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During the 18th and 19th century, the British Navy had ships all over the world, and communicating with them had to be difficult. After all, the Battle of New Orleans happened after the British had signed the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812. Although many ship captains or fleet commodores had great freedom to operate tactically within their sphere of influence, what system of communication did the Royal Navy use to pass orders and receive reports from its ships far away? Assuming that orders had to travel by courier on fast sailing ships, did the Navy rely only upon its own ships to pass messages, or did it use fast commercial vessels? Was their a back-up system in case the courier was interecepted? Typically, how long did the process take?

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Before the telegraph, communication was normally by post, which was an office or shack for handling the mail. Military communications were handled right alongside civilian messages and for this reason the post was almost always operated by the government. Each route went over land or by sea as was most convenient and sometimes both. In many cases private contractors would be employed to carry the mail between posts, in which case the packages of mail, called "packets" were sealed in some way to prevent the contractor from reading them. The business of carrying packets was called in England the "packet trade" and was a large business. Special, fast boats called "packet ships" were used to carry the packets and conduct other time-sensitive business.

Naval ships operated according to written orders and would periodically put in to a port to report and collect orders which would be found waiting for them. Military ships used the regular (Royal) post, except in very exceptional circumstances.

In places where maintaining a post was impossible due to cost or political considerations, then the Navy would try to use an embassy as the post. In very remote or dangerous places a standing ship would be used as the post.

Any British ship carrying official mail usually had a special pennant indicating that it was a mail ship.

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I think that this answer describes the situation from circa 1800 onward, but not the 1700's. For example this Royal Mail Pennant is from 1884, and the RMS - Royal Mail Ship designation dates from 1840. Could you clarify? –  andy256 Jul 22 at 1:08
@andy256 The use of packet ships goes back centuries and certainly to the time of William the Conqueror. The term "RMS" is an 18th century term, but as a general rule any packet ship carrying official mail would bear the flag of the king or some similar authority. If you are interested in researching it, look up the term the "king's messenger" which can apply equally to a ship or post runner. –  Tyler Durden Jul 22 at 1:26
@andy256 Also, if you have access to any old broadsheets, such as colonial broadsheets you can find the notices of the mail packets. Since people had to know which day to come to town for the mail. So you would see notices like, "The Boston packet will arrive on such a such date, etc". All such ships would have a special flag. –  Tyler Durden Jul 22 at 1:29
Can you provide a reference for linking packet ships to the time of William the Conqueror? My thinking is that packet ships were steamers, and they and English language broadsheets occur in the 19th century. To come to town for the mail on a given day implies reliable arrival times, something steam provided but sail didn't. Hence hence my earlier request for clarification. –  andy256 Jul 22 at 1:43
No, I was suggesting you improve your answer with a reference. But I'll take a reference made in comments :-) –  andy256 Jul 22 at 3:03

They sent ships to the various headquarters with messages. Ships would return to their local headquarters to receive orders periodically. Failing that, the HQ would send another ship to the place where a particular ship was operating.

I suppose the navy might have used commercial ships if convenient, but in most cases had to use their own sloops and frigates for the purpose. Commercial ships usually lacked the crews for operating efficiently at high speeds and in foul weather.

As transoceanic trips could take weeks to months, this method took that kind of time.

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I think your answer is probably correct, but Tyler gives more information, and neither of you cite any references. So I'm still not ready to accept an answer. Do you believe that Tyler's description of the mechanism is correct? –  Bruce James Jul 22 at 15:42
The use of overland post was more or less irrelevant for the Navy, outside of England. There you might send orders to Portsmouth from the Admiralty in London. Outside England, Naval HQs were at a port, as were the ships. Fleets on a station in war, such as blockaders, also had a known location that could be found by ship, and the Admiral was there. –  Oldcat Jul 22 at 16:46
I was referring to the second paragraph of Tyler's answer, which distinguishes the naval version of the packet system. –  Bruce James Jul 22 at 16:49
He only adds a name: packet ships. This is accurate, although they were also called dispatch vessels or not given a name at all if sent for an exceptional case like announcing a victory to the country. Then a promising officer was sent on the courier and often given a promotion because of it. –  Oldcat Jul 22 at 16:53

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