The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 by N A M Rodger - review by Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer

The Pride of the Fleet

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


Allen Lane The Penguin Press 930pp £30 order from our bookshop

IN 1810, AT the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had almost 150,000 seamen and Marines, serving in 150 ships of the line and a further 183 cruisers. It was the greatest navy in the world, and quite possibly in the history of the world. It was, or recently had been, engaged in battle around our own coasts, off the United States, in the West Indies, in the Mediterranean, off Africa, and off India. As N A M Rodger points out in this stunning book (stunning in its scope, its scholarship, its erudition and, not infrequently, its wit), the strength of the Navy was not the only reason why we had secured and could maintain an empire; but there would have been no Empire without it.

In this second volume of his British naval history, Rodger takes the story from the time of the Commonwealth through to the end of the Napoleonic era. Like a well-run battleship, the book is immaculately organised. Rodger breaks up the 165 years or so into coherent sections, and within those sections explores every aspect of the Navy. He describes its operations, its administration, and the lives of its men (and, indeed, women, including one ship’s captain in the early nineteenth century who turned out to be a woman, having for eleven years disguised her sex). Although fighting is what the armed forces are supposed to be about, the chapters dealing with engagements are often, peculiarly, the least interesting. Rodger has a brilliant grasp of the politics of the period, and charts well the uneasy relationship between the Crown and its ministers on the one hand, and the Navy on the other.

More fascinating still is his description of daily life for the officers and men of Their Majesties’ ships. We will all have a clichéd mental picture of that life during the eras of Byng and Nelson (a picture summed up by Churchill as ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’), but it is clear there was far more to it. Drink was certainly a problem, but wise captains knew to keep their men happy by relaxing the discipline from time to time so that they could enjoy themselves, thereby improving their morale. Sometimes this could go a little too far, as when a boy sailor, having had his grog allowance for the evening, fell from the top of a mast to lie dead at the feet of his own father. As for sodomy, Rodger deplores what he sees as the current obsessive interest in such things, and claims there was far less of it in the Navy than might be imagined. It was a capital offence, though when three men were sentenced to be hanged for it at the turn of the eighteenth century their shipmates urged that they be reprieved so that the fleet’s attention would not be drawn to the shameful events on their ship. In the event, they were hanged after church parade one Sunday morning.

The lash, too, was far from omnipresent, and was not resented by the men. Some captains who overdid it were dismissed for their brutality (though Lieutenant Bligh of the Bounty was not one of them), and others learned soon enough that a happy ship depended on the sparing use of corporal punishment. In several ways, life aboard ship by the late eighteenth century was more pleasant than that ashore. However, many in a ship’s company were the dregs of society, and order had sometimes to be kept by sternness. The end result was a navy that built an empire and truly ruled the waves.

For the whole of this period impressment – the roving of press gangs round English towns conscripting men to serve – was active. Ironically, many of the best warrant officers had been pressed; and quite a proportion of officers, certainly in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, had risen from humble origins. After the Restoration of 1660, there was a great debate about whether the Navy would be better officered by ‘gentlemen’ or ‘tarpaulins’ – professional seamen whose nickname derived from the waterproof coats they wore on deck, and who had a wealth of genuine experience to offer. It was an argument that raged for decades, and neither side seems satisfactorily to have won it.

Rodger includes all necessary technical details about the ships in his book, and those readers who do not know already will discover where the phrase ‘copperbottomed’ comes from; and, indeed, why something is said to be ‘first-rate’. He explains why it was that British ships had the technical edge that allowed them to outrun their enemies. He also dispels many myths. Charles II, for example, long depicted as a man interested only in sensual pleasures, turns out to have been the most assiduous attender of Admiralty Board meetings. Byng, shot on the deck of his own ship for failing in his duty (and, in Voltaire’s famous phrase, ‘to give courage to the others’), was not a political victim. His friends were in power at the time, and he died not least because one of his supporters tactlessly told George II that, as a coward himself, he ought to understand the problems Byng had, and let him off. Nelson was a great sailor but a hopeless diplomat, whose enthralment to Lady Hamilton British pirates handled to a diplomatic disaster in Naples. Scurvy was not nearly the scourge of the fleet that everyone believes it to have been. Ridiculing another historian’s claim that in the eighteenth century a million men died of it, Rodger points out that this would have necessitated the death at least twice over of every man who served during that period. Once lemon juice was discovered as a prophylactic against this disease, the standard of health amongst those on board ship far exceeded that of non-sailors. When a new ship’s doctor joined HMS Victory a few months before Nelson’s death he found he had nothing to do. Rodger points out, too, that it was not the Navy that prevented Napoleon from invading Britain. His own plans to do so were so absurd that he managed quite comfortably to defeat himself.

If this book has a failing – and I am loath to suggest that it has any – it is that too few of the lives of the sailors are brought out as well as they might be. One that is, though, is Lord St Vincent’s. Arbitrary, tyrannical, bigoted, megalomaniacal, self-regarding, petty, sadistic, unfeeling, he became erratic and positively harmed the Navy. His full monstrousness is well depicted, but one is left wishing that the same treatment had been given to few more of those who pass quickly through this history.

The other fascinating aspect of Rodger’s story is how the Navy’s administration improved consistently over this period. In the 1650s and 1660s, before Pepys got his hands on the service, it was grotesquely underfunded. Officers and men were often not paid and had to beg or steal to support themselves. Those responsible for victualling the Navy were given too little money, and rations were short. Even much later on captains would effectively encourage desertion shortly before a ship reached home, because deserters would forfeit their pay for the whole voyage. Relatively few who deserted were punished: they often simply joined other ships. Some captains made themselves extremely wealthy. Different rates applied at different times governing the amount of booty they could keep. Also, if they carried bullion, they could keep a percentage of the pot.

On top of all this magnificent detail we have the minutiae of wars against the French, the Spanish, the Dutch, ‘ the Americans, and, of course, pirates. Appendices give all the figures for rates of pay, the sizes of fleets, manpower, and funding. Office holders both in the service and in the Admiralty are listed. When Rodger refers to the innate conservatism of the institution he is describing, one senses that he shares it himself, and that that is why he is so at ease with his subject matter and understands the Navy’s amour-propre. He is also expertly versed in the conditions and structures of the rival fleets of the period, and this knowledge informs his book. He takes its title from John Evelyn’s observation of 1674 that ‘whoever commands the ocean, commands the trade of the world, and whoever commands the trade of the world, commands the riches of the world, and whoever is master of that, commands the world itself’. By the time the book closes there is no doubt who holds that command. The reader will long for the next volume, though the story it has to tell, despite the triumphs of two world wars, is inevitably going to be a less sanguine one.

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