Lesson Plan #1

The British Empire and the Royal Navy

OBJECIVES: Students will be able to:

                             1. Locate on a map colonies belonging to the British Empire in 1775

                             2. Discuss the importance of colonies to the British Empire

                             3. Analyze the comparative sizes of period navies


Pre-assignment: Worksheet #1, The British Empire: 1776.  Be sure to give students adequate time to complete this assignment before presenting Lesson Plan #1. 

Answer to the question at the bottom of Worksheet #1:

What was it about these regions that made them important to Great Britain?

1. Nova Scotia: The Grand Banks fishing grounds yielded tons of dried fish.

2. New England: New England was valued for its tall pines for ship masts and spars.  Relying heavily on shipping for their livelihood, they also produced naval stores, such as rope and tar.

3. Mid-Atlantic Colonies: They exported grains to the Caribbean and to England.

4. American South: Tobacco made many merchants in England rich along with the plantation owners.  Cotton was important for ship’s sails and clothing.

5. Caribbean: Most of the Caribbean Islands produced sugar.  They also produced rum and molasses, by-products of sugar production.

6. Gibraltar: Gibraltar strategically controls the entrance/exit to/from the Mediterranean.

7. India: India was valued for its spices.  It was also valued for cotton and gems.


I. Review Worksheet #1, The British Empire: 1776, with students.

     A. Point out the breadth of the British Empire. 

            Question: What would England need to maintain such a widespread empire?

            Answers: Ships (i.e., a strong navy and a large merchant fleet), men, and money

                 Question: What did they need in order to build large and strong fleets?

            Answer: Wood (the iron content in most period ships is negligible)

     B. Point out that England is a very small country, about the size of Alabama (about

50,000 sq. miles)

            Question: From where did England get its wood?

Answers: Oak for hulls from its own forests and from North America.  Pine for masts and spars from North America and Scandinavia.

     C. New England in particular produced a number of naval stores useful to the British

(tall pines for masts and spars, tar, and hempen rope). 

     D. The Southern Colonies produced cotton, used for making sails.

     E. The importance of these goods to the Empire is partly why the British were so upset

about the Revolution.

     F. In order to transport these and other goods, Britain had to have a large merchant


     G. American merchants also owned large numbers of ships.

     H. Britain needed a strong navy to protect this merchant fleet and its colonies.

            i. It had the largest fleet in Europe: the Royal Navy had 270 ships in 1775.  By

   1783, the Royal Navy had 468 ships of all sizes.  See Table 1 to see how many

   ships England had of various sizes. 

            ii. A ships was rated according to the number of guns it carried.  See Table 2 to

    see how the British rated their ships (the French and Spanish used slightly

    different numbers).

iii. Of these, England only used about half in American waters during the

     Revolution.  See Table 3 to see what types of ships the British sent to 

     American waters along with French, Spanish, and Dutch ships.

            Question:  Did America have a navy in 1775?

            Answer: No, the Americans were British subjects so they would have been

protected by the Royal Navy.

II. Obviously, America needed a navy to help fight the British and protect merchant

     ships sailing under patriot masters.

            Question: What would have been the fastest way for America to acquire a


Answer: To arm merchant ships.  America’s first navy was made up of armed

merchants and their most famous ship of the Revolution, the Bonhomme Richard, was really a type of merchant ship known as an East Indiaman.

     A. When war broke out, the Continental Congress and the individual states bought

and armed ships to create formal, organized navies.

     B. Many merchants also sought commissions as privateers.

            i. Privateers can be thought of as legal pirates.

            ii. Privateers were usually small ships that carried just a few guns.

            iii. Privateers usually did not try to fight the Royal Navy; rather, they sought to

     capture enemy merchant ships.

            iv. Privateers made money by selling the ships they captured and their cargoes.

            v. The British had privateers also.

     C. Later the Continental Congress ordered ships to be built specifically for a navy.

     D. These ships included everything from small gunboats, such as the Philadelphia, to

32-gun frigates, such as the Alliance.  The Continental Navy never built any ships

larger than this, although a ship-of-the-line was ordered and started.

III. Even with its privateers, America was badly outnumbered on the high seas until the

     French (1778), Spanish (1779), and Dutch (1781) joined America against Britain.

     A. The Continental Navy reached its pinnacle with about 15 or so ships of all sizes

and classes from frigate down in service at one time.

     B. Throughout the course of the war, the Continental Navy had between 50 and 60

Ships, however.

     C. The various state navies amounted to a total of about 130 ships.

     D. Through out the war, about 2,000 private armed ships sailed for the patriots.

     E. It is difficult to determine exactly how many armed ships sailed for Britain

Through out the war, but it was probably more than 2,200 including privateers.

     F. These numbers look impressive but, remember, they were not all afloat at one time.

In conclusion have students summarize the lesson, emphasizing the contrast between Great Britain, with all of its resources, and the American colonies, with theirs.


     One copy of Worksheet #1, The British Empire: 1776, for each student, the Map Key in transparency form, and Tables 1-3 in either handout form or on a transparency.


     Student assessment will take place through quality of work on Worksheet #1, interaction with students in discussion, and by their responses in being quizzed.

Repair to the Lesson Plan Page