- The Command of the Ocean. A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815
It is now more than a century since the publication of Sir William Laird Clowes’s seven volume History of the Royal Navy, the first and for many years the only attempt to write what was both an institutional history dating from the sixteenth century and more broadly, an account of war at sea since the Roman conquest. It has served naval historians well but for some time has required a comprehensive and scholarly successor. Now with the support of the Oxford Maritime Trust, the National Maritime Museum, the Society for Nautical Research and the Navy Records Society Professor Nicholas Rodger has set out to write a new synthesis of British naval history.
Command of the Ocean is the second of a three volume series, A Naval History of Britain, which chronicles the years from 1649 to 1815. Its purpose, as the author makes clear in a pithy introduction, is to put naval affairs back into the history of Britain – to explain the contribution that the navy has made to national history and to show that naval history is not simply an institutional matter but an important dimension of national endeavour, touching all aspects of government and society. This is a daunting commission but the material, some 900 pages, is presented in four parallel layers: strategy, policy and operations; finance, administration and logistics; social history; and ship development, and is handled with such verve and authority that the reader is never encumbered by the enormity of the task. While the author counsels against reading any of these ‘streams’ in isolation, so skilful is the selection of material and so sharp is the commentary that it is possible to enjoy and profit from any of the thirty-six chapters read either individually or in sequence. It is a compelling story told by a master of the material who manages to entertain and inform without deviating from a rigorous analysis of how Britain transformed itself from European player to leading world power.
The book commences with consideration of a Commonwealth that recognised that a powerful navy was essential to the survival of a military regime but always doubted the loyalty of its officers and failed to provide it with adequate funding or supplies. Dilapidated and almost bankrupt, the navy inherited by Charles II was nevertheless the strongest possession of a precarious regime and at least the new King recognised that it was likely to be a prime instrument in strengthening his authority. The principal problem of course was money. Professor Rodger skilfully explores the intricacies of how political power at home and naval power abroad depended on the ability to raise revenue. In this regard victorious naval war was an essential precursor. The story of a [End Page 350] succession of naval operations gradually extending from European waters into the deep oceans is told with the panache of a seafaring novel. By the middle of the eighteenth century the old myths of English naval destiny had been translated, via the efforts of statesmen and admirals alike, into an effective and practical strategy. The years up to 1815, the golden age of fighting sail and sailors, are faithfully recounted and the triumphs of a succession of British naval heroes are acknowledged but assessed in a properly critical manner. Those looking for unalloyed praise of figures such as Howe, St Vincent, Rodney and even Nelson will be disappointed. Professor Rodger never allows the reader to forget that it required a worthy opponent to make a great victory or indeed that fighting success at sea was invariably built on an effective administration and logistical machinery on shore.
In a book covering such a broad canvas there are inevitably subjects and individuals that might have been explored further – more on the education and training of young officers for example, or a fuller discussion of those important figures in the middle of the ship’s hierarchy such as...