Throughout the early 18th century European powers experimented with developing a formal system of military education. The incremental increases of technology over the previous centuries were rapidly giving way to major advances. It was becoming obvious that the gentleman officer hailing from the landed gentry and petty nobility could not keep pace with rapid modernization and technological innovation.
One of these experiments was the Royal Naval Academy.
The first attempt to educate lads for the naval service of England was in 1729, when the Royal Naval Academy was instituted in Portsmouth Dockyard. The course of instruction included the elements of a general education, as well as mathematics, navigation, drawing, fortification, gunnery, and small arm exercises, together with the French language, the principles of ship-building and practical seamanship in all its branches, for which latter a small vessel was set apart. The number was limited to forty cadets, the sons of the nobility and gentry, and attendance was voluntary. Small as the corps was, it was never full, probably because there was an easier way of gaining admission to the service through official favoritism, by appointment direct to some ship, on board of which during a six years’ midshipman’s berth, he acquired a small stock of navigation and a larger knowledge of seamanship and gunnery practice. In these ships where the captains were educated men, and took a special interest in the midshipmen, and competent instructors were provided and sustained in their authority and rank, this system of ship instruction and training worked well, as under the same conditions it did with us. In 1773 a new stimulus was given to the Academy by extending a gratuitous education to fifteen boys out of the forty, who were sons of commissioned officers. In 1806, under the increased demand for well educated officers, the whole number of cadets was increased to seventy, of whom forty were the sons of officers and were educated at the expense of the government. From this date to 1837 the institution was designated the Royal Naval College, but without any essential extension of its studies. In 1810 a Central School of Mathematics and Naval Architecture was added to the establishment,
Essentially, the Royal Navy during the majority of the Age of Sail was run as a medieval guild. Warrant officers and sailing masters learned their trades on the job and through a long apprenticeship. The same with commissioned officers. Typically a young man would go to sea no later than his early teens and would learn his trade as he progressed from midshipman to lieutenant to captain.
True, some measure of resistance was rooted in the conservatism of the Royal Navy. Men who has ascended to flag rank without benefit of any great amount of formal education were reluctant to consider that formal education was a necessity, or even a good thing, for naval officers. But there were other reasons why the young men from the Royal Naval Academy were considered less than desirable as midshipmen.
Unlike the Army where commanders at the company and regimental level had access to an addition source of income via the pay of absent soldiers, etc., naval officers were tightly constrained in their ability to earn income outside their salaries. Outside prize money, an officer was taking a huge chance by attempting to dip into the accounts of the ship. Midshipmen were not paid a salary. They were expected to receive an allowance from home. The allowance went to the captain of the ship who then doled it out as he saw fit. Obviously, some portion of that allowance would find its way into the purse of a lot of captains.
The second reason was patronage. The key to a naval career from the rank of lieutenant onwards was patronage. Without patronage an officer would not be employed and would languish on half pay. If a man had independent wealth, this was probably not a burden. The Navy, though, tended to draw officers from the professional classes and the newly emerging middle class. Most officers had only modest means outside their salary.
In 1815 the Royal Navy had 1017 ships and about 1500 officers available to command them. The competition for employment was fierce and one of the ways patronage, or “interest”, was developed was through accepting midshipmen put forward by influential persons into the ship’s company. Each “young gentleman”, as the Naval Academy products were styled, took away from a ship’s captain a midshipman’s position he could personally benefit from. Small wonder, then, that the Academy graduates tended to be placed aboard ships commanded by officers of lower influence.
In naval fiction, this conundrum tends to be accurately portray the attitude of commanders of the period towards the students of this new system of formal education for naval officers.