In the 1770s the economic factor in Anglo-French conflict, always implicit and never far from the surface, came to the forefront in the discussions held at Versailles about the desirability of descents on England. Suddenly it was recalled how great had been the financial panic in London in December 1745, when Charles Edward's Jacobite army lay at Derby. The comte de Guines, French ambassador in London from 1770 to 1776, emphasised the potentially catastrophic consequences of a single French naval victory in the Channel followed by a Gibraltar-like occupation of Portsmouth. This combination of circumstances alone, declared de Guines, would produce a panic of incalculable proportions: Britain’s credit would be ruined, the value of her paper money destroyed, the Bank of England extinguished. Throughout the following decades the French interest in the possibility of ruining Britain’s currency burgeoned, reaching its climax in Napoleon’s Continental System.

Appropriately enough, France possessed at the time a chief minister with a great interest in economic affairs. The comte de Vergennes was fascinated by currency fluctuations and had permanent ‘financial spies’ posted in Amsterdam, London and Geneva. During his days as French ambassador in Turkey he had acquired an economist’s understanding of trade. To him the economic defeat of England was much more important than her humiliation on the battlefield. The core of Vergennes’s thinking was that greater destruction could be attained by economic warfare than by actual invasion.

The 1770s were fertile soil for financial and economic motives. In 1775 the American colonists broke loose from the mother country in the first of the classical intra-capitalist disputes about who should control the profits of the Americas – the same furrow was ploughed in the first two decades of the following century in the wars of Latin American independence from Spain. Misled at first by the ideological camouflage about 'independence', Louis XVI dithered about what action to take in the struggle for North America. The rhetoric of the American colonists seemed to suggest that they were engaged in an ideological conflict: liberty and the rights of man versus absolutism and the divine right of kings. In that case was it right for one king to support rebels and traitors against another king when the issue of legitimacy was not at stake (as it had been in the Jacobite risings)?

Shrewder, more cynical souls such as the newly restored former Navy Minister Maurepas and Foreign Minister Vergennes alerted the king to the truth of the situation. Realpolitik prevailed. With England locked in conflict with its own colonists, and with Spain as France’s ally, what better opportunity could there ever be to undo the Treaty of Paris and regain global hegemony? Those at Versailles who advocated an all-out effort seemed vindicated by General Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in 1777. This proved that the American war was winnable by the colonists with French support.

The French factor in North America provides a fascinating causal chain whose links extend from the Heights of Abraham to the storming of the Bastille. So long as France remained a major power in North America, expanding to the west and threatening to ‘lock in’ the thirteen American colonies, the said colonies had perforce to stomach British mercantilist policies. But once the threat was removed, in 1759, there seemed no longer any reason for the colonists to accept the financial yoke of the motherland. At the same time the government in London, which had connived at lax implementation of its fiscal statutes as long as there was a threat from France, saw no reason after 1763 to continue the emergency privileges granted to the colonists. In a very important sense the removal of France from the North American chessboard laid the foundation for the revolt of the colonies.

But once France made the momentous decision to throw all her resources into the struggle in America, she set herself on a course that would lead to the events of 1789. For it was the French financial exhaustion after the efforts of 1777-81 that left Louis XVI with no choice. He had to endure the unendurable and summon the Estates-General.

None of these subtle causal links could be discerned in 1777. What could be perceived was an obvious chance to defeat the ancient enemy. Once again invasion projects proliferated. De Broglie dusted down his 1765 scheme, brought it up to date, and so improved it that French naval historians concur in regarding it as the most complete, carefully thought out and brilliant strategy for the invasion of the British Isles ever elaborated, transcending even the later ideas of Napoleon. The stage was set for the ‘other Armada’ – the great Franco-Spanish invasion enterprise of 1779.

As in 1765, de Broglie proposed a series of diversionary attacks so as to achieve local superiority in the Channel. Apart from these, there was to be absolute concentration of forces. Forty ships of the line and twenty frigates were to put to sea from Brest with the express intention of winning a great naval victory that would clear the way for invasion. De Broglie proposed October 1779 as the target date, for three reasons. The prevailing winds were favourable at that time, many Royal Navy ships were habitually in foreign waters in the autumn; and so soon after the harvest the invaders could live off the land. De Broglie rejected the idea of attacks on the dockyard towns of Portsmouth, Chatham and Plymouth, and clung to his original choices of landfall: Rye, Winchelsea, Hastings and Pevensey.

