- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 1, 2005


By Arthur Herman

HarperCollins, $26.95, 569 pages


“The English are the greatest murderers and proudest people in all Europe,” an Irish writer complained in 1578, “and I am surprised that God tolerates them so long in power.” The English may or may not have been as proud as here described, but much of the legendary British hubris derived from the might of their navy. The story of that navy is now recounted in a masterly manner by historian Arthur Herman, heretofore best known for his best-selling “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.”

Mr. Herman starts with swashbuckling sailors like John Hawkins and Francis Drake, whose ships flew the British ensign but who were little more than pirates on the payroll of Elizabeth I. The author views Hawkins as the father of the Royal Navy for having given the navy its first global strategy, that of severing the trade links between an enemy — in this case Spain — and its colonies.

Sir Walter Raleigh — who may or may not have spread his cloak on the street on behalf of his queen — comes off less well. “The real Raleigh,” Mr. Herman writes, “was a typical West Country adventurer, a predator on the herd.” His contemporaries saw in him a total lack of scruples, usefully combined with an abiding hatred of Spain. When his American colony at Roanoke failed, Raleigh returned to piracy.

The tale of the Spanish Armada has been told many times, but it is nowhere better analyzed than in this book. In Mr. Herman’s view, a more resourceful commander than King Philip II’s Admiral Medina Sidonia might have trapped the English fleet at Plymouth, or landed his troops in England without attempting to combine his force with a Spanish army in the Netherlands. Instead, the Spaniards plodded up the Channel, their formation intact for the first few days of the battle but their disposition entirely defensive. Eventually, the English ships and the Channel weather combined to force the Armada into the North Sea. In Mr. Herman’s view, Medina Sidonia “lacked that one essential quality of leadership in battle: the willingness to jettison the plan and rely on the killer instinct instead.”

In the English Civil War, the army was sharply split between the King and Parliament. Not so the navy, which was solidly behind Parliament. The author believes that the navy, by denying King Charles I assistance from France and Spain, played a key role in his overthrow and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth.

Meanwhile, little changed in the lives of those who manned British ships. Mr. Herman quotes a Spanish writer as saying that two classes of men spent their lives at sea: poor men who had no choice and a second group “whose nature inclines them toward the restlessness and the art of sailing.” The Royal Navy drew on both groups, and when the crunch came, the navy could find a Drake or a Nelson to lead them.

Or it could find such great leaders, if the crews were able to stay alive. Scurvy was a scourge in the Royal Navy until late in the 18th century, and a voyage of more than six weeks without a landfall could be a death sentence. Flogging was the standard punishment for a multitude of offenses. Nevertheless, by 1700 a degree of professionalism was required for service in the navy. Indeed, the Royal Navy became the one profession in Georgian Britain into which “men with no money or education could enter and succeed by sheer talent.”

The author pays tribute to those who made their contributions within the navy bureaucracy. He writes kindly of the diarist, Samuel Pepys, who as a senior navy functionary insisted on good-quality stores for naval vessels and pressed successfully for a single professional standard for service and promotion. The much-abused Earl of Sandwich, best known for his snacks, oversaw the introduction of copper bottoms on navy ships. Jacky Fisher, first lord of the admiralty in the years leading up to World War I, gets full credit for modernizing the fleet.

The book abounds in interesting trivia. Navy crews would “strike” — take down their ship’s sails — so that it could not leave port until the men were paid, giving us a common term for work stoppage. The term “square meal” goes back to the square wooden plates used to feed navy crews. To “let the cat out of the bag” once referred to punishment with the dreaded cat ‘o nine tails.

If Mr. Herman has a hero it is Horatio Nelson. But Nelson must share his pedestal with Jack Tar, the typical British sailor. Jack survives all the vicissitudes of life at sea, debauchery ashore, periodic incompetent leadership, and the plots of Britain’s many enemies. He gives his best when the chips are down. At Trafalgar, the French had the ships, the British had confidence. On the French and Spanish vessels, Mr. Herman writes, fear of the Royal Navy created an atmosphere of dread. Nelson’s men, in contrast, expected to win, and so they did.

John M. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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