- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004


By Jeremy Black

Yale University Press, $40, 420 pages


People shape their environment, but the environment also shapes people and societies. The relationship between land and sea casts a particular shadow, and Alfred Thayer Mahan opened his influential 1890 book “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History” by discussing the cultural, economic, and institutional factors that lay the foundation for naval supremacy.

That Britain is an island, indeed the primary island of an archipelago off Europe, defines its history, and Mahan offered Britain as the paradigm for a maritime state. Sea power defined Britain’s empire, differentiating it from such land empires as Rome or China and enabling it to reach far beyond its home islands.

In this book, Jeremy Black offers an updated analysis of how proximity to the ocean affected Britain’s trade, politics, and strategy, along with public attitudes toward the sea. “The British Seaborne Empire” takes a broad view of its subject, integrating culture and the arts into a discussion that also notes how perspectives change over time. Mr. Black models his volume on classic studies of the Spanish and Dutch seaborne empires, but his book covers a far broader period and will doubtless join them as a definitive work.

Seaborne and riverine transport played a central role in the earliest polities to develop within the British Isles, and that role shaped the development of culture and institutions. Only from the 19th century did railways and improved roads shift patterns of communication, and control over the sea had vital political implications. Riverine and coastal shipping led readily to deep sea activity by the later Middle Ages, and fishing played a major part in extending the range of English voyages.

New routes to Asia and the Americas stimulated maritime activity over a greater range. Successful voyages provided capital to develop new ports, and consequent shifts in foreign trade changed the relative importance of regions within England. Mr. Black notes the fine line between piracy and trade as adventurers used force to open markets and protect ships.

Englishmen saw trade as the lifeblood of empire, which drove economic expansion at home and the acquisition of overseas colonies. War and trade by sea created a pool of trained seamen and capable leaders that facilitated the development of England’s navy.

Tudor and Stuart monarchs revived the navy Alfred the Great had first established in the 9th century. It then played a major part in the institutional development of an English state. The navy later helped England extend its dominance over the British Isles and also contributed to parliament’s victory over Charles I. Sea power enabled Oliver Cromwell’s regime to enforce its authority on colonies across the Atlantic in the 1650s, and then aided the Hanoverians in their defeat of the Jacobite challenge during the 18th century.

While the Tudor and Stuart navy was a tool of royal policy, after 1688 Englishmen viewed their navy as a national institution and placed sea power at the core of national strategy. Mr. Black focuses primarily on the British Empire that developed after 1703, when the Act of Union established the United Kingdom of Great Britain and brought Scotland together with England and Wales under a single parliament at Westminster. The integration of Scotland into the English maritime system laid the foundation for Britain’s seaborne empire from the 18th through the 20th century.

Mr. Black’s expertise shines through in his discussion of the Hanoverian era and modern military history, and he emphasizes the importance of the contingent application of sea power in particular circumstances. Naval supremacy made British strategy flexible, by securing the home islands and key trade routes while facilitating overseas conquests that provided leverage in peace negotiations. Britain’s ability to project power along inland waterways in North America and along the shoreline in India was a decisive advantage in colonial wars on land.

A maritime commercial empire that identified the success of a trading nation with the liberties of its government seemed to provide an alternative to the classical view that empire led to decadence and despotism. Britons believed they had escaped the cycle that weakened republics in Greece and Rome.

Despite its loss of the American colonies, Britain displayed great resilience in the face of a global challenge in the 1770s and ‘80s. Wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France marked the climax of a prolonged conflict that profoundly changed Britain’s empire and gave it unchallenged maritime supremacy after 1815.

Retrenchment did not prevent Britain from acquiring new colonies, and suppressing piracy and the slave trade became the navy’s primary mission. The common view of India as a land empire obscured the way in which a maritime network on the Indian Ocean littoral defined the 19th-century British Empire much as the Atlantic world had dominated its 18th-century predecessor. Sea power gave Britain reach beyond the coast to bring rogue states under control, and technology decisively shifted the balance in favor of Europeans.

Britain remained at the forefront of innovation for most of the 19th century. New designs, however, cut the effective life of warships and prevented navies from relying on older ships removed from active service at the end of wars.

Commercial supremacy underpinned British sea power, and the rise of economic competitors from 1900 brought significant challenges from Germany. Mr. Black points out that Britain’s decline reflected a relative and not an absolute fall. If Britain faced new competition, that competition occurred in an expanding global market prior to 1914.

A different dynamic emerged after World War I as strategic liabilities outpaced assets in an empire less cohesive than before. Imperial preference failed to draw the empire closer politically through the expedient of a trading bloc in the 1930s, and Japanese expansionism threatened Australia and New Zealand, drawing them toward the United States after 1941. While Britain defeated Italy at sea, along with Germany’s surface fleet, its navy could no longer secure vital interests alone.

Decolonization after 1945 reflected both economic decline and a deeper crisis of confidence, along with a strategy of replacing direct rule with indirect ties. An empire based on trade lost its justification as economic patterns changed, and Britain shifted its orientation toward Europe in the 1970s by joining the European Economic Community. Maritime sectors of Britain’s economy became less central as the profitability of shipping and shipbuilding declined.

NATO membership turned the navy’s mission to protecting North Atlantic sea lanes, but Britain also fought a naval war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands in 1982 and protected shipping in the Persian Gulf.

Mr. Black points out that air and land travel have turned Britain’s perspective from the sea in recent years. The idea that Britain’s future lies in its shift from nation state to member state of the European Union sets Mr. Black’s subject firmly in the past, and he begins the book with an insightful discussion of how Britain has turned from Europe to the sea at different periods and the way that definitions of Europe change over time. Trade and other imperatives still draw Britons to look across the Atlantic as a bridge between Europe and the wider world overseas. Globalization and post-Cold War security challenges have revived the older challenge of bringing order to distant regions and given the navy a new mission.

If Britain’s seaborne empire has passed away, Mr. Black’s study of its history leads to the conclusion that its relationship with the seas and distant lands remains as important as ever.

William Anthony Hay is a historian at Mississippi State University and a fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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