Yet the idea of capturing Portsmouth and retaining it after the war as a French Gibraltar had now taken a firm hold on French imaginations. The problem was that all the rival plans to de Broglie’s that did mention Portsmouth saw it not as the objective but only one of many: Plymouth, Chatham, the Isle of Wight, London itself. French military planners were faced with the problem of dovetailing de Broglie’s doctrine of concentration with their own obsession with Portsmouth. The result was that an attack on London gradually faded from French plans, as did all other landward targets. The objective became Portsmouth.

Its capture or destruction, it was thought, would deal a crippling blow both to British sea power and to Britain’s leading position in the world of credit and finance. Also, emphasis began to be concentrated on the advantages of an amphibious assault from the sea. This in turn propelled the Isle of Wight to the centre of the strategic picture.

A new champion arose to promote the central claim of the Isle of Wight to French military attention. Dumouriez, the future Revolutionary general, proposed that the island, not Portsmouth, should be the French Gibraltar. The whole island, defended only by a handful of militia, could be taken in a couple of hours. Spithead Channel could be blocked by sinking fifty large transports loaded with stones (much as the Egyptians blocked the Suez Canal in 1956 and 1967), which would deprive the Royal Navy forever of Portsmouth, its finest port and greatest naval base. Only the western exit via the Needles Channel, clotted with shoals and sandbanks and full of dangerous tides and currents, would be left. The one problem Dumouriez did not address himself to was how to bell the cat. He seemed to assume that the Royal Navy would stand idly by while France landed its army of occupation on the Isle of Wight.

By early 1779, then, French military planners were faced with a choice between the Isle of Wight strategy, which did not face up to the likelihood or necessity of a great sea battle, and the de Broglie enterprise, which explicitly addressed the issue of naval combat but thought of London as the objective.

As it turned out, the trigger for the actual invasion attempt of 1779 came from Spain. According to the Third Family Compact of 1761, an enemy of one Bourbon power was to be considered an enemy of both. Yet Charles III of Spain was even more unwilling than Louis XVI had been to enter a war merely to help rebellious subjects fight their annointed king. On the other hand, the long-running sores of Gibraltar and Minorca rankled with Spain. Spanish policy options therefore narrowed to two. On no account would Spain assist France to abet the American colonists. She would either mediate towards a peace that would restore the rebellious colonies to England; or, swinging to the opposite extreme, she would join France in launching a direct invasion of England, again for the limited objectives of all eighteenth-century wars. Faced with such stark alternatives, France had little choice but to plump for the invasion option.

Yet it was an unenthusiastic Foreign Minister who prepared the French for their invasion attempt. Vergennes had always preferred economic warfare to a descent on the British Isles. In his diplomatic correspondence with Spain he remained glum and pessimistic: he mentioned the imponderables like storms and gales over and over again, stressed France’s unreadiness in the Channel, and lamented the ineluctable necessity of having to fight a sea battle of uncertain issue. Yet Spain held him to an invasion project, counterattacking by making it plain that for their part the Spanish would be reluctant or half-hearted partners in any scheme other than the invasion of England.

Vergennes wriggled on the hook. He proposed instead a descent on Ireland. This was quickly checkmated. We agree, said the Spanish, provided that French forces only are used. Finally Charles III spelled out his terms. He was not prepared to be France’s scarecrow just so that the American colonies could attain their independence. In March 1779 Vergennes threw in the sponge and agreed to a major descent on England. Fearing, however, that total success for the Bourbons might alarm the rest of Europe, he opted for the Portsmouth strategy instead of de Broglie’s rival plan.

France now had two aims: a major naval victory in the Channel and the capture of Portsmouth. The fall of Portsmouth, Vergennes thought, would cause general consternation, financial panic in London, and possibly even general British bankruptcy. The naval victory, too, could be achieved because of the expected local superiority of the Franco-Spanish fleet in the Channel. Many Royal Navy ships of the line were abroad, particularly in America. Moreover, French morale was now high, ever since Admiral d’Orvilliers had fought the British home fleet to a draw in the battle of Ushant in July 1778.

The original invasion plan called for thirty French warships to clear from Brest under d’Orvilliers, complete with the usual retinue of frigates and corvettes. D’Orvilliers's fleet would then rendezvous at Corunna with twenty Spanish battleships.

