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