Dominic Green Dominic Green

Britannia rued the waves

The British won many sea battles in the American War of Independence but were defeated by America’s countless rivers, lakes and creeks, according to Sam Willis’s ‘liquid history’

Military history is more popular than respected. It is not hard to see why. It is masculine history, a trifecta of logistical planning, technical detail and violent death. It shows the value of hierarchy and duty, sacrifice and patriotism — disgraceful notions which the young and impressionable might be inspired to emulate. And,with its sudden twists from tedium to danger and its tidily destructive conclusions, it has tight plots.

One way to make civilian history as exciting is, as Eric Hobsbawm showed, to turn it into a false kind of fiction, true neither to the facts nor the life. Another, as N.A.M. Rodger did in The Wooden World, his ‘anatomy’ of the Georgian navy, is to integrate military history with political and social history. Sam Willis’s The Struggle for Sea Power has something of the Rodger touch: a ‘liquid history’ that integrates water and land, war and politics, global strategies and provincial societies. It is highly entertaining and readable, too.

In the liquid perspective, the colonies were not so much lost to the zeal of the rebels as mislaid by the incompetence of the imperial administration. The London government imposed taxes, and then a blockade against tax evasion, but there were too many creeks and bays on the American coast, and too many collaborators looking to profit along with the tax-evaders. Before the first shots were fired on land at Lexington in April 1775, the Americans had already bested the world’s most powerful navy — and without launching a fleet of their own. More than 90 per cent of the powder used by the Americans in the first two and a half years of their revolt had been smuggled in, mostly from the Caribbean, and often from unscrupulous British merchants.

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