John Parfitt

Britannia’s finest years

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The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815

N. A. M. Rodger

Allen Lane, pp. 907, £

In 1903, the final volume of Laird Clowes’s seven-part History of the Royal Navy thudded on to Britain’s bookshelves: 4,385 pages of broadside-by-broadside chronology from 55 BC to 1900 AD that were in print for almost a century. Nobody has attempted to follow it on that scale, until Professor Rodger that is. His 1997 volume, Safeguard of the Sea, took us to 1649; this second volume takes us on to 1815. It has been worth the wait.

Rodger says he wants to ‘put naval affairs back into the history of Britain’. High time, when too many think that history began in 1914, geography stops somewhere near the Russian border, and the sea is really just for swimming in. This 900-pager continues his work in great style. If you wonder how a nation once rent by civil strife, with a fraction of the population and wealth of its continental neighbours, became the undisputed master of the oceans and the trade that plied in them, read this. Then go figure, as the Americans say, about the 21st century.

There is plenty of good old-fashioned narrative in this encyclopaedic blockbuster. We get a splendid look-it-up history of what happened and why: not just what every schoolboy used to know about great events like Trafalgar and St Vincent — or even, for humility’s sake, the Dutch in the Medway — but also quaint asides like the Kentish Knock and the Nootka Sound Crisis. If it happened and it mattered even a tiny bit you will find it, decently listed, indexed and annotated (there are 322 pages of appendices and notes, all useful), even if we are spared the track charts of sailing-ship battles which we ancient mariners had to study and reproduce at exams when we were, as we used to say, young gentlemen — personages of course covered in this book.

History is not just about wars and battles, so Rodger, in the welcome modern idiom, interleaves his chronicle of ‘operations’ with chapters on contemporary background, without which, as he puts it, ‘there is no understanding battles and campaigns’. Lots of social history, not just the film-makers’ (often mythical) clichés of posh officers flogging pressed victims into starving submission, but also some arcane backwaters: for instance, those who share our current craze for inclusiveness may go to chapter 32 to find a senior petty officer who from 1804-15 was Captain of the Maintop of the Queen Charlotte, not only black but female. In his chapters on administration he points out the steady improvement in sailors’ food and health — rough by today’s standards but enabling our ships to keep the sea for far longer than their rivals. He is less kind to the navy’s financiers, pointing out that in the 18th century the naval estimates were ‘plausible not realistic’. They beat Mr Hoon to it by 250 years.

He spends little time on ‘sea power’ itself of which pure naval history is but a part and which has been well served by others in the last century. The trouble is that so few outside the seafaring profession seem to understand it, even if it did make us rich.

In the old days in the service, when a senior officer came on a tour of inspection it was sometimes advised to leave some little thing for him to find wrong, for instance a bit of rope hanging down somewhere, always known as an Irish Pendant (has our MoD banned the expression yet?). If the ship was in good shape, once he had found his Irish Pendant and harrumphed, the great man could address the ship’s company, tell them what good chaps they were, have a couple of gins with the captain and officers, and then be piped over the side till next time.

I had to look a long time for my Irish Pendant: it’s on page 750. Professor, a cable has long been 100 fathoms — you had it right in volume one — and still is, never mind any asinine attempts to metricate it. That tiny nit picked, the book, like the ship, really is in good shape. The writing advances across the pages like a squadron of dreadnoughts; if it seldom scintillates it always illuminates, and the occasional debunking of past heroes is at least interesting if, as to be expected, contentious. But that is the way of historians.

If you want a work of reference for the next 100 years buy this, hope that the final part will take Professor Rodger less than seven years to write and that our political masters will one day come to understand what he is on about.