Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815.
Norton. 976 pages. $45.005
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).
I>n 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. The Puritans felt surrounded by enemies, the French and the Spaniards, and of course their fellow Protestants, the industrious Dutch “cheesemongers” who, in the words of General at Sea George Monck, the first army crossover to join the naval command, “have too much trade, and the English are resolved to take it from them.”
In the navy of Charles I, there had been a conflict between the gentlemen officers, the highborn sons of the aristocracy, and the tarpaulins — so named after the waterproof canvas coats sailors wore in heavy weather — officers who had come up through the ranks. The gentlemen officers had sided with the King, so the Revolution brought preferment to many ship’s masters on professional merit. The test was whether you supported the revolution and knew how to sail, not the niceness of your manners.
In a period of four years, the Puritans built as much tonnage as had been built in the previous five decades, laying the foundation for Britain’s greatness. The Stuart Navy had been chronically short of funds, and the Dutch and Spanish wars had proved that tariff and customs duties were not enough; only permanent taxation would support permanent fleets. Parliament’s solution was a national value-added tax on salt and meat, for the first time putting the navy on a sound financial base.
The Puritans saw the Bible as a manual of war, “the best handbook on war,” as one of them put it. They also developed a few new tactics not found in the Bible. Where before a sea battle had been a messy affair, a brawl and an “indiscriminate melee,” with captains going off on their own to capture enemies or help friends rather than concentrating on the main body of the enemy fleet, the new tactic was the “line ahead battle,” where the fleet moved in unison, methodically hammering the enemy ships with broadsides. The broadside was king, the grappling hook a relic of the past.
With the Restoration, Charles II inherited a navy from the Puritans consisting of more than 120 warships, a very useful instrument to strengthen his authority. The chief name of the period is of course Samuel Pepys, who started as a Clerk of Acts on the Navy Board, put there by his cousin, Lord Sandwich, and ended up as Secretary of the Marine, the indispensable man.
In his famous diary, Pepys records how he was present when Charles II got on board the Naseby in the Hague to return from exile. Pepys had the honor of being put in charge of getting the king’s favorite spaniel ashore. Unfortunately, the wretched creature “shit in the boat which made us laugh and made me think that a King and all that belong to him are but just as others are.” A few days later Pepys was ordered back, armed with a paintbrush, to gild the spot where His Majesty had bumped his royal head against the beam in the Admiral’s cabin.
The perfect civil servant before such a thing existed, Pepys worked tirelessly to strengthen the navy and knew every aspect of it down to the tiniest details: “My delight is in the neatness of everything.” Pepys brought vast improvements to the accounting system and also to the victualling system, though the latter still left much to be desired.
A self-made man, Pepys had a deep-seated contempt for gentlemen officers, about whom he collected disparaging stories, especially concerning their corruption. (Pepys, of course, pocketed money himself but did not let it influence his decisions.) In his opinion, the navy was not a place for aristocratic twits, bumblers, and amateurs, but for professionals, who had to be selected and trained and had to be retained in peacetime. That meant that aspiring sea officers had “to make themselves masters of it, by learning and doing and suffering all things.”
A career structure was established in which no one could obtain a lieutenant’s commission without having been at sea for three years and passing an examination. Ideally, advancement would depend more on merit than on background. This was revolutionary, and a challenge to the whole notion of the gentleman, whose talent was regarded as something inborn and certainly in no need of such common skills. About his own career, Pepys notes that “chance without merit brought me in, and that diligence only keeps me so, and will, living as I do among so many lazy people, that the diligent man becomes necessary, that they cannot do anything without him.” Though himself a great reveler, the laxness of the court was a constant concern to him. During the Medway raid in the second Dutch war, in which the Dutch succeeded in sailing up the Thames and setting fire to three flagships and taking a fourth, the Royal Charles (once the Naseby), back to Holland with them, the king was frolicking with his mistress Lady Castlemaine, and the royal court was chasing a moth. At a Whitehall meeting, the king is described as inattentive and bored: “All I observed there is the silliness of the King, Playing with his dog all the while, or his codpiece, and not minding the business, and what he said was mighty weak.”
The reforms have been ascribed to Pepys, but as Rodger points out they could not have been implemented without the support of the king. Both Charles II and James II took great interest in the navy — Charles invented yachting as a sport — and it was the king who made the actual decisions.
