Academic journal article Policy Review


Academic journal article Policy Review


Article excerpt

N.A.M. RODGER. Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815. NORTON. 976 PAGES. $45.00

AMONG BRITISH COUNTRY houses, those belonging to old Royal Navy families are easily recognized: In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, successful British sea officers showed a great fondness for acquiring marine paintings for their estates, preferably depicting battles in which they had participated themselves. They would order these great canvases, so-called six-footers, and they were very particular about the details. A typical note from 1805 sent to the marine painter Nicholas Pocock, one of the most popular painters of the sea battles in the age of Nelson, reads, "Sir Richard Strachan's compliments to Mr. Pocock and to inform him he just recollects that the French Admiral's mizzen topmast should be shot away at the time the picture is meant to represent." This was accompanied by Sir Richard's small childlike stick drawing of two ships engaged in battle. Pocock, ever the professional, who had himself been master of a merchant ship, at once proceeded to shatter the offending mast. Concepts such as artist's autonomy and poetic license are not navy concepts.

Nicholas Pocock's marine paintings figure prominently among the illustrations in N.A.M. Rodger's great three-volume Naval History of Britain, of which volume two, the key volume, is now out. Rodger is a professor of history at Essex University and a fellow of the British Academy, and his work has been hailed as one of the great achievements of historical scholarship of our age. It is set to become the standard history of the British navy.

For decades, serious naval history has been one of the neglected areas in history writing, a marginal discipline, except when capturing headlines for its more exotic aspects, such as homosexuality in the navy. As a result of this neglect, Rodger dryly points out in his introduction, in a recent academic work Britain was treated as if it were a military power much akin to Prussia. "To describe the eighteenth-century British state, in war or peace, without mentioning the Royal Navy is quite a feat of intellectual virtuosity; it must have been as difficult as writing a history of Switzerland without mentioning mountains, or writing a novel without using the letter 'e'."

Once the largest employer in the country, the navy's importance to British life--social, political, and economic--is incalculable, of course. Without the navy, there would never have been an empire, and Britain could not have withstood the threats represented by the Spanish Armada, Napoleon, and Hitler. So the purpose of Rodger's efforts has been "to put naval affairs back into the history of Britain." Rodger's volumes are not so much about the swashbuckling exploits of individual heroes. It is the background canvas upon which they act that interests him. Action devotees can usefully supplement their reading with Arthur Herman's delightful To Rule the Waves (HarperCollins, 2004).

IN VOLUME ONE, The Safeguard of the Sea, Rodger covered the period 660 to 1649, from the first campaigns against the Vikings up to and including the Spanish Armada, when the Navy was still an occasional force gathered for war by the ruler. Despite some promising starts, Rodger notes, it cannot be said that the English were in control of the sea before 1649, having been invaded eight times between 1066 and 1485. Rather than a defensive barrier, he describes the sea as a "broad highway," free for the country's enemies to use, offering no protection to those who have not learned how to master it.

The Command of the Ocean covers the period 1649 to 1815, in which Britain became the dominant seapower in the world, and starts with the age of the civil war and of Oliver Cromwell, when one sees the beginning of the professionalization of the navy. Its function was to guard the Protestant revolution against Catholic Europe and its attempt to restore a Catholic monarchy in England. …

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