Politics & Policy

Riding The Waves of History

Talking with historian Arthur Herman.

“The Navy’s a very gentlemanly business,” William Golding once wrote. “You fire at the horizon to sink a ship and then you pull people out of the water and say, ‘Frightfully sorry, old chap.’”

#ad#Arthur Herman doesn’t think the British have anything to apologize for. Their Royal Navy was once a fearsome fighting force–but it was also a force for peace, a “Pax Britannica” that is best understood as an early vehicle of globalization.

“The job of the historian is not just to recount or explain the past but to show how things have come to be what they are,” writes Herman in the opening lines of his latest book, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World. “This book will show how a single institution, the British navy, built the modern global system, which is our system, for better or worse.”

Herman is a frequent contributor to National Review, as well as the author of several previous books, including How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Joseph McCarthy. He recently discussed his new book with NRO’s John J. Miller, and described the importance of Admiral Nelson, his views of Patrick O’Brian, and why Mount Vernon owes its name to the Royal Navy.

National Review Online: Were British sailors and captains the founding fathers of globalization?

Arthur Herman: Founders, no. That was the Spanish and Portuguese, thanks to men like Columbus, Magellan, and Vasco da Gama. But their global system of seaborne trade and communication was built around extracting wealth, not creating it, and a vision of monolithic universal empire. The Elizabethan seadogs who created the modern Royal Navy–Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Walter Ralegh, and the rest–were as greedy for gold as any Spanish conquistador: but they brought an entrepreneurial, not to say, piratical spirit to English naval strategy and seafaring generally, that undercut imperial monopolies and eventually came to prefer trade to conquest as a way to make profits. That spirit came to permeate the British empire, as well as the modern global economic system they set in motion.

NRO: When Columbus discovered the New World, the Royal Navy was inconsequential. How did that change? Was there a specific turning point?

Herman: If I had to pick a single date, it would be January 1577, when Queen Elizabeth appoints John Hawkins as the Treasurer of the Navy. Hawkins applies all the lessons he and Drake had learned fighting the Spanish in the New World to remake the Royal Navy into a tough well armed force which would actually outnumber the Spanish Armada eleven years later, and which would by 1600 would be a fleet second to none in the world. It took a lot longer to get the strategic formula right: Over the next century and a half the Royal Navy probably lost more battles than it won. But the ones it did win gave it increasing control over the world’s most important seaways, the world’s “strategic keys,” as Admiral Jack Fisher called them.

NRO: Was Admiral Nelson the greatest naval warrior in British history?

Herman: If “greatest” means most admired both before and after his death, absolutely. If most successful in battle, certainly. But for all his talent and genius, he was never indispensable to Britain’s naval supremacy, or even to the success of the British navy as, for example, the Duke of Wellington was to the British army. Trafalgar was the greatest victory of the entire age of sail, but strategically it changed nothing. Napoleon was still master of Europe. He soon rebuilt the French fleet. England was as isolated as ever, as much as in 1940. Yet even with Nelson dead, the Royal Navy’s other admirals and captains, men who never became as famous but who were just as skilled and dedicated, got on with the job of defeating Napoleon and America in the War of 1812 just fine without him.

NRO: Compared to American sea and airpower in the early 21st century, how dominant was the British navy, relative to its foes, in its heyday?

Herman: You have to remember that until the end of the 19th century no other navy in the world had a base outside its home waters. The Royal Navy, on the other hand, had 38, with nearly 150 commissioned ships projecting British power around the globe but also protecting the major sealanes of the world, from Gibraltar and Capetown to Singapore and Sydney. This was the essence of the Pax Britannica: a global military presence that gave everyone a sense of security and stability, promoted the rule of law around the globe, and incidentally presided over an unprecedented expansion of the world’s economy. Let’s hope the Pax Americana in this century does half as well.

NRO: Can the British navy still project power around the globe, or was the Falkland war in 1982 the last gasp of a diminished force?

