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To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World [Hardcover]

Arthur Herman
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 648 pages
  • Publisher: Harper (Nov 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060534249
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060534240
  • Product Dimensions: 3.8 x 15.8 x 23.1 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 839,560 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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To Rule the Waves An epic history of the Royal Navy from the Spanish Armada to the present tells the story of how the British dominated the world and laid the foundation for the modern age. Full description

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FOR THREE DAYS the ships had struggled to hold their own against the hurricane. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars En Excellent and Well Written Story 9 Nov 2004
Written by the highly regarded author Arthur Herman, this book was just recently published by Harper Collins. As a general comment this is not a narrow navy history book. In fact this is an impressive general interest history book that it will likely become a best seller. It manages to be comprehensive and well written, informative but entertaining. It does what a good book should do for the general reader - fill in many historical details since around 1500 and the time of the Tudors and Henry VIII to the present day. This was when the new world was discovered first by Columbus and others. The Royal Navy had its fitst growth spurt from 5 to 50 ships under the rule of Henry VIII. The author does all of this in an easy to read fashion.
In some places the book is written in an easy flowing style almost like a novel, such as a Hornblower book or similar. Often he takes us through hurricanes, Atlantic storms and other adventures describing the scenes blow by blow with quotes from the participants. Other parts of the book contain reviews and discussions of historical developments and English politics. There are numerous references at the back of the book to support the quotations and details - about 50 pages of source notes.
It is approximately 600 pages long and contains about eleven maps showing naval actions. It covers the history of the Royal Navy and its role in stopping Napoleon and projecting British power and helping colonial expansion around the world. It is very broad and wide ranging covering twenty two different topics in chronological order.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Can we have a new edition 26 Jun 2008
This is a solid and excellent history, and an enjoyable read. But, Mr. Herman, can you please ask your publishers to issue a new edition so that we can have your thoughts concerning the changing role of Britain's Royal Navy in the 21st century. The book currently ends in the gloomy post-Falklands War shrinking fleet and defence review hell, but this is before the War on Terror and a re-evaluation of Britain's defence requirements. Particularly, the return to Blue Water naval strategy and the introduction of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, and the re-emergence of a more globally-involved Britain. Perhaps there is a happy ending afterall for Herman's thesis? Still, the book as it is remains a class act.
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By Chuzy
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This was bought as a self selected gift for my father after he had seen it reviewed elsewhere at Christmas
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4.0 out of 5 stars Surprising 26 Jan 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Don't think I have ever came across an interesting book that chronicled the Royal Navy's role in shaping the modern world until this one. Full of things that will make you think - that makes sense - and surprise you as well. The Navy had a further reach and impact than you would realize!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.8 out of 5 stars  68 reviews
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Unfulfilled Promise 6 Mar 2005
By Grover Hartt, III - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves is a gallant attempt at a one-volume history of the Royal Navy and its impact on world history. Much of the narrative of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is extremely well done. He also offers such insightful observations as "It is only when we look backward that history assumes a predictable pattern. Viewed the other way around, as it is lived, it abounds in inexplicable turns and strange surprises."

It is, therefore, disappointing that such a fine book should be handicapped by numerous factual errors. Cartagena is not the capital of Venezuela. Napoleon's "crushing defeat" at Waterloo occurred on June 18, 1815 - not June 15. It is also difficult to accept the statement that the Battle of Trafalgar had all been for nothing, even "in a sense."

By the time the author reaches the twentieth century, one has the impression that he was running out of time or patience. The factual errors increase. The King George V class of battleships were not equipped with 16-inch guns to match the latest American and Japanese battleships. Unlike the Americans, the British had to proceed with the KGVs at an earlier date to address the German threat, and they given their unusual arrangement of ten 14-inch guns as a result. To be fair, the author does get the armament of this class of battleship correct later in his text. The Tribal class destroyer had a crew of between 190 and 226. The statement that Matabele was sunk with the loss of all but two of her crew of 4,000 is wildly inaccurate. The ship that assisted Duke of York in the sinking of the Scharnhorst, was the light cruiser Jamaica. This ship is incorrectly described by the author as a destroyer. Admiral Halsey did not participate actively in the Battle of Midway. Spruance and Fletcher executed the plans Nimitz had approved. The Cunard liner that was pressed into service as a troop carrier during the Falklands operation was the QE2. I do not believe that Canberra was ever a Cunarder.

