How the Waves Were Won

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps I enjoy a good sea story because I am such a coward. The military never called to me. I found abhorrent the very idea of killing other people, even for a just cause. I am not stupid enough not to believe that we do not need a military. However, I am grateful that I was never required to serve. I might well have ended up AWOL and living in Canada.

Still, I take a certain voyeuristic thrill in descriptions of great sea battles. Watching Star Trek inspired me to read the Hornblower novels. (Captain James T. Kirk was based loosely on Captain Horatio Hornblower.) After finishing the Hornblower novels, I started on the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. I’m still working my way through them. For this landlubber the nautical terminology in these books were hard to understand. I sought out books like The Wooden World by N.A.M. Rodger. Gradually I began to understand the difference between terms like leeward and windward.

Last Christmas my thoughtful wife Terri bought me To Rule the Waves, by Arthur Herman. This book is a surprisingly readable 648-page summary of how Great Britain shaped the modern world through its royal navy and merchant fleets. The subject sounds dry, but it is not. Because its thesis is correct: our modern world would simply not be the way it is today if it had not been for the British Navy and its global reach. The United States would not be here today had not Great Britain felt it needed to compensate for colonial successes of Spain and France in the New World. Sometimes inadvertently, sometimes with great foresight the Brits turned the world into a world inextricably linked together. By doing so, it changed virtually everything.

The story of how it happened is fascinating. It is a story of seemingly endless war, principally between Britain and France but also Britain and Spain. It is the story of lots of reckless adventuring, captains with unbelievable courage and epic battles at sea. It is also a story of national survival against all odds that succeeded primarily because necessity required that Great Britain develop an overwhelming naval presence.

Much of the story portrays a world of shocking barbarity. It is clear that Christian teachings must have skimped on the notion of brotherly love because there wasn’t much evidence of it in our past. The most appalling violence was par for the course through much of our history. Violence permeated all levels of society and it was rife in the Royal Navy too. For the most part, humanity was closer to savage than human being.

It is also hard for us to fathom the scale of suffering during those times. For hundreds of years seaman had little idea how to prevent scurvy, so disease routinely broke out and sailors died en masse. Through much of the history of the British Navy being a sailor meant high likelihood of death. Yet over time and because circumstances forced them the British clumsily worked through their nautical problems. They created an effective sea-based fighting force. It allowed them to leverage their power as needed at critical points. That is how they managed to control their destiny. This force controlled the major sea-lanes of the world. It brought improved standards of living to millions. During the 19th century, the British Navy largely stopped the slave trade. In fits and starts, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes with great foresight the British civilized and tamed much of a lawless world.

From the almost non-existent navy of King Henry VIII, to the Royal Navy’s last naval war with Argentina in 1982 over the Falkland Islands this is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of a sea-based empire. It was every bit as large in scope and as influential as the Roman Empire.

It is hard not to share Herman’s disappointment in the decline of the Royal Navy during the 20th century. Its navy had been such a prominent force for so many hundreds of years that it is sad to read how it was systematically dismantled. Largely because Great Britain lost interest in its navy, it was poorly prepared for the rise of Adolf Hitler. After its U-boat experiences during World War I it should have known better. It is hard to fault the generous spirit of the British at the time. They unselfishly showed the Japanese how to create a first class navy, hoping Japan would be a stabilizing influence in the Pacific region. Instead when the time was ripe Japan used its knowledge to push Great Britain out of the Pacific.

The great legacy of the British Navy will be obvious for those who finish the book. For all its chaos the world is a much more orderly and civilized place because of the British Navy. Trade has become essential to all our economies. It has become the glue that helps maintain our world order. With some exceptions, we live longer, healthier, more productive and richer lives as a direct result of our global trade. Like it or not we are now all bound together. Like it or not we are becoming, in fits and starts, one world. These binding forces are unlikely to recede. Over centuries, we will work through these issues. Sometimes this will happen violently, but more often disputes will be solved through peaceful means. The British showed us the recipe: one part big stick, one part enlightenment. Let’s hope we model their lesson.

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