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Book Reviews

To Rule The Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

Posted by friendsofthenewarkfreelibrary on February 5, 2018 at 1:05 PM


By Arthur Herman (HarperCollins, 2004; 648 pp.)

Reviewed by Roy H. Lopata

Codfish, salt, wheat, rice or perhaps sugar and molasses, Irish medieval monks or Spanish conquistadors, the printing press or the paper used for printing, black coal or the Black Death, the Greeks or the Romans, Newton or Einstein, the automobile or Steve Jobs, Elvis or the Beatles, and how about gunpowder (of special relevance in little Delaware) – apparently the list of books about things, persons or events that make us what we are has become endless. Arthur Herman, seemingly without any fear of contradiction, has offered us two bites from this apple: in 2004 he published To Rule the Waves, his history of the British Navy and its role in shaping our world and in 2001 he offered How the Scots Invented the Modern World. This is cheating; especially since almost all of his Royal Navy heroes like Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Horatio Nelson, James Cook, and Jack Fisher – the godfather of World War One’s mighty dreadnoughts, all came either from England’s West Country or its northeast coast, or from her overseas possessions (Fisher was born in Ceylon – now Sri Lanka) and few if any were Scots. And I will not mention the importance of the apple to either Newton or western civilization!

Beyond that, while Herman provides a detailed and credible history of the Royal Navy, he does not make the case that “our world” was essentially shaped by the admirals, midshipmen and sailors that Great Britain put out to sea. One glaring example: Herman notes on several occasions that India -- the crown jewel of the British Empire -- was originally conquered and eventually maintained in English hands for over a century by the East India Company, which had its private own army and navy; in other words, without the help of the Royal Navy. If the Royal Navy did not shape India for Britain, how did it shape the modern world?

In other words, if you essentially ignore Herman’s somewhat exaggerated thesis and you are a military history buff (especially of the naval variety) or cannot read enough history of the British and their empire, than To Rule the Waves is for you. Herman takes us through a richly portrayed but not celebratory account of the founding of the Royal Navy under King Henry VIII, its Elizabethan era of plunder on the Spanish Main, the heroic weather-aided defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Royal Navy’s part in the 1688 Glorious Revolution, Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar over Napoleon, the role the Navy played in the spread of the empire around the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and traces the Royal Navy triumphs and tragedies during the 20th centuries two world wars. He also includes interesting details about the Royal Navy’s role in the development of the technology of seafaring, and its contribution to our understanding world geography and new scientific discoveries. Regarding the latter, Herman notes that Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, a Royal Navy vessel, resulted to a considerable extent in his theory of evolution. Herman concludes with a brief postscript regarding the Argentine-British 1982 Falkland Islands War, a depressing affair in many ways, that underscores Herman’s (and I suppose England’s) sense of loss as the sun final set on the Royal Navy of Drake, Nelson and Churchill.

Categories: Nonfiction, Biography

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