These numerous factual errors inevitably lead the reader to wonder whether there are others that may have escaped attention during a first reading. The fault may be attributable to sloppy research or sloppy editing, but it is there all the same. Moving beyond the realm of fact to that of analysis, I am willing to give anyone the right to his or her opinion, but to suggest that if the Japanese had not sunk Prince of Wales and Repulse in 1941 there might not have been a Vietnam War is simply too much of a stretch for me.
71 of 83 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Should a professor of history make such basic mistakes or be so superficial? 26 Sep 2005
By Strategos - Published on
Impressed by the favorable reviews and interested by the sweep of the author's perspective, I bought "To Rule the Waves". Early in the book (page 54), however, I found this extraordinary sentence, "Once they (the Spanish ships) arrived off Hispaniola, the South American-bound section sailed to Cartagena (now the capital of Venezuela) to drop off goods and supplies,....". Perhaps Mr. Herman should look up an atlas and find out that the capital of Venezuela is Caracas, and Cartagena is in Colombia.

Hoping that this was simply an isolated case of sloppy writing and editing, I continued to read in the book. On page 282, I was startled by still another absurdity, "The British navy enabled Clive to beat his rival Dupleix at the battle of Plassey in 1757..". Really? How did he manage to do so, when: (i) Dupleix (the governor of the French colony at Pondicherry) had already been recalled in 1754; and, (ii) Clive fought the forces of a local Indian prince, the Nawab of Bengal (Siraj ud Daulah), at Plassey (in Bengal, nowhere near the battles in the Carnatic to which Mr. Herman refers) and there were no French troops in this battle? These are not complex questions of fact - Mr. Herman could easily refer to any standard history of India, or if he felt inclined to a bit more research, to more specialized histories of the rise of British power in India.

Apart from errors of fact, there are questions of judgment. Is it really accurate to refer to Napoleon at the relief of Toulon as a "committed terrorist"? What on earth does this mean? He had written one anti-Paoli essay,a piece of Jacobin propaganda, and met Robespierre. But he was inserted into a position in the French forces relieving Toulon by Saliceti, a "depute en mission", who knew the Bonapartes from Corsica. Perhaps Mr. Herman thinks of the Jacobins as the fore-runners of Al-Qaeda?

This book really could and should have been written better. It's useful to pick up the general thread of what happened in the rise and dominance of the Royal Navy over three centuries and more. But it's no substitute for the number of other works which do exist, about different periods, battles and themes which Mr. Herman tries to cover in his book. For an example of a superlatively well-written and recent book on just the Spanish armada, I would strongly recommend "In Confident Hope of a Miracle" by Neil Hanson, who doesn't have Mr. Herman's credentials as a professor of history, but apparently doesn't need them as he writes so much better and in greater depth.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars "To Rule the Waves" is readable but wrong. 8 May 2006
By Paul M. Seid - Published on
Many other reviewers of this book have noted the large number of proofing errors and historical errors it contains. I noticed them myself but was willing to tolerate them because the author has a breezy narrative style I found quite readable--his description of how a ship 'warps out' from a harbor turned out to be necessary, as both my wife and daughter immediately thought in terms of 'warp speed' from Star Trek. However, I suddenly ran head-first into an egregious mistake that I nearly could not believe I'd read: Page 498, "Admiral Sir Ian Hamilton took on the Dardanelles forts", etc. No. No, no no no no no NO. Sir Ian was a general who eventually ended-up commanding the land forces at the Dardanelles, although he was relieved of this command. He was never in the Navy. Vice Admiral S.H. Carden was the first naval commander of the fleet at the Dardanelles, in a string of several.