Besides being the year in which Pepys resigned, 1689 stands out as important: Parliament took over the administration of the Navy, raising revenue. Though this had adverse short-term consequences, in that the members of the House of Commons tended to be meddling amateurs, it produced long-term stability. Most important, “It made the Navy an expression of the liberty of the people,” notes Rodger.
Despite the wars with the Dutch and the Spanish, it soon became clear that France was the main enemy, one that was to keep the British busy for more than a century with the occasional truce to allow the contestants to catch their breath. In this conflict, Britain enjoyed certain geographical advantages in that it had excellent deep-water ports along the Channel, where France had no major bases. The seizure of Gibraltar from the Spaniards in 1704 proved equally useful, as it allowed the British to cut the French navy in two, making it hard for elements of the French Mediterranean fleet in Toulon to link up with the fleets in the ports of Brest in Brittany and Rochefort further down the west coast.
In 1745, Admiral Edward Vernon came up with the strategic concept of the Western Squadron, a single powerful squadron patrolling the western approaches to the Channel covering both the Channel and Ireland, whose purpose was to safeguard against invasion, to protect British trade while disrupting that of its enemies, to intercept enemy squadrons, and to perform blockade duty. Ensuring naval safety at home and superiority abroad, this was the foundation of British superiority in the European wars and eventually the world.
Operating out of Plymouth, the Western Squadron, or the Channel Fleet, as it came to be known, began its work in 1747. Here Vice Admiral George Anson at once proved its worth by winning the first battle of Finisterre, in which he routed a strong French fleet. Chief among Anson’s successors as commander of the Channel Fleet was the legendary Edward Hawke, known for his close blockade of Brest. For months on end he would keep the French bottled up, staying just off Ushant Island ready to pounce on anybody venturing out. He repeated Anson’s success by winning the second battle of Finesterre, where he defeated a major French force at close range.
British naval strategy worked like a charm in the Seven Years War of 1756–63, during which the British notched up victories in India and in North America — where the Western Squadron prevented the French from receiving reinforcements and supplies while a fleet under Sir Charles Saunders delivered General James Wolfe’s army at Quebec, where it defeated the French. The British Navy also netted Guadaloupe, Martinique, and Grenada.
The defeat in the American War of Independence — which had been ignited by the British demand that the American colonists help pay for the victory in the Seven Years War though customs duties enforced by the navy — came as a nasty surprise and for a while made the British doubt their future as a great power. Instead of keeping their main fleet in home waters, they had scattered their assets all over the world, especially in ferrying troops and supplies to America. The lesson they learned for the future was, according to Rodger, that “trade, not territory, was the key to Britain’s prosperity, seaborn trade secured by naval power.” What was needed were strategic ports, not an enormous land empire.
A prerequisite for the blockade practiced by Hawke and his successors, and indeed for the projection of naval power in general, is the ability to keep your ships at sea for long periods of time, and that means keeping your sailors healthy and well fed. As Rodger points out, the most important developments of the period covered were financial and administrative.
Food was a key concern. For all Pepys’ improvements, in 1689 Admiral Russell complained that “in several of the butts of beer, great heaps of stuff was found at the bottom of the butts not unlike to men’s guts, which has alarmed the seamen to a strange degree.” In 1693, the fleet could barely remain at sea for a fortnight before sickness and starvation — mainly scurvy and typhus — would kick in.
Some seventy years later, by 1759, one finds the situation much improved. A costly but effective system had been created for continuously supplying the ships on station at sea with fresh provisions, including live cattle, fruit, fresh vegetables, and beer. (Hogs were frowned upon, being such messy animals; one captain permitted them, provided they were washed daily.)
Disease was thought to be caused by “corrupted” air, so British captains became fanatical about keeping their ships clean and well-aired. The theory may have been wrong, typhus being carried by lice, but the beneficial results of this cleanliness regimen were still astounding.
In 1756, the navy surgeon James Lind had published his findings that scurvy can be prevented by lemon or lime juice, and in a subsequent letter he commented with pleasure on the general health status of the navy: “It is an observation, I think, worthy of record, that fourteen thousand persons, pent up in ships, should continue, for six or seven months, to enjoy a better state of heath upon a watery element, than it can well be imagined so great a number of people would enjoy, on the most healthful spot of ground in the world.”