Proceeding to the Channel, the allied squadron would seek to engage the enemy on superior terms, since maximum English strength was reckoned at forty-five ships of the line. As soon as control of the western Channel was secured, after the battle, the frigates and corvettes would be detached to escort 20,000 infantry based in Normandy for the coup de main against Portsmouth.

A number of diversions were devised to keep the English guessing. Twelve thousand troops would be concentrated ostentatiously at Dunkirk; there would be raids on Bristol and Liverpool and possibly also on Cork harbour in Ireland. Additionally, Spain was to lull the British by dangling the prospect of an imminent peace.

The 1779 invasion project was the best-conceived yet. Unlike Choiseul’s 1759 venture, it began from the premise that the Royal Navy had to be engaged and defeated as a necessary condition for success. And for the first time in the eighteenth century England's enemies would have a clear superiority in numbers. Indeed, this was the first time ever that England was involved in a maritime struggle with the united fleets of the two Bourbon powers when their military strength was unbroken and not dispersed in diversionary actions. Moreover, in 1779 England was in as parlous a state as France had been twenty years before. She was now without an ally anywhere, thanks to her faulty diplomacy and the jealousies engendered by her triumph in the Seven Years’ War. Just as France had been bled dry in Germany in 1759, so now England was snarled up in a war in America that looked increasingly impossible to win.

Yet despite all these favourable factors, there were problems with Bourbon strategy. Since a powerful fleet had to battle its way up the Channel – admittedly only as far as Cherbourg this time – before embarking the army of invasion, 1779 seemed a rerun of the Spanish Armada. But this time there was an additional complication. The Bourbon fleets were scheduled to rendezvous at Corunna. First, though, the French had to slip out of Brest and down the Bay of Biscay, while the Spanish beat up from their base in Cadiz. The possibilities for contretemps were obvious.

Yet the French were so confident that by June 1779 they had expanded their horizons. Instead of the more modest aim of the bombardment and destruction of Portsmouth and its dockyards and a coup de main aimed at the Isle of Wight, they raised their sights to the more ambitious target of the capture and permanent retention of Portsmouth. More troops were sent to Normandy. The revised aim was that 30,000 soldiers should turn Portsea Island into a French redoubt, to be supplied from France by the victorious fleet. Spain’s assent to the enlarged project was secured when it was pointed out that Portsmouth could be exchanged for Gibraltar in a subsequent peace treaty.

At the very point that French enthusiasm – even that of Vergennes – increased, the Spanish began to show their unreliability as allies. First they insisted on being able to make a formal declaration of war (France preferred a state of unproclaimed hostilities) once the French fleet was safely out of Brest. Then they compounded this error by stating that their fleet at Cadiz, and its lesser appanage at Ferrol, would hoist sail only after the declaration, i.e. once they had word of the departure of the Brest fleet. Allowing time for news to travel from Brest to Cadiz, this meant that at least seventeen precious days would be lost.

There were other problems. The Spanish ships carried only four months’ provisions. If intelligence of this leaked out, there was a danger that the British might delay fighting a naval action until the Spaniards were obliged to detach from the French through lack of supplies. Finally, the Spanish ships themselves were badly manned, poorly officered and ill-victualled.

But the Spanish did not have a monopoly when it came to inadequate preparations. As d’Orvilliers weighed anchor and put to sea from Brest on 3 June for the rendezvous (now changed to the Isles of Sisargas, twenty miles west of Corunna), he could reflect that his own ships were in bad case. He was a month late in getting under way, with a hastily manned fleet, crewed by a motley selection of matelots, including sick men and convalescents declared fit so as to bring ships’ quotas up to strength, and with inadequate supplies of medicines and antiscorbutics. He also took with him a contingency plan for an attack on a lesser objective if the Portsmouth assault failed. Once the Channel was secured by victory at sea, d'Orvilliers was to consider Plymouth his secondary ‘fall-back’ objective.

This seemed to bespeak a peculiar French hesitancy at the very time they had increased their troop strength for the invasion to 30,000 in order to hold on to Portsmouth through the winter. And the army commander-in-chief for the enterprise was a poor choice too. Aged seventy-four the comte de Vaux suffered from hernia problems (‘descente’). The impish Maurepas enjoyed himself with word-play on ‘la descente de M. Vaux’.

