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Book Review: To Rule The Waves, How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

to_rule_the_wavesFirst, something about the book and what it covers.

To Rule the Waves is a fascinating history of the British navy from its inception to its diminution.  The author very convincingly shows the impact that the Royal navy has had in shaping the world as it is today. Technology, the balance of power, philosophy, slavery, and above all free trade were all subjects directly impacted by British navy and its evolution.

The book begins with the Incident at San Juan De Ulloa with Captain Hawkins and a young Francis Drake.  Herman recounts the events like something from C.S. Forrester or Patrick  O’Brian would write.  It’s a story of treachery, dishonour, and violent action.  But this isn’t the start of the story, for that the author goes back to the time of King Edward III in 1347 and the reign of the Tudors.

Prior to reading To Rule the Waves, this reader had no idea of the influence that Henry the VIII had on the formation of the royal navy, just about his greed, rapacity, and the subsequent break with the Catholic church.  What this reader did not know was that Henry dedicated 1/3rd of his annual revenues for fortifications and shipbuilding facilities to increase the number of royal ships from 12 to 84.

The story continues through the Elizabethan Renaissance and the forming self-perceptions and visions of John Foxe’s protestant England.  “God is English”.  This vision would justify a lot of what the navy would be called upon to do and accomplish.  Wars with France and Spain assumed a religious aspect.

The legacy of Drake and Hawkins is well documented.  For instance, it was Drake who made god-like authority a given for ship captains.  He was not a nice man, and actually executed a good friend (Thomas Doughty) for percieved challenges to his authority on one of his voyages.

There is an astounding amount of material covered, but the author manages it well, fromTudor England to the Falkland Island war.

The book also documents the evolution of ship design and technology, from race-built galleons, the development of the ships wheel, to the use of steam.  It is packed full of facts and historical trivia.  The author does a great job of pointing out some of these connections back over the span of hundreds of years.  Some of the connections made by the author dealt with the proud lineage of fighting admirals in Napoleonic wars whose decendents fought in WWI.  Others were made between naval officers and the founders of colonies in America.

Herman writes extremely well and is not at all hesitant to share his opinions!  Given this readers lack of expertise, no disagreement will be offered with anything he had to say, although it was somewhat interesting to “hear” such an editorial voice.  The book reads as if the author is talking to you and has a very self-assured tone.

This was not especially evident until the book got into coverage of the first and second world wars.  Here is an example from a section discussing Britains decision not to renew a two-decade long alliance with Japan as a result of succumbing to diplomatic pressure from the US and Canada.  “It was an act of breathtaking stupidity”.  To be fair, Herman goes on to support this statement with various facts, such as that by 1930, Japan was a military dictatorship whose entire economy depended on imported resources.  Consequently, the clique of “imperialist-minded” generals believed that Japan would have to expand its sea power or die.

Unfortunately this review does not do this book justice.  There is simply too much to cover.  But it’s very well written, full of fun factoids and some super interesting history.  The author doesn’t hesitate to draw conclusions, but supports what he has to say with a lot of research.


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