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Navigating individuals

Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World 1588-1782
Peter Padfield
John Murray, 1999 (Pimlico paperback 2000)

I enjoyed this book a lot. It briskly and entertainingly filled in some huge gaps in my historical education, combining the reasonably familiar with the utterly unfamiliar.

I learned of crucial sea battles of which I had never previously even heard the name, some of them fought only a few dozen miles from the coast of my own country, in parts of the sea I had never heard of. For example, do you know what and where ‘The Downs’ is? Maybe you do. I did not, until now.

Peter Padfield starts his story with the launching of and failure of the Spanish Armada and ends with the success of the American Revolution two centuries later. These are the battles he highlights: Spanish Armada, The Downs, Sole Bay, Beachy Head, Barfleur/La Hougue, Malaga, Finisterre, Quiberon Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and The Saints.

Of all of those, I only really knew about the Armada. In 1588, Spain launches a huge fleet of huge ships, full of soldiers as well as sailors, whose job is to achieve sea supremacy in the English Channel and escort an army from the Continent to England, to subdue English Protestantism. But the soldiers never get to fight, because the English ships, more manoeuvrable and with better guns and gunners, refuse to close and fire at the Spaniards from a distance. The Armada is not destroyed by the English, but it fails to make an English invasion possible, so by the time it is scattered into the North Sea and beyond, it has already been defeated, in the sense of prevented from achieving its purpose.

The result of the defeat of the Armada is not the triumph of England (as had been implied by omission by my school teachers), but on the contrary, the emergence into their century of maritime dominance of the Dutch United Provinces, the first great Europe-based global maritime trading power of the modern era (unless you prefer to start with Venice). The Downs (1639). The Spanish launch another Armada (a complete surprise to me, this one) to crush the United Provinces. The Dutch navy defeats it, off the stretch of sheltered water between the Goodwin Sands and the coast of Kent, known as ‘The Downs’. The British, behaving like some UN peace-keeping force, try to chase everyone out of their ‘territorial waters’, but are ignored.

Sole Bay (1672). England, the Catholic-inclined version of it ruled by Charles II, is in alliance with France against the Dutch. There is a naval battle off the coast of East Anglia. The Dutch do not lose, which means that they win, because England then backs out of the war.

William of Orange masterminds a coup d’état known here as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1688), and installs himself as King of England. My teachers made it sound as if the English elite suddenly decided one day that they wanted a different king, found William of Orange in a mail order catalogue, liked the look of him and had him delivered the next day, in a state of great amazement and gratitude. IN fact, William bossed the entire operation, albeit with plenty of English support. It is worth noting that William achieved a successful cross-Channel invasion of England, so all that stuff about England not having been invaded since 1066 is quite wrong.

Although Protestantism is supreme in England, in Scotland and Ireland there is everything to play for. At Beachy Head (1690), the French defeat an Anglo-Dutch force, but then fail to exploit their victory by making the difficulties that they might have made for William while he is busy subjugating the Irish. At Barfleur/La Hougue (1692), the Anglo-Dutch alliance reverses Beachy Head, and for the time being the French abandon any plans to topple William and reinstate his predecessor James II. But for the next century Britain and France confront each other.

Malaga (1704) is a draw, but strategically it means that Britain keeps Gibraltar, and remains at large around the coasts of France, blockading and preying upon French trade, protecting British trade. At Finisterre (1747) the French try to break the British blockade and to launch an invasion of England, but fail. At Quiberon Bay (1759) a similar plan fails again. The British remain the masters of the sea.

At Chesapeake Bay (1781) and The Saints (1782), the British again clash with the French. They lose at Chesapeake Bay, which for some reason means they do not get to keep America, but win at The Saints, which means that they remain top dogs in a general global maritime sort of way. If Padfield explains the causes and effects of these two battles properly, I missed it. He merely says what happened on the day, and announces that those were the consequences.

What makes this book so special and so entertaining is that it is not only about naval warfare. It is also about the way it is paid for and the reasons it was fought. Sea and land are bound together into one story.

Maritime supremacy starts with trade, loosely defined in a way that most emphatically and enthusiastically includes piracy, that is, stealing the gains of other people’s trade.

A bunch of traders, like those in the United Provinces, start doing global business, with merchant ships, and by stealing other people’s merchants ships, and get rich. Others naturally want to steal their ships and their markets, so they build a navy to protect their ships and their markets. The resulting Dutch maritime supremacy results in further massive trading success. The point is: merchant ships first, then war ships.

Only countries whose economies are built on maritime trade ever get to achieve maritime supremacy. This is because the other kind of potentially dominant countries, the great land based continental autocracies, cannot, when push comes to shove, be bothered with the huge expense and huge complexities of both building and then maintaining and making use of huge fleets of war ships. They are too busy creating and maintaining huge continental armies. Also, although their ships are often very fine from the design point of view, the autocrats tend not to be able to come up with such good guns to put on the ships. They do not have the industry.

But above all, they do not have the will. Their merchant adventuring enemies do have this will. When a war goes badly for the autocrats, they cut back on naval expenditure. When war goes badly for the sea traders, they spend more on their navy, because without naval success, all is lost.

Naval success breeds more naval success. When the British are blockading France throughout the eighteenth century, they get to master all the many problems of warfare at sea. These are not just fighting skills on the day, important though those are, but such things as supply and cleanliness, and above all, the basic ability to sail a ship on that most unpredictable and treacherous of surfaces, the sea. When the French fleet does break out, its sailors have been in port for the last year, and lack to skills to win. The British, on the day of battle, have been in effect preparing for nothing else for the previous few months, years and decades.

Continental navies have other problems. They get orders from sea-ignorant land-lubbers who think that fleets can be ordered about on the sea like soldiers on a parade ground. Go up to the left hand end of the Channel, turn right, sail to Calais, halt, escort an army across the Channel, yes sir, one two one two. But of course fleets typically cannot bring off such parade ground manoeuvres. Successful admirals must be well-trained, given strategic objectives, and then, during the actual campaign, trusted to do their best in whatever turn out to be the circumstances.

Interwoven with Padfield’s descriptions of sea battles, each with its diagrams with lines of tiny little shapes waddling towards one another, and descriptions of cannon balls wreaking havoc and decapitating people and causing anyone left alive to be ankle deep in blood, is another narrative. The sea-dependent powers are actually run by merchants and their cronies, and these merchants demand the necessary legal and political framework within which they will be allowed to make their deals and their killings. Hence the emergence of modern constitutional government. Parliaments curb royal despotism, because royal despotism is bad for business.

It would be pleasing to think that these merchant adventurers, first in Amsterdam, and then in London, and later in the USA, favoured low taxes, Samizdata style. Alas, no. The merchants are prepared to pay quite high taxes to win their wars (half of a killing is still a killing), and are politically able to demand that others, much to their disgust, join in with paying these taxes too. And given that this system, for all its widespread unpopularity, does at least work, this means that merchant governments can also borrow more, and at more favourabe interest rates. than can their enemies.

For meanwhile, in France, the government is crