Honor and the British Navy

by Victor Davis Hanson

Los Angeles Times

The British Seaborne Empire by Jeremy Black (Yale University Press: 420 pp.)

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World by Arthur Herman (HarperCollins: 648 pp.)

At first glance, the British maritime empire made little sense. Unlike Spain or France, England had no Mediterranean ports and was without a venerable seafaring heritage of the old galley states. It was distant from the ancestral Roman locus of power, and its population was religiously divided, torn by ethnic strife, smaller than France’s and without the natural resources of larger European continental states. Indeed, there was not much of any British naval history before the 15th century. Far earlier, Viking longboats had freely raided the English coast and gone on to discover the New World; Portuguese and Spanish, not British, galleons would first chart the sea routes to Asia and the Americas.

Yet by the late 16th century, England had launched the most technologically advanced, nautically skilled and professionally led fleet in the world. And by 1630 no combination of French or Spanish ships could stop its 100-ship mastery of the seas, which by the mid-18th century had resulted in a worldwide empire protected by 300 capital ships. How did it all come to pass, and what effect did the nearly 500-year reign of British naval mastery have on the world at large?

Jeremy Black, perhaps the most prolific military historian in the English-speaking world today, seeks to answer the first question with his trademark flurry of names, dates and facts crammed into a reliable recitation. Over some 400 pages, we are overwhelmed with the details surrounding the establishment of British trading colonies in India and the Far East, the colonial fighting in North America and the wars with Spain and France.

Fascinating tidbits are offered about everything from New England fishery and mythical Lilliput to late 19th century gunnery (a 4.7-inch cannon could fire off 10 rounds in less than 50 seconds), curry and Bob Marley. As is his custom, Black feels little need to pause, take a breath and tell us what all this was about and for. Although in a cursory conclusion Black touches on the problems of assessing the morality of the empire and offers reasons why rule of the seas in the modern age is not necessarily a requisite to global hegemony, his erudite and exhausting narrative nevertheless too often reads more like a cross between an encyclopedia and a concordance rather than a history.

Arthur Herman, the author of excellent histories of Western culture and Scotland, covers mostly the same ground but in a far more engaging manner through the careers of half a dozen remarkable captains. If Black’s is a dry but valuable reference work, To Rule the Waves is a riveting story told by a masterful historian.

The continual raiding of the Spanish Main by Sir Francis Drake and John Hawkins not only hampered Philip II’s continental war-making and ensured a permanent British presence in North America, but it also created a new standard of swashbuckling naval command that would prove itself in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. A century later, the polymath Samuel Pepys resurrected a languishing navy by reforming its administration, instituting systematic financing and appropriation methods that resulted in a bureaucratic professionalism found nowhere else. And yet, unlike the growing French fleet across the channel, Britain made no systematic attempt to stifle command initiative or force admirals to follow rigid operational and tactical doctrine.

Churchill is often credited with quipping that “rum, sodomy and the lash” ensured legendary British discipline. But the careers of a John Cabot or Capt. William Bligh, in spite of a revolt against the latter, reveal instead a real professionalism in command that won the loyalty of impoverished soldiers who trusted their captains to get them home and to apply an admittedly draconian discipline in a systematic rather than capricious manner. The result was that they could shoot their cannon three times as fast as any other crews on the seas and navigate their sailed ships home from thousands of miles across the Pacific. In any case, flogging, the full rum ration and irons were mostly on the way out by the mid-18th century.

By 1700, the world’s great explorers, pirates and admirals were all British, and by that century’s end, the two greatest seamen that England produced, James Cook and Lord Nelson, ensured a worldwide empire characterized by a level of scientific curiosity and battle audacity unmatched before or since. That Nelson’s last words at the victory of Trafalgar over Napoleon’s French-Spanish allied fleet was “Thank God, I have done my duty,” that thousands of seamen went into a near state of shock on news of Nelson’s death, and that after his demise the entire navy repainted their capital ships in the black and yellow of his Victory summarize the universal allegiance to the idea of a preeminent English navy that transcended otherwise impenetrable British class barriers.

Throughout the rise and dominance of the British men of war were two constants: In every great rivalry the British eventually won out, destroying the Spanish, then the Dutch and Scandinavian armadas, before demolishing Napoleon’s superb capital ships and outbuilding the Kaiser’s dreadnaughts. Second, for more than 400 years almost all the important breakthroughs in nautical technology—iron cannon, copper bottoms, flint firing systems, ship-to-ship communication, ironclads, naval radar, turrets and aircraft platforms—came from British innovation and experimentation.

How, then, did the British pull it off in a manner that Spain, France and Germany could not? Geography explains only so much, inasmuch as there are plenty of island countries—Japanese maritime control came late and was brief—faced with continental rivals that don’t establish global and centuries-long maritime empires.

Herman suggests a number of telling factors. There was always widespread public support for naval mastery; the admiralty, despite being bound by aristocratic prejudices, nevertheless insisted on a meritocracy on the oceans, which the British poor who manned the fleet came to appreciate and eventually cherish.

While the bureaucracy created top-flight, standardized ships and ensured intricate logistics, mavericks such as Drake, Nelson and George Anson were honored for audacity that often went against the rules. Sailors came to believe through their training and equipment that their ships were better, their commanders smarter and their mates more skilled than was true of any enemy firing back at them. Something like such continuity and steadiness, after all, must explain why the British navy defeated France six times between 1689 and Napoleon’s demise, despite the greater population, resources and ultimately revolutionary fervor across the channel.

Both Black and Herman conclude by outlining the abrupt and striking collapse of both the empire and the navy after 1945. The legacy of the former was embodied by the global spread of the English languages; the dynamism of America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand; Indian democracy; and the notion of the rule of English-based law applied on a worldwide scale. The latter was superseded—but not defeated—by the U.S. Navy. And the naval power of the United States in many respects was a result of greater material resources applied on a massive scale to a similar system of naval organization adapted from the British.

If one wonders why what Churchill once called “the island race” no longer exercises much influence through either a navy or overseas territory, the reasons usually cited are decolonization, deindustrialization, exhaustion after two world wars and post-imperial guilt. But just as likely is the emergence of England’s liberal image of the United States, whose military power now often exercises the same constabulary role as the British imperial fleet once did. If the United Kingdom now looks like much of the rest of the world, it is because the world in turn—its language, laws and commerce—has become much like Britain.

There is a sort of melancholy in Herman’s final and gripping account of the Falklands War of 1982, when everything seemed to be opposed to the British efforts of reclamation—a post-colonial, strategically insignificant island of only 1,800 British subjects, nearly 8,000 miles distant, in an age when England had dismantled both empire and its navy. The U.S. military concluded that the idea of reclaiming the wind-swept island was a “military impossibility.” And yet despite no land-based air cover, terrible weather, impossible logistics and faulty equipment, the vastly outnumbered British seaborne marines routed the Argentines in less than three months.

How was the Falklands possible? Herman reminds us that while British battleships and cruisers had long ago gone to the scavenger’s torch, half a millennium after Drake scoured the seas there still lingered a British sense of naval defiance sufficient to see it through. “Yet at this moment, even after the mantle of global power had passed,” he writes, “its original possessor had proved it could still act, and not without honor.” Honor, it seems, has been at root of British naval success all along.

©2005 Victor Davis Hanson

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