Western naval supremacy over the oceans was the first step in the process of European expansion.
The superiority of the Western navies especially as regards long-range bulk transport was one of the principal factors behind the successful establishment of maritime empires in the extra-European world.
The unlimited oceanic range of the Western ships gave them what could be termed as global reach. Oceanic transportation at per ton and per person was cheaper than any other comparable form of transportation. European superiority in scientific knowledge, naval technology and finally naval artillery enabled them to dominate the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans.
The Royal Navy with its ocean going battleships established what could be termed as ‘sea control’. In 1786, a base was established at Penang at the northern entrance to the Straits of Malacca.
With the capture of the Straits of Malacca in 1759 and Singapore in 1824, British control over the eastern approach of the Indian Ocean was complete. In 1622, the British captured Ormuz, dominating the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Thus the British secured control over the western approach to the Indian Ocean.
During the second half of the seventeenth century, the West European powers were constructing battleships (two deckers) displacing 1,100-1,600 tones and armed with 24-pounder (11 kg) guns. Firepower was enhanced by the replacement of the bronze cannons with iron cannons.
Advances in cast iron production resulted in the manufacture of cheaper and more dependable guns. In contrast, the South Asian ships’ planking was sewn together and not nailed as in case of the European ships. The Indian ships were sewn with coir. So, if the South Asian ships tried to fire heavy guns than they would have disintegrated.
It was the same with the Chinese junks and the Arab dhows. The Dhow is a type of sailing vassal used by Arabs on the East African Arabian and Indian Costs generally lateen rigged on 2 or 3 masts. The Afro-Asian navies were no match against the firepower generated by the European ships.
In 1839, two British frigates defeated 29 Chinese war junks near Hong Kong. Frigates were built for speed and hardiness. A frigate was a long and fairly low ship carrying its main battery of 18-pounders on a single deck with 13-14 ports on each side according to whether it was a 38 or 36 gun ship. After 1814, frigates with forty 20-pounder guns were launched. The frigates carried six months provision.
This means that they could sail anywhere in the world without requiring touching any port. The frigates were built of oak, the main beams being at least a foot square in cross-section, and the planking four to five inches thick. The masts and spars were of pine from the Baltic. The European ships’ crews were sustained by hard biscuits and beef.