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Linda Colley

  • The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649-1815 by N.A.M. Rodger
    Allen Lane, 907 pp, £30.00, September 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9411 8

You might think that Trafalgar Square says it all. Its massive column surmounted by the 18-foot-high statue of Horatio Nelson, the bas-reliefs at the base commemorating his ships’ destruction of the French and Spanish fleets and the city of Copenhagen, the surrounding monuments to various imperial warriors: surely all this sums up what the Royal Navy’s command of the oceans in the 18th and early 19th centuries was quintessentially about? The greatest achievement of the second volume of N.A.M. Rodger’s formidable trilogy devoted to British naval history is its determined questioning of any such assumptions.

Trafalgar Square is a mid and late Victorian creation. The battle it celebrates took place in 1805, but Nelson’s column was not completed until 1843. Much of the adjacent imperial statuary dates from the 1850s and 1860s, and the supporting bronze lions by Landseer were added only in 1867. These are representations of navy, nation, empire and warrior masculinity designed and constructed when Britain was at the height of its global power. In earlier centuries, however – and even during Nelson’s lifetime – circumstances and ideas had been markedly different.

Just how different has been obscured by certain persistent English and British mythologies and ideologies. As Rodger showed in his previous volume, The Safeguard of the Sea (1997), much of the naval experience of the ‘British Isles’ from 660 to 1649 is of recurrent weaknesses and failures. Yet the occasional conspicuous success, especially the defeat of Spain’s Armada, together with geographical determinism, allowed politicians and patriotic pundits to propagate a set of flattering and influential arguments. By the early 1600s, the surrounding seas were regularly invoked as confirmation both that Britain was naturally a single political unit, and that its people had been endowed by a Protestant deity with an exalted maritime destiny. In the words of a later pamphleteer: ‘We seem by our being an island, as well as by our situation on the globe, to have been formed by Providence, for ploughing the sea.’

In large part correctly, Rodger will have none of this. For all the invocations of an island nation blessed and given identity by God’s encircling waves, Britain was not united under one monarch until 1603, and not governed by a single parliament until 1707. It took even longer for its ruling dynasty to become securely established, not least because the sea did not function as a reliable safeguard of national security. Before the coming of the railways, travel by water was normally faster and more reliable than travel by land. Consequently, being on a small island surrounded by the sea did not lead automatically to Britannia ruling the waves and the world: this geographical accident rather made early modern Britons particularly vulnerable to invasion and attack. Insecurity and prolonged political instability help to explain why the Royal Navy’s rise occurred only by fits and starts. In the early 1650s, Cromwell’s new republican regime succeeded in building the same tonnage of warships as England’s monarchs had achieved between 1588 and 1642, but it was unable to raise the revenue to pay the crews. After the Restoration in 1660, both Charles II and James II demonstrated enthusiasm and expertise in nurturing naval expansion. But the Royal Navy’s performance in the Second and Third Dutch Wars was uneven, and political and religious divisions among its officers and men enabled William III and the Dutch fleet to stage a successful invasion in 1688 and disrupt the country yet again.

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