Life on board a man-of-war was of course highly disciplined and regulated, as survival depended on it. But certain myths are dispelled by Rodger. Winston Churchill’s comment about the navy’s being run by “rum, sodomy, and the lash” — which according to Churchill’s biographer Martin Gilbert is probably apocryphal anyway — may sound great, but it is not wholly accurate. On the sodomy part, despite the impression one gets from a novel like William Golding’s Rites of Passage, homosexuality was not widespread. Among men who have to live in extremely close quarters, homosexuality is naturally frowned upon, and it would be hard to conduct illicit affairs under such conditions.
As for the demon rum, there was undeniably a good deal of it around. “This leaves us all in good spirits, for a man of war is more like a gin shop than anything else,” notes a sailor happily. It may have been one of the great pleasures for the crew, but for the captain it was a chief cause of accidents, disruption, and disciplinary problems on board. Rodger cites a tragic instance of the young son of a first lieutenant on the Grampus in 1787 who had been larking about in the rigging after having had his glass of wine and fell to his death right at his father’s feet.
It is also a fact that it was always hard to man the ships in times of war. Press gangs were used, in which men in seaports were forcibly taken off the streets and brought on board. But the discipline in the British navy was generally less savage than what one has been led to believe from countless movies, and certainly less savage than that of the U.S. navy, where twice as many floggings were meted out. The captain may have been God aboard, but cooperation and teamwork were still necessary. A divisional system had been introduced during the Seven Years War in which each officer had a section of sailors allotted to him as his personal responsibility, thereby avoiding some of the arbitrary rule of boatswains mates.
Generally, the need for discipline aboard, including floggings, was accepted by the seamen, as long as it was not abused. What the men prized above all was consistency, predictability, and justice. Of Nelson’s close friend Captain Cuthbert Collingwood, an ideal officer, it was said, “A man who could not be happy under him, could have been happy nowhere; a look of displeasure from him was as bad as a dozen at the gangway from another man.” A captain like that does not need to flog.
Rear admiral Sir Richard Strachan, the picky art customer mentioned above, was a different type but still an officer one would like to serve under. Nicknamed “Mad Dick” by his men, he continually referred to them as “damned mutinous rascals” but was well-liked by them because under all the bluster he had a kind heart: “When he swore he meant no harm, and when he prayed, he meant no good.”
As can be expected, Rodger provides some splendidly evocative descriptions of life on board, of what an exquisite wooden machine a ship of the line constitutes. It was a surprisingly calm and quiet environment. “When conducting any manoeuvre on the ship, I strictly caution against noise either on deck or aloft. Nothing tends so much to cause it as the unnecessary repetition of orders. The officer commanding on the forecastle should be the only voice heard,” writes Captain Thomas Louis. And Captain Thomas Hardy, the man who cradled the dying Nelson in his arms when he was shot, was reportedly able to work the Victory relying on hand signals alone.
Still, entering this world could be a shock for the midshipmen; many of them were not older than 12 when they came on board for the first time. One young gentleman, Frederic Chamier, recalls, “I had anticipated a kind of elegant house with guns in the windows, a species of Grosvenor place, floating about like Noah’s ark.” But excitement and responsibility came early for the right kind of boy. Chamier was put in charge of a boat in a landing raid at the age of thirteen. On his return, he got this salvo from his captain: “You are fully a sailor now; been drunk, been aloft, and been in action. Take your hands out of your pocket, youngster, or I shall order the sailmaker to stitch them up.”
In 1779, George III sent his son Prince William Henry to sea, with orders that “the young man goes as a sailor, and as such, I add again, no marks of distinction are to be shown unto him; they would destroy my whole plan.” The experience gave the prince “a foul mouth and a strong head. . . . His vast repertoire of dirty stories made him the terror of every genteel drawing room.” The act of letting him start at the bottom like everyone else was revolutionary and at the same time added immensely to the social status of the navy.
According to Rodger, of this professional elite of British sea officers, aggressiveness was the defining characteristic. Risk-taking was encouraged — in fact demanded. In 1756, during the Seven Years War, Admiral John Byng had been executed on his quarterdeck for having shown cowardice (passivity, more rightly) leading to the loss of Minorca, which no doubt had a salutary effect on his colleagues. British officers were raring for a fight. One is described as kicking his hat about the deck when he was called off an engagement. Admiral John Jervis, who became Earl St. Vincent, exhorted his men to “rub out can’t and put in try,” and he was getting up at three in the morning with his telescope to check which of his captains preferred snoozing in their cabins to being on deck at first light.
