Sir Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan adventurer, believed that "Hee that commaunds the sea, commaunds the trade, and hee that is Lord of the trade of the world is Lord of the wealth of the worlde." In the mid-16th century, England commanded little. Spain controlled the vast wealth of the New World, and when its monarch inherited Portugal in 1580, he added the world's second-largest empire to its largest. France, for its part, had a population perhaps four times larger than England's.
But this ignominy did not last. As N.A.M. Rodger reports, on the restoration to the throne of Charles II in 1680, after "200 years of precarious survival on the margins of Europe . . . the Navy had made England feared once more." Four fine new books examine the causes and monumental consequences of the rise of the Royal Navy. Each offers far more than a running tale of sea fights, occasionally lost but typically won.
A Very Good Year
Frank McLynn's epic 1759: The Year Britain Became Master of the World (Atlantic Monthly, $26) focuses not on the Royal Navy but on the worldwide duel between England and France in the pivotal year when Britain attained global mastery, a "position it would maintain for at least another hundred years." The year is curiously neglected even by those fairly familiar with British and American history. Far more readily identifiable are 1215 (Magna Carta), 1588 (the defeat of the Spanish Armada) and 1815 (Waterloo). But overlooked 1759 was the climactic year of the struggle known in the United States as the French and Indian War and in Europe as the Seven Years War. Whatever its name, battles in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America made it the first truly global war. McLynn, a visiting professor at Strathclyde University in Scotland, argues persuasively that 1759 was the hinge of modern history, with long-term consequences including British control of India and the position of English as today's world language. Most significant, the removal of the French threat to Britain's North American colonies eliminated their perceived need for protection by British forces and made plausible the idea of independence.
McLynn eloquently explores the course of the conflict, its idiocies (mainly by French leaders) and the war crimes of the victors while offering a generous dollop of cultural history. The forgotten British victory at Quiberon Bay, off the coast of France, is given its proper place as the culmination of a year of triumphs. Familiar figures such as Wolfe, Montcalm and Amherst are removed from their pedestals. The hero is William Pitt the Elder, who "had made the Royal Navy the pivot of his global strategy and had been successful beyond anything he could have imagined."
The Secret of Their Success
Three new accounts of the Royal Navy independently reach broadly similar -- and somewhat unfashionable -- Whiggish conclusions. Peter Padfield's Maritime Power and the Struggle for Freedom: Naval Campaigns That Shaped the Modern World, 1788-1851 (Overlook, $35) argues that the Royal Navy decisively changed the political landscape in its campaigns against revolutionary and Napoleonic France. He asserts an intimate connection between merchants' influence on government, limits on the executive, naval power and freedom. (His idea is not novel; the connection between democracy and sea power is found in Aristotle's Politics.) Padfield's prime examples are the 17th-century Dutch republic and, most crucially, its successors at sea, Great Britain and the United States.
Padfield contrasts the naval powers with the great authoritarian land-based regimes of Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Napoleon. They centralized power and barely tolerated the messiness of entrepreneurial activity. Since "great wars were decided largely on margins of interest," Padfield sees the British victory over Napoleon as virtually a foregone conclusion.
Most of this thought-provoking book centers on a naval expert's riveting appraisal of the major campaigns from 1788 through 1851. The only jarring note is an offhand description of the American-British 1781 battle off the Chesapeake Bay as "indecisive." While neither side won a great naval victory, the outcome was British Gen. Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown, effectively ending the Revolutionary War. The battle remains the prime example of the disastrous consequences resulting from a transitory loss of local naval supremacy.
Masters and Commanders
In his recent Empire, the historian Niall Ferguson brilliantly argued that the world as we know it is in large measure the product of Britain's age of empire. Now Arthur Herman identifies the Royal Navy as the key to the development of that empire. In To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World (HarperCollins, $26.95), Herman vividly recounts the dramatic saga of how "a navy forged a nation, then an empire -- and then our world." To Rule the Waves is an extremely readable account of the rise and fall of the Royal Navy, from its beginnings to its 1805 zenith at Trafalgar to its current decline -- to the point where it needed American assistance to defeat the Argentine navy in the 1982 Falklands War. Herman, author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World, conveys a real sense of loss as he concludes his recessional: "One by one the substance and symbols of British naval supremacy, the embodiments of three centuries of tradition and pride, vanished."
A few incomprehensible lapses do not much detract from his achievement. But what was Herman thinking when he wrote that John Hawkins, the uncle of Sir Francis Drake and a fellow sea dog, was "England's first secret double agent"? Did he imagine there were open double agents, or that some chronological roster of secret agents permits a solid conclusion as to who was the first?
Finally, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (Norton, $45) is the second volume of N.A.M. Rodger's magisterial naval history of Britain. The first, the highly acclaimed The Safeguard of the Sea, covered the period from 660 to 1649 and was largely a history of failure; England endured eight successfully invasions by sea between 1066 and 1485. But during the years of the new book -- covering the period from Charles I's execution to Napoleon's exile -- Britain finally gained effective sovereignty, first of the seas around the British Isles and then of the world's oceans.
Demonstrating near-total mastery of his sources, Rodger devotes far more attention to administrative and social history than to the actual conduct of battles. Here, the service of the diarist Samuel Pepys as secretary to the Admiralty is at least as significant as Nelson's annihilation of enemy fleets off the Nile and at Trafalgar. Rodger convincingly shows that sustained public support and an administrative system capable of keeping ships at sea for extended periods contributed more to long-term victory at sea than courage, training and tactics. For Rodger, the key was a governing class obsessed with menace (initially of the Popish variety). This fear lay behind the strong, consistent and broad-based political backing for a costly navy that distinguished Britain from all other European powers. "Fear," he writes, "provided the motive to maintain a fleet whose primary purpose was always defensive."
Rodger illuminates the world of Nelson and Hardy and its portrayal by C.F. Forester in the Hornblower novels and Patrick O'Brien in the Aubrey and Maturin cycle. He corrects many mistaken impressions. In fact, discipline in the Royal Navy was far less severe than usually portrayed; the fledgling U.S. Navy resorted twice as often to flogging. Mutiny in the Royal Navy was likely to result in removal of the officer involved. Lack of discipline among officers often posed a greater problem than with seamen. Many officers displayed cowardice. Service in the Navy was much less physically arduous and dangerous than work on a merchant ship or a fishing boat, or such on-shore pursuits as mining.
To understand the Royal Navy at its peak, Rodger's account is indispensable. After a far more detailed, almost encyclopedic exposition, Rodger concludes by echoing Padfield's theme: "Only flexible and integrated societies could surmount the very considerable difficulties of combining the wide range of human, industrial, technical, commercial and managerial resources required to built and fight a seagoing fleet. . . . Sea power was most successful in countries with flexible and open social and political systems. They were the same which favoured trade and industry, and for the same reason, for a navy was the supreme industrial activity." Open societies were best at naval warfare for the same reason they later proved best at meeting other challenges of the modern world.
Daniel I. Davidson, a Washington lawyer, regularly reviews books for the Economist.