Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Ruling the Waves

Seapower States: Maritime Culture, Continental Empires and the Conflict That Made the Modern World


Yale University Press 399pp £20 order from our bookshop

I come from a line of inland-dwelling cow farmers but like to think I belong to a maritime-minded culture. Spanish literature is almost as sea-soaked as England’s. Iberia – though most British map projections obscure the fact – is a seaward-projected salient, close to where trade winds meet, thrust towards an almost inescapable seagoing destiny. Madrid, as far as you can get from the shore, is home to Europe’s biggest fish market. To judge from Andrew Lambert’s new book, however, I am sadly deluded about my own identity.

According to his definition, only single-mindedly briny folk create ‘sea states’ or ‘seapowers’ (as opposed to ‘sea powers’, which he defines as countries powerful at sea). Seapower is an ‘idea’ and identity, buoyed on ‘underlying culture’, discernible in ‘national engagement with the sea’. Such priorities as ‘church, state and soil’ are incompatible with it. Lust for overseas coasts and enclaves excludes France, Spain, Portugal and – until recently – Japan from the category, but not, for unexplained reasons, Britain. The author insists that seapowers always take to the sea in a state of weakness relative to land powers; that they are ‘politically inclusive’ (which in Lambert’s terms can mean oligarchic as well as democratic); that they are ‘nations of shopkeepers’, in which ‘commercial classes’ enjoy a share of power; that they invariably pursue wartime strategies of attrition rather than seeking ‘decisive’ victories; that ‘liberal, progressive and inclusive ideas … created’ them; and that seapowers and countries with ‘less inclusive’ governments see each other as existential threats. 

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