Book Review: To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World


by Arthur Herman

New York: Harper Collins, 2004. 648 pp. Maps. $26.95. ISBN:0-06-053424-9

From the Spanish Armada to the Falkland Islands, the Royal Navy has a centuries long tradition of victory. It has produced extraordinary leaders such as Drake, Hawkins, Anson, and Nelson whose exploits have been the subject of countless books. Novelists have mined its history for inspiration, creating many fictional heros, including Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, who have been the subject of many movies, as well as entire series of books. But how did this remarkable institution develop? How did Britain come to rule the waves for centuries, and what effect did British seapower have on world history? As Arthur Herman demonstrates, its effect on the British nation and the world was immense. Herman Begins the story of the Royal Navy during the time of Henry VIII, when the “Navy Royal”, as it was then called, existed as part time force that was mobilized only when needed. Britain in those days had no permanent standing fleet, but it did have tough, courageous, mariners from the west country who often turned pirate. The Royal Navy had piratical beginnings. Sea rovers like Francis Drake and John Hawkins pillaged Spain’s empire in the New World, but were also frequently motivated by Protestant zeal as well as a desire for plunder. The Spanish extracted immense wealth from the New World, but the English saw opportunities to do more than simply take natural resources. The British were entrepreneurs as well as fighters, and learned to create wealth by trade instead of just mining it, or taking it by force. The growth of the Navy affected Britain’s economy in many ways. Building and equipping the fleet became an immense operation, and entire industries grew up around it. In addition, the fleet could protect Britain’s trade from privateers or pirates, and it could ruin the trade of an adversary. Part of Britain’s success at developing a navy second to none was due to the fact that the British developed ways of paying for it. They also learned to administer their navy more efficiently, and if they could not completely stamp out dockyard corruption, they at least figured out how to keep it down to manageable levels. Besides learning how to build, man, and provision their ships, the British had to learn how to use them effectively. Herman traces the evolution of British naval doctrine, and places it in context with the ever changing strategic situation in Europe. The British learned the power of a fleet in being, as well as the need for smaller ships to protect their merchant fleet from hostile raiders. The Royal Navy was not always successful in the 17th and 18th centuries, and lost a number of battles, but it never lost a war. As the Royal Navy’s power and reputation grew so did its self confidence, and in time most of its enemies would go into battle expecting to be defeated. Villeneuve, Nelson’s opponent at Trafalgar, never for a moment thought he had any chance to win. Scheer, the German commander at Jutland, might have inflicted punishing losses on the British fleet, but as Herman puts it “At that fateful moment, Scheer was confronting...the ghosts of Nelson, Howe, Rodney, Drake, and all the rest; and he backed down.” To Rule the Waves is much more than just the story of the Royal Navy’s many wars, although Herman does those justice. He also looks at the Navy’s contribution to science, through the many scientific expeditions that were sent out in Royal Navy ships, including Darwin’s famous voyage. In addition, Herman examines the Navy’s role as global policeman and its efforts against such scourges as slaving and piracy. To Rule the Waves ends with the Argentine surrender in the Falkland Islands. By then, the sun had long since set on the British Empire, and the Royal Navy had shrunk to a ghost of its former self. But even so, The British navy retained the combat power and fighting tradition to win a war thousands of miles from home against odds that many people at the time though

Reviewer: Burke G Sheppard   

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