The contributions of the British fleet extend beyond the inventive use of rum, sodomy, and the lash. The British Empire, argues Herman (How the Scots Invented the Modern World, 2001, etc.), would scarcely have been possible without it, and “half the world’s independent nations would not exist today.”
The inhabitants of the British Isles, by mere virtue of the fact that they live on islands, have been going down to the sea in ships for millennia. But Herman credits Henry VIII with taking lessons from his fellow rulers in more ambitious lands and rethinking the whole business of the ocean as more than an inconvenient obstacle between England and its holdings in Ireland and France; a “skilled copycat,” he built up a modern fleet for his time and, stealing a page from Scotland, mounted its ships with heavy, bronze siege cannons. Its descendant, the navy of Elizabeth’s age, sailed the world, mostly in order to chase the Spanish; as Herman notes, the Spanish crown replied by launching three successive armadas in 1596, 1597, and 1598, the last of which set off a national panic, “with citizens of London closing off streets and rushing to Tilbury with 30,000 militiamen to repel the imagined attackers.” England’s swabbies found worthy opponents in Napoleon’s fleet, too, which dogged them around the globe and made heroes of Lord Nelson and his lieutenants; in the fleets of the Germany in WWI and WWII; and even in the Argentine navy, which gave England’s ships a hard fight in the Falklands War of 1982. The last conflict, the author notes, forced a rethinking of the fleet’s increasing reliance on high-tech gizmos and put it back in touch with the old traditions: “If the British navy was going to win this war, it was going to have to rely on the human factor, the courage and endurance of its officers and men.”
There’s plenty of courage and endurance here. Herman’s thesis is less than groundbreaking, but his narrative ought to please fans of Aubrey and Hornblower—and even the Tudor kings.