- Modern Naval History: Debates and Prospects by Richard Harding
Historiography is not easy to write, nor is it an endeavor lightly taken up. It requires an experienced historian with both a broad and a deep knowledge of the subject. It is often complex, and is not likely to generate rewarding royalties, although it is often very well received at conferences. The last major effort to capture the arguments and importance of naval history in its entirety was the edited collection Doing Naval History: Essays Toward Improvement, which was published some twenty years ago. While that collection was international in scope, it can’t be said to have been global, and dominated by Anglophones. This may trouble some scholars; as Dennis Showalter wrote, “naval history is not merely Anglophone; it is Anglocentric.”1 Harding recognizes this issue, which is not surprising given the dominance of the British and subsequently American navy for the last two centuries, and makes an effort to point out developments in non-English-speaking nations as well.
In doing so, Richard Harding, has produced an admirably concise volume of only 133 pages of text, supported by another 120 or so of notes. His goal in doing so is not merely to explore and explain the debates that have shaped naval history, but also to encourage “new scholars to engage rigorously with the subject” (pp. xi, 9). Notably, in doing so the author places naval history within the context of world history, which is somewhat remarkable in that naval history for many decades was the preserve of nationalist historians. Harding’s approach seems to reflect N.A.M. Rodger’s call for naval historians to reconnect [End Page 296] with mainstream history, while as recently as 2011 Andrew Lambert noted that naval history remains unpopular in academic circles.2 Harding himself laments that it is striking that naval history has not had much of an impact within the “expanding world of professional academic history” since 1945 (p. 6).
A measure of Harding’s qualifications to write such an ambitious work are the endorsements on the back cover, two British and two American. They are among the most influential naval historians today, including Britons Andrew Lambert and Nicholas Rodger, and Americans James Bradford and John Beeler. A close reading of the Preface uncovers other influential naval historians supported this project, including the prolific John Hattendorf of the U.S. Navy’s Naval War College and a host of other leading lights in the field. The broad support for this writer’s efforts are unsurprising, given his prominence in naval historical circles as editor of the journal Mariner’s Mirror and Chairman of the Society for Nautical Research. However, naval history remains a small community, and Harding’s efforts to overcome an Anglo-American bias are not fully successful, but not for lack of effort. The extensive bibliography notes many international sources, especially French and Indian, and a handful of Dutch, Spanish, and German sources. East Asian scholarship is barely mentioned, but to be fair, it is asking too much of one person, no matter how impressive their credentials, and thus Showalter’s 1995 complaint of Anglocentrism remains as true in 2016 as it did in 1995.
The importance of this book lies in its utility, and Harding’s sense of organization makes this work especially useful. He has structured this book into three sections, the first two of which are especially useful in looking at the traditional major arguments made by naval historians, while the third is not quite as convincing. The first chapter is “Sea power and international relations.” He quite rightly points out that navies have often been at the center of international controversies, and their resolution, including by diplomatic means, for centuries. The second section, “Navies, politics and government,” also looks at navies within a political context, but in domestic terms related to the rise of the modern nation-state and the development of complex bureaucracies. The third chapter, “Navies and societies,” looks at how navies interacted with...