If I am assured that Herman's history is more accurate concerning the earlier chapters of British naval development, then I am forced to say that his history and understanding of the "modern" British navy, beginning with the introduction of steam and armored warships, is very weak, and that his understanding of the naval side of World War I is even weaker. For those interested in this period of history, Robert Massie's books "Dreadnought" and "Castles of Steel" are just a readable, if not more so, and far more accurate and understanding, with a wealth of political and technical background which Herman clearly does not grasp.
36 of 43 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating Tale of Seagoing Technology and Human Enterprise 10 Jan 2005
By Stuart W. Mirsky - Published on
This is a thoroughgoing and insightful survey of the growth (and the importance of that growth) of British seapower, from its earliest stirrings in the reign of Henry VIII, through its birth on the high seas as an annoying competitor to the Spanish and Portugese for the African slave trade (with not a little piracy thrown in) during Elizabeth I's reign right up to the present. It covers tremendous ground while offering a sometimes microscopic look into the technologies and lifestyles of Britain's seafarers over the centuries.

What jumps right out at you from the beginning is how deeply the Royal Navy which, in the nineteenth century, could justly claim to "rule the waves," is itself rooted in lawlessness, brutality and the greed of the pirate. Yet Herman keeps it all in perspective and shows us how a better way of thinking, a philosophy of fairness enforced, grew out of this, alongside the gradual increase in British seapower.

After a number of false starts and lucky breaks, including successfully (but just barely) avoiding an invasion by a clumsy Spanish admiral and his inattentive monarch, the Elizabethan English were granted a reprieve during which to grow their seafaring prowess. They did this by partly living off the powerful but sluggish annual seagoing tribute caravan called "La Flota" which kept the Spaniards afloat in gold and silver. But the Spanish King Philip, a micromanager of the worst sort, also seemed to lack a head for finances. He mortgaged his nation ever more deeply into debt as English piracy grew and, eventually, began to take the gold and silver from his galleons before he and his successors could. The result: Spain's fleet stagnated and declined and her ever more ossified civil system fell into decay. Not so the up and coming English.

As Spain declined, other seafaring nations waded in to take her place, including the former Spanish dependency, Holland which briefly gave England a run for its money. But the Dutch lacked the resources to keep pace with the English who began to transition from piracy to more staid pursuits. As trade and commerce replaced brigandage, England struggled to protect its ever growing position in a series of wars. When the Dutch faded, France was ready to step in. And France was a more substantial threat to England, the sort that would force the English to finally develop a real navy.

But the autocratic French system did not transfer well to the sea, while the initiative and out-of-the-box thinking of piracy and smuggling had bred into England's sea captains a certain savoir faire out on the waves. Along with growing seafaring technology (better gunnery, better ship designs and better logistics for building and supporting their fleets), this enabled the English seamen to consistently best their French challengers despite a number of tricky moments and some real setbacks. The English also managed to eventually develop a savvy officer corps and a system for organizing and moving their ships about on the high seas. Herman introduces us to the line ahead attack mode that the English pioneered and the many other innovations they added including systematic navigational charting, ship to ship signaling, better food and food supply systems, uniforms, etc. While other countries eventually picked up these innovations the English, unlike the Spanish they had long since replaced, kept right on innovating, staying a step ahead of their enemies including the brilliant and ruthless Napoleon who nearly conquered all of Europe and, at one point, seemed primed to move into India, had it not been for his English antagonists and their relentless blockade of Europe's ports as he rushed into Russia with winter descending, imprudently extending his land based supply lines for thousands of miles.

Chief among Napoleon's antagonists was the famed English admiral, Lord Horatio Nelson. But just as Herman gives us an unvarnished picture of a brutally dictatorial Bonaparte, so he lets us see Nelson, the greatest British seafaring hero, for what he really was: a skilled, insightful, courageous and innovative commander of ships, who was also reckless and vain and who probably would have ended his life with a much less exalted reputation had he not died in the heat of the battle of Trafalgar (having once again taken more risks than were prudent). Indeed, Herman's Nelson comes across as something of a spoiled adolescent, insatiable for glory and attention and heedless of the risks to others or himself.