Yet the enemy was in no better shape. For once the British seaborne opposition lacked its usual sparkle. Although accurate English intelligence pinpointed Portsmouth and Plymouth as the French targets – and this was known by the beginning of July – Lord North and his ministers were confused by garbled reports of the quite different de Broglie plan filtering through from Paris. According to these reports, preparations were being made at St Malo, Le Havre and Dunkirk for landings at the oft-mentioned quartet of Rye, Winchelsea, Hastings and Pevensey. To confuse matters still further, the French launched a major diversionary raid on the Channel Islands at the beginning of May. British concentration on a supposed two-pronged invasion accounts for their egregious failure to blockade Brest. A close investment like Hawke’s in 1759 would undoubtedly have nipped plans for the ‘other Armada’ in the bud.

Even apart from this error the government in London was worse prepared to meet an invasion than at any other time in the eighteenth century. Although the 1779 Admiralty list contained seventy-nine ships of the line, Admiral Hardy (who was to conduct the defence of the English coastline) could count on no more than thirty warships in summer 1779 to face a Bourbon fleet of at least fifty. The rest of the Royal Navy was scattered across the globe, principally in America. Moreover, desertion and widespread resistance to ‘pressing’ meant that it was difficult to find crews even for the thirty ships of the line left in home waters. As one French naval historian has written: ‘Never at any other time in history, not even when Napoleon’s army lay encamped at Boulogne, was the French navy so near its oft-dreamt of goal, the invasion of England.'

But if England could not win the 1779 naval campaign, the Bourbon allies could still lose it by their own incompetence. This is precisely what happened. D’Orvilliers reached the rendezvous point off the Sisargas Islands on 10 June. The Spanish naval commander d’Arce should then have come out from Corunna to meet him. As it transpired, Charles III had made a disastrous choice of commander. D’Arce hated the French and detested the idea of having to collaborate with them. For three weeks he refused to move from Corunna, even though he could often see the French sails out at sea. When the wind was onshore he made the excuse that he was windbound; when it was offshore and had blown the French over the horizon, he pleaded that he could not disobey his express orders, which were to take his fleet out only when his allies’ ships were visible.

Meanwhile the Spanish Cadiz fleet, supposed originally to have been ready in April, did not sail until 23 June, was then held up by gales, and did not reach the rendezvous point until 23 July, six weeks after the French had arrived. By this time d’Orvilliers’s squadron had been attacked by a variety of maladies: seasickness, scurvy, smallpox and putrid fever. Its stores and water were seriously depleted. In partial compensation orders had come from Versailles and Madrid giving d’Orvilliers command of all Spanish ships (both the Ferrol/Corunna fleet under d’Arce and the separate Cadiz squadron), forty ships in all.

In theory d’Orvilliers now had seventy warships under his command. Even if the English admiral Hardy had received the maximum possible reinforcements from abroad from an alarmed and alerted Admiralty, he would still be heavily outnumbered and outgunned by d’Orvilliers’s armada.

But at Versailles Vergennes was starting to despair. Spanish incompetence and bad weather were beginning to blight his best hopes. On the very day the allied fleets were finally combined (23 July) Vergennes wrote: ‘The blackness overwhelms me . . . what a wonderful opportunity is slipping from our grasp . . . England, without resources or allies, was on the point of being taught a lesson; success seemed within our grasp; at last we could hope to humiliate our proud rival; but the elements are arming themselves against us and staying the stroke of our vengeance.’

Further blows rained on the ill-fated expedition. Even after the junction of the fleets, contrary winds kept them at Sisargas. When a window in the weather allowed the Armada to beat up to Ushant, the slow sailing of the Spaniards and their lack of navigational skills meant that d'Orvilliers was not able to double Cape Ushant before the winds once again turned unfavourable. The fleet was still stricken with sickness and short of water and provisions. The entire venture was within an ace of being called off when, on 8 August, the wind changed and blew the armada into the Channel. D’Orvilliers’s mighty host, still sixty-six ships of the line strong, was off the Lizard on 15 August.

At this point the similarities to the 1588 Armada were all too striking. Here was a great fleet in the Channel in the month of August, seeking to engage and destroy the enemy before escorting an army of invasion 30,000 strong across the waters. But this time there were no Dutch and no hostile flyboats. The army had secure bases and would be embarked on a friendly shore. Moreover, in 1588 Medina Sidonia had no clear superiority in battleships and was faced by captains of the quality of Drake, Hawkins, Howard and Frobisher. This time d’Orvilliers, veteran of the battle of Ushant, was faced by a lacklustre admiral, Sir Charles Hardy, and the French forces outnumbered Hardy’s.