Nelson, of course, was the epitome of aggressiveness: He was, notes Rodger, the first flag officer to lead a boarding party after Sir Edward Howard in 1513, and later lost his arm, and then an eye. He was an inspirational leader, guiding by example, and he also knew when to disobey an order if circumstances demanded it, as they did in the Battle of Copenhagen, where he put his telescope to his blind eye when ordered to disengage. “No man was ever afraid of displeasing him, but everybody was afraid of not pleasing him,” noted one of his colleagues. To a man like Nelson, the concept of duty was as important as honor and social class. Once, when an enemy vessel was captured, Nelson recommended a promotion to captain “to the gallant fellow man who captured her,” rather than to the son of some great man.
The difference between the British and the French sea officers, according to Rodger, is that while the British captains sought battle, the French wanted to avoid it. The French were defensive in attitude, preferring, if possible, to stick to guarding their convoys, risking battle only if circumstances absolutely demanded it. This was reflected in the tactics chosen by the two navies: The French were taught to fire high, going for the mast, which would slow a pursuing vessel, while the British would fire fast and low into the hull at close range, “at pistol shot,” as old Edward Hawke had called it. These were the gunnery tactics that won the battle of Trafalgar.
“An English shot would kill twenty of our men; a French shot in reply would cut a line or make a hole in the sail,” wrote a French captain. The French developed an inferiority complex toward the British navy, which meant that they were halfway beaten before battle was even joined. Napoleon’s commander Admiral Villeneuve had been utterly defeated by Nelson at Abukir Bay in Egypt, where only two French ships got away, and this lesson was forever etched in his mind.
Technically, French ships initially had certain advantages in speed. In fact, the 74-gun third-rate, which has been characterized as “the greatest breakthrough in British naval shipbuilding in the eighteenth century,” was lifted from the French. Generally, though, French ships had elegant lines but were not sturdy enough. “The French built long and flimsy,” ran a British assessment, and they used iron nails rather than wooden nails. “I never saw vessels sail as they,” noted Captain Cochrane. “Everything is calculated for the Mediterranean, light sails, small ropes, prodigious masts and yards.” As Rodger adds, this was “a recipe for disaster in heavier weather.” British ships were built to fight and to last. Finally, the French had maintenance problems. “The French ships,” writes a disapproving Rodger, “were filthy as usual.”
As might be expected, French shipbuilding was grounded in theoretical pure mathematics — what worked on the drawing board — while the Brits were more practical, relying on craft traditions and building on trial and error: what worked at sea. Hence the differences in titles: The Frenchman was an elevated “naval architect,” while his British colleague was content with being a “master shipwright,” though well founded in the science, thank you.
Being on permanent station outside Brest or on big expeditions is tough on ships. Especially in tropical waters, wooden hulls are attacked by shipworm, and weeds and barnacles will attach to the hull, reducing speed and making frequent cleanings in the dock necessary. The answer, introduced between 1775 and 1781, was sheathing the hulls in copper, to which nothing attaches. Copper bottoms also gave better speed, about one knot more. Suddenly, “The English sail much faster than us, especially now they are sheathed in copper and we in oysters,” noted a rueful French officer. Copper bottoming increased the availability of the fleet by a third.
As for the meaning of the battle of Trafalgar, Rodger notes that it has been fashionable among revisionist historians to dismiss Nelson’s 1805 victory as a marginal event, since the Napoleonic wars went on for another decade. He does not agree. According to Rodger, Trafalgar meant that Britain was now in total command of the sea, a luxury she had never enjoyed before. Trafalgar was the guarantor of Britain’s economic prosperity, which allowed her to fight on and subsidize her continental allies. It meant that she could land an expeditionary force on the continent and keep it supplied from the sea.
Napoleon may have been an artist as far as the use of massed artillery is concerned, but in Rodger’s view, the French emperor utterly lacked a feel for his navy. When assembling his great invading force in Boulogne in 1805 (he had even struck medals to pin on his victorious commanders), he was operating under the illusion that his blockaded squadrons could break out of their ports when he gave the order and that he could lay out precise timetables. He was further counting on ideal conditions, with the Channel at a dead calm. In short, he thought the sea and the winds could be expected to do his bidding. The sea has a way of punishing such hubris.
One could not have hoped for a better book to mark the bicentennial of Trafalgar. For those readers who have not gained their sea legs yet, there is a helpful glossary of nautical terms in the back. As is well known, naval argot can be extremely technical, but it can also be marvelously descriptive. Who can avoid being stirred when hearing the cry from the lookout, espying enemy men of war emerging from the fog in the distance: “By my soul, they are thumpers!”