But Trafalgar was a victory even if, according to Herman, it accomplished nothing since Napoleon had already decided to turn east, and the English, who adored their self-aggrandizing champion who had lost an arm in an early battle and an eye in another, virtually deified him. His recklessness, along with a bit of luck, had stood him in good stead many times in sea battles before this as he had out-brazened enemy commanders while retaining control over his own ships. (One of the ways he did this was through a newly devised ship to ship signaling system.)

But Herman also dispassionately lets us see the futility of all the high seas destruction that ship to ship warfare entailed, even as it forged the British navy and helped build an empire. Indeed, it is Herman's contention that Britain' navy made her though what also comes clearly into focus is the fact that external events and the special combination of features that conjoined in the English nation also made the navy. In the end, we get a navy that thrived on its sense of honor and a belief in the value of law, two characteristics which also came to infuse the larger British society as well.

Herman doesn't stint on the unpleasant stuff but he shows both sides, the exploratory travels that took Darwin to Galapagos and others to the Arctic, as well as the wars and the slaughter out on the open waves. And it was the British navy, Herman reminds us, that shut down the African slave trade despite its own birth in the pursuit of that abominable business. He also lets us see how the United States grew up in the shadow of the Royal Navy (some day to replace it with even greater global power) as the British became the world's policemen and guardians of its sea lanes.

A very worthwhile book, indeed, though I had a few concerns. Chief among these is the humongous number of proofing errors that abound here. Granted it's a substantial read but the editors ought to have done a better job. At some points I found myself noticing omitted words or wrong words or misspelled words on almost every other page. After about half way through I just stopped trying to keep track. But there was one that really stuck, a reference to American Secretary of State James Quincy Adams under the presidency of James Monroe during the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine. As Herman notes, this doctrine was more British than American since the U.S. did not have the fleet to enforce it. Only the British did and had they chosen not to, the American president would have been unable to do it himself. Still there's this reference to the Secretary of State. I recall a John Quincy Adams, not a James. He was the son of President John Adams and went on, himself, to serve as an American president. I'm quite certain there was not also a "James Quincy Adams" in the family. Perhaps the author had James Madison in mind?

author of The King of Vinland's Saga
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rife with preventable error 12 Mar 2005
By Roy E. Sullivan - Published on
The concept and premise of this one-volume history of the Royal Navy is wonderful. There is so much promise, so much potential...Unfortunately, carelessness in editing and a flagrant absence of basic, foundational, fact-checking abounds in this otherwise fine, compelling, history, which precludes my awarding anything more than two stars.

As a researcher and historian myself in the early history of the United States Navy, I can cite two glaring examples of factual error, which should have been easily avoidable. Both of these relate to the author's brief discussion of the naval aspects of the War of 1812. First, U.S. Commodore John Rodgers and his flagship President, 44, unequivocably did NOT defeat HMS Belvedere, 36, as asserted by Mr. Herman in his text. Rather, Belvedere, through skillful ship-handling on the part of her commander, combined with an unfortunate gun-explosion aboard President (which wounded Rodgers), contributed to Belvedere making good her escape and taking the news of the outbreak of war to British naval authorities at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Later, Herman mis-identifies the famous commander of HMS Shannon as John Broke--an inexcusable error of fact, as even the most disinterested observer of British (and American) naval history very well knows, Broke's name was, in fact, Philip Bowes Vere Broke. And Herman is equally off-base in mis-stating the closeness of the Shannon-Chesapeake frigate action. In actuality, it was a mis-match--brutal, yes, and absolutely. But the affair was decidedly one-sided in favor of the much better-prepared English vessel and her crew, and Chesapeake was overwhelmed due to the sheer effectiveness of the British gunnery and hand-to-hand fighting in a duel that lasted a mere fifteen minutes and cost Captain James Lawrence of Chesapeake his life, along with those of close to 50 of his crew--all in all, an ill-advised action fought by Lawrence, whose primary mission was to attack British merchant shipping and not engage in chivalrous naval duels.
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