Herman: Even in its pint-sized version today, the Royal Navy is the only other navy in the world that has the carriers and amphibious support ships to project power transoceanically-proving that some legacies die hard.

NRO: Who was your favorite historical figure to write about? Who makes the best character in your narrative?

Herman: My personal favorite is George Anson. He’s not as famous or flamboyant as Nelson, but he was the man who built the foundations of Nelson’s navy in the 1750s, and his voyage around the world on HMS Centurion in 1740-4 is one of the most harrowing stories of suffering and personal heroism anyone will ever read. Puts Shackleton in the shade, I think! He also had an interesting American connection, because when he was a frigate captain in Charleston, South Carolina, he bought up land which eventually became Charleston’s first suburb, Ansonborough.

His colleague and rival, Edward Vernon, also left his mark in America, because George Washington’s brother Lawrence served with him in the Caribbean and admired him so much he named his estate in Virginia after him: Mount Vernon.

But I suppose the most colorful character after Nelson has to be Jack Fisher, who became First Sea Lord in 1904 and who transformed the navy from a peacetime policeman into a fighting fleet again. He reminds me very much of Donald Rumsfeld: tough, outspoken, willing to challenge the bureaucrats and the old guard. H faced the same kind of hostile press Rumsfeld faces today.

But Fisher saw that the nature of naval warfare had changed, and the “high-tech” navy he built enabled Britain to survive not just the First World War but the Second as well.

NRO: When it comes to fiction, do you prefer the Aubrey-Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian or the Hornblower books of C. S. Forester?

Herman: There’s a curious gender split on this issue, since the readers of Forester’s novels are almost all men while a sizable proportion of O’Brian’s readers are women. Personally, I prefer O’Brian–I don’t know what that says–but I read all the Hornblower books as a boy so they have a special hold on me. It’s interesting, too, that most nautical writers set their stories in the age of Nelson. It was Frank Marryat who started that tradition: He served with the great frigate captain, Thomas Cochrane, who became the model first for the heroes of Marryat’s novels, and then for both Hornblower and Jack Aubrey and everybody else. Marryat himself, by the way, captained the Royal Navy ship that brought back the news of Napoleon’s death on St. Helena.

If I want to step outside the “wooden ships, iron men” genre, I like Douglas Reeman, who writes about the Second World War, and Nicholas Montserrat, whose memoir of serving on anti-submarine patrols in the battle of the Atlantic, Three Corvettes, is a genuinely moving and beautiful book.

NRO: What did you think of the movie Master and Commander? How realistic was it?

Herman: I actually saw it three times because I knew I would get asked this question! In general, I’d say it’s not very true to the spirit of the O’Brian novels but it is to the historical era-the production team included some expert naval historians like Brian Lavery and what Brian doesn’t know about the Royal Navy in that period isn’t knowledge. Certainly, the movie is a big improvement on the usual Mutiny on the Bounty-style approach to the British man o’war as a kind of floating hell-hole. I particularly liked the way it portrayed the crew as so young; probably 80 percent of the crews of navy ships were no older than 25, and the average ship always included a large number of so-called ship’s boys, some as young as eight, who were literally “learning the ropes” under the supervision of a bosun’s mate or other petty officer. The Royal Navy was always a navy of adolescents and post-adolescents–even up to World War Two it was usual for a cadet to enter Dartmouth Naval College at fourteen or fifteen. Who else would take the risks life at sea involved, or have the stamina for the incredible physical labor, or look forward to the bloodshed of a naval battle–or need so much corporal punishment to keep them in line?

NRO: What’s your next book going to be?

Herman: A good question! I’m considering some options, but I’d like to write something that completes the trilogy I started with How the Scots Invented the Modern World and now To Rule the Waves–the forces and ideas that have generated the modern global age. Perhaps this next one will involve the non-Western world, but we’ll have to see.

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