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  • The State of American Naval History in 2010
  • John B. Hattendorf (bio)

Andrew Lambert makes several very important points when he emphasizes that the modern study of naval history began in late 19th-century Britain and America with the work of professional naval officers reflecting on the history of their own profession. Their work, as Lambert says, was largely focused as historical study for the professional and practical uses of navies. In addition, he underscores the current need to develop a better appreciation of the historiography of naval history and a broader historical understanding of the nature and character of navies. After reading Lambert's comments, there are a number of further considerations that come to mind.

First, the professional uses of naval history by and for the navy have typically differed from those intellectual explorations of the topic in academic settings. As has been the case with military history, naval and military professionals sometimes have had the tendency to deal with history in terms of highly technical issues that can be baffling to those who have not had similar professional and technical training, or alternatively, they have sometimes dealt with history in overly simplistic and celebratory terms. This situation, however, is not limited to naval affairs, but has some comparable dimensions with the histories of other professions, such as medicine, law, art, architecture, etc. It has been, after all, one of the distinctive marks of professionalism to develop a historical understanding and literature about one's profession. The complementing role of academic research has been to bring wider perceptions and broader contextual understanding, which help to break down the insular, self-serving, and self-referencing aspects of historical writing and thinking within professions. Ideally, these two perspectives should not be opposing but complementary. The pairing and interaction between professional naval knowledge and broadly based critical academic analysis of naval activities should ideally lead to a better understanding of naval history.

Second, to understand naval history one must be aware that it is just one subspecialty within the general field of maritime history, which focuses broadly on mankind's multiple relationships to the seas and oceans that cover the largest part of our globe. Other subdisciplines within maritime history include geographical exploration, maritime economic, cultural, social, and labor history, maritime science and technology, as well as maritime arts and literatures. Naval history is a distinctive subspecialty because of its dominant relationship with military, diplomatic, political, and international history. Until relatively recently, thinking about navies occurred within the confines of separate national histories—narrative descriptions of individual battles and leaders. Now naval history, both in the academy and in the naval services, benefits from comparative approaches as well as the application of complementary disciplinary approaches from other areas under the broad rubric of maritime history.

Third, British naval history is much more vibrant and broadly developed intellectually than United States naval history. North American scholars continue to make some of the leading contributions to British maritime and naval history. Some of these Americans are either British-trained academics or scholars who are in close touch with the current intellectual and academic developments in Britain, such as Daniel A. Baugh of Cornell, John Beeler of Alabama, and Jon Sumida of Maryland. But they are not alone. Scholars in the United States and Canada have also made important and innovative scholarly contributions to other national naval histories. Here the fine work of a number of scholars comes to mind, including that of Richard Unger on the medieval period, Jonathan Dull and James Pritchard on the French Navy, Holger Herwig on the German Navy, Roger Dingman and Mark Peattie on the Japanese Navy, and Carla Rahn Phillips on the Spanish Navy.

As Lambert shows, the current flowering of naval history in Britain has happened in just the last twenty years. It is associated with the relatively recent appointment of several naval scholars to professorial chairs and the parallel development of significant graduate-level research in naval history at King's College London, Exeter University, Greenwich University, and Oxford. This flowering also has depended on a century of dedicated scholarship in the scholarly publications of the Navy Records Society and the work of the Society...


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pp. 16-18
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