A small island with a big impact
One of the speakers at the Henry Euler Memorial Trust Symposium, which takes place in September, will be Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. You may recognise him from his BBC2 series War at Sea. His recently published work Seapower States; Maritime Culture, Continental Empires, and the Conflict that made the Modern World (Yale, 2018), takes a close look at a select number of states through history which have made seapower a tenet of their identity and strategy.
Professor Lambert’s talk at the symposium, “Commanding the Channel”, will explore the ways in which Alderney’s history has been understated in terms of its role in the history of Britain, France and the wider world.
Speaking in his office at Kings College London, he said: “When the Trust was established it had a clear agenda to push forward ideas about where the island sits in the national and international picture, and to make sure that Alderney is not just thought of as an island in the channel’, but as an island of strategic importance.
He is keen to stress that people should not be fooled by Alderney’s size into thinking that the island’s importance is inconsequential, nor even by the fact that Guernsey and Jersey are arguably the better known of the islands, saying: “Don’t confuse scale with consequence. These islands – its easy to pass them by – they don’t even show up on large-scale maps, but they have exercised a disproportionately large impact. The conference is about putting the island back into the big picture – that’s the only way the history makes sense!”
And he really means it. “If the islands had been in the hands of the French,” he explains, “Britain would almost certainly have lost all the major wars with France in the 18th and 19th centuries. France would have been able to destroy Britain’s floating trade, to cut Britain off from the world. Instead it was the other way around. Ships sailing out of the Channel Islands, privateers and naval vessels, destroyed France’s shipping, and stopped the French from moving supplies, troops, goods, anything at all.”
And this strategic importance was not without its shady effects. “Why is the island group given this special tax status?” asks Professor Lambert. “To encourage the operation of shipping. The men and the ships of this trade are exactly the people who will go on to be privateers in wartime. And what do privateers do in times of peace? Traditionally that would be piracy, but in the Channel Islands they went smuggling. And the special tax status of the islands continues to have an influence to this day.”
This is also, he says, a good way to understand the wider British Empire, adding by way of example: “If you transpose the islands to the other side of the map you can talk about Hong Kong, which gives you control of Chinese trade.” It is easy to see how the desire to control important shipping routes has shaped the modern world, and continues to do so.
According to Professor Lambert the symposium offers a completely new way of looking at the island’s history – especially since it will feature academics and viewpoints from both sides of the Channel. His hope is that the event will open up an understanding of why Alderney is as it is. The information maybe has always been there, but not necessarily in the public domain, he says. Ultimately, he hopes that it will give islanders a better understanding of their home’s history. “We want people on the island to own their history in all its rich variety and make it possible for them to access all the latest scholarship. And hopefully they’ll then come back with new questions to answer – this isn’t a closed process. We want to start that relationship so that we turn Alderney from being a little place to being a very ‘big’ place.”