The old adage that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce, was nowhere better illustrated than in the case of the ‘other Armada’ of 1779. Where in 1588 there had been the grim, relentless running fight up the Channel, culminating with the carnage of Gravelines, two hundred years later the naval campaign was redolent more of opéra bouffe.

The timid Hardy was reluctant to give battle. Morale in his fleet was low. Sickness was beginning to break out in his ships. After being driven off station twice by the winds, he returned to Spithead, leaving Ireland and the western Channel utterly exposed. The trading fleet due in at that time from the West Indies was at the mercy of d'Orvilliers’s marauders. At last the Admiralty lost patience and ordered Hardy to fight, whatever the odds. Putting to sea, Hardy reached his intended station off the Scillies.

Suddenly d’Orvilliers’s armada appeared off Plymouth (16 August). The two fleets had sailed in opposite directions, right past each other on parallel courses. The appearance of the enemy off Plymouth (another echo of 1588) caused consternation in England. While the burghers in the port prepared for a short, sharp fight. Sir Jacob Wheat completed another of the eighteenth century’s famous rides, reaching Blackheath from Plymouth in twenty hours. Dramatic events now seemed inevitable.

First blood was drawn by d'Orvilliers when HMS Ardent on her way down the Channel sailed smack into the Bourbon fleet. Hardy, meanwhile, hearing that the enemy was off Plymouth, had to beat up the Channel in hopes of getting to the eastward of them. Just when a great sea battle seemed unavoidable a great blanket of fog descended on the Channel. Once again the two fleets passed each other in opposite directions. When the fog cleared, d’Orvilliers was off Land’s End and Hardy back at Plymouth.

The two fleets finally came in sight of each other on 31 August. Immediately Hardy’s ships sheered off, hoping to draw the Franco-Spanish vessels farther up the Channel and farther away from the reinforcements and provisions at Brest. For twenty-four hours d’Orvilliers gave chase. It soon became clear that his allies did not have the discipline to keep close formation. The French admiral abandoned the chase.

By sheer luck Hardy had taken the one course that was certain to defeat the Bourbon enterprise. For by now d’Orvilliers’s fleet was in no condition to pursue Hardy. Both Spanish and French vessels were rife with sickness. In the French ships water and provisions were rationed. The French commander had already concluded that neither the attack on Plymouth nor that on Portsmouth was practicable when news came from Versailles of a complete change of plan. The idea of capturing Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight had been abandoned in favour of a landing in Cornwall. After the many delays and frustrations Vergennes and his Spanish co-planner Count d’Aranda had finally lost their nerve and concluded that the capture of either original target was not feasible. The idea of diverting to Cornwall was an ill-considered, improvised notion plucked out of the air on the spur of the moment to save face.

Conveying the new instructions to d’Orvilliers, Vergennes even had the impudence to suggest that the French fleet could be revictualled at sea in readiness for the new operation. Yet it was the incompetence of the Brest commissariat that had seen to it that the fleet was not adequately provisioned off Ushant, in much more favourable circumstances. Testily d’Orvilliers replied that in view of the French record so far, all projects for a descent on England should be postponed for another year. At a council of war he and his officers argued that if full replacements for the large numbers of sick, plus a complete revictualling of the fleet, had not been achieved by the first week of September, the French fleet would return to Brest. Acknowledging the impossibility of meeting d’Orvilliers’s terms, the French Ministry of Marine acquiesced and ordered him back to Brest.

The hundred or so vessels that anchored in Brest harbour in mid-September were little more than floating hospitals. There were 8,000 seriously sick, and so many dead had been thrown overboard during the last days of the voyage that it was said the people of Cornwall and Devon had to wait a month before they could eat fish again. D’Orvilliers, now a broken man, offered his resignation; it was accepted. A council of war held in Brest by the remaining allied officers at the beginning of October concluded that, owing to the lateness of the season, further invasion schemes were no longer practicable in 1779.

The story of the 'other Armada’ presents a spectacle of almost unparalleled incompetence on all sides. There were no heroes and not even any villains, merely a gallery of mediocrities. The grey tones and the inept bungling of the 1779 enterprise are strongly redolent of shadow-boxing or, worse, of farce. The historian Temple Paterson suggests one reason for the extraordinary debacle. Pointing out that of the principal actors Maurepas was seventy-eight, de Vaux seventy-four, d’Orvilliers seventy-one. Hardy sixty-three and Vergennes sixty-two – whereas in 1805 Napoleon, Soult and Ney were thirty-six, Murat thirty-eight, Villeneuve forty-two, Pitt forty-six and Nelson forty-seven – he concludes: ‘That in itself helps to explain why the events of 1779, seen in historical perspective, have something of the air of an early and rather fumbling rehearsal by a company of indifferent players, of a drama afterwards played out by great actors on a brilliantly lighted stage.’

Certainly it is strange that at a time when virtually every single objective factor of military warfare pointed the way to success, almost every psychological factor militated against it: Vergennes’s circumspection and defeatism; Maurepas’s inappropriate levity: d’Arce’s hatred of his allies; de Vaux’s dislike of d’Orvilliers, and so on. Against this there can be set the fearfulness and pusillanimity of Hardy. But he possessed the one attribute his opponents did not: luck. Old, slow, cautious he may have been, but he managed not to blunder into disaster. Like Jellicoe at Jutland in 1916 he could have lost the war in an afternoon. Hardy was the beneficiary of his own timorousness: as Temple Paterson remarks scathingly: ‘The situation at the end of August 1779 called for a Fabius and by chance it was an elderly and rather inept version of him who commanded the British fleet.'

The aftermath of the fiasco of 1779 was a furious bout of recrimination between French and Spanish. French public opinion felt that Vergennes had agreed to the invasion in the first place solely to secure Spain’s alliance and that d'Orvilliers had secret orders not to fight. Spain excoriated France for its insistence on winning a sea battle before disembarking the invading troops – though on this issue the French were certainly right.

The truth is that both France and Spain bore a large measure of blame for the debacle. The French were guilty on two counts. Their commissariat was incompetent, with the result that d’Orvilliers’s ill-provisioned fleet could not follow Hardy up the Channel. And French foreign policy itself was indecisive and defeatist. As one observer commented in the middle of the campaign:

The Court, which has shilly-shallied between plans and has been unable to decide anything, as one would expect from the ignorance and indecision of our Ministers, has wanted to play on two strings and has left M.D’Orvilliers to decide which should be touched first . . . Our Ministers have done what weak people do who can never go wholeheartedly for things at the critical moment and who love to give only conditional and obscure orders. They have got thoroughly tangled up with Spain and don’t know how to get clear. They thought events would get them out of the mess and now they find themselves at the foot of a wall which they leave to M.D’Orvilliers the task of getting over.

The main accusation to be levelled against Spain is folie de grandeur. Imagining themselves to be still in the ranks of the great powers, the Spanish promised far more than they could deliver. They arrived at the rendezvous hopelessly late and then proved themselves very poor sailors, a disgrace to the memory of Mendana and Quiros. Their ships ‘could overtake nothing and run away from nothing’, were poorly manned, ill-equipped, and officered by men without the most rudimentary knowledge of their craft. Many of the commanders of Spanish ships in the 'other Armada’ could not even take accurate bearings at sea.

But above all these issues of personality and national policies, the experience of 1779 underlines a crucial aspect of eighteenth-century naval warfare. Sickness, especially from Vitamin C deficiency, was a major limiting factor. If there was a failure of commissariat, so that adequate supplies of food and water were not taken on board, this factor would increase as a multiplier. Fresh water and food were in the eighteenth century what fuel is in the twentieth century to the sea-keeping limits of a fleet. Moreover, they had a direct effect on manpower losses. There are no more eloquent statistics than those relating to Royal Navy casualties during the Seven Years’ War. Out of a total of 184,899 raised for naval service, only 1,512 seamen were killed in action. But 133,708 were lost to the navy through disease and desertion. Hardy attracted a lot of adverse publicity when he admitted the need to put into Spithead for extra supplies of wine and beer, but the physiological and psychological importance of such stimulants in eighteenth-century navies should not be underestimated.

The irony is that most of the dietary problems that plagued the Bourbon powers during the ill-fated 1779 invasion attempt had already been triumphantly solved by a great English navigator who was murdered in Hawaii in the very year of the would-be Franco-Spanish descent. Captain Cook’s methods for determining longitude and his anti-scurvy regime reveal the chasm between the scientific professional and the blundering amateur, represented in this instance by the Bourbons. This is another way of saying that in the struggle for the mastery of the seas Britain still maintained a technological gap over its enemies. This in turn makes the failure of France and Spain in 1779 even more reprehensible. Against an enemy like the British it had to be ‘now or never’ while they were occupied in the Americas. Such a great opportunity would never come again.


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