Today, in its broadest sense, ‘gunboat diplomacy’ is military action, or the threat thereof, to back up diplomatic efforts. Gunboat diplomacy does not even require the actual employment of naval vessels; nonetheless, warships were the instruments of power that gave rise to the term, as exemplified in the 1853 opening of Japan to trade by the ‘black ships’ of the US Navy’s Commodore Matthew Perry.
Ordinarily, a gunboat was a lesser craft, mounting just a few guns. They were particularly useful in shallow waters that larger warships could not navigate. Typical was the Royal Navy’s 438-ton, steam- and sail-powered Ariel, of the four-gun Ariel class.
In a prime example of gunboat diplomacy, after an agent of Swanzy & Company was arrested at Whydah, she participated in the 1877 blockade of the West African kingdom of Dahomey. This ended only when Dahomey’s king agreed to pay a £6,000 fine.
Despite gunboat diplomacy’s lengthy historical pedigree, the term’s first appearance came only in February 1927, when the journal Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute noted that ‘It has been said the days of “gunboat diplomacy” are over.’
Since then, the phrase has gained currency. In September 1960, the Daily Telegraph bid an unsentimental farewell to the practice, writing that ‘Gun-boat diplomacy has long and properly disappeared.’ The same newspaper later reported, in July 1961, that ‘The Iraqi delegate called the British action in Kuwait “gunboat diplomacy at its worst.”’
The zenith of the gunboat came during Britain’s 19th-century imperial heyday. Charged with protecting an empire and trading interests spanning the globe, the Royal Navy despatched many small, inexpensive, shallow-draught gunboats to patrol distant waters. Chief among these were the rivers of China, and along the African coasts, where they helped suppress the slave trade.
This article was published in the June 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.