poor shepherds of their forests, and that the British refrained from putting into effect the tightly disciplined laws which the French did, but this is the extent of things.

This comparison's interest would have been particularly good due to the useful nature of the book at looking at the internal politics and development of France. While as noted there could have been more direct and formal statement of these links, it provides a brilliant look into the priorities and logic of France in the 18th century and its focus on internal development and self-sufficient mercantilism and government promotion of rational economic management to achieve this objective. This becomes particularly clear with masts, where the French expended massive amounts of effort and attention in a futile search to produce masts in France, while devoting insufficient effort into their North American colonies in a search there - self-sufficiency and an insular notion of the economy is revealed commonly in regards to French leadership. And as with other segments of French life, the system began to reach its limits as multiple competing interest groups worked against each other and caused the system to break down, such as the demands of growing agricultural production, industrial demands, and the need for wood for ships. Forests and French Sea Power is a microcosm of the broader crisis of the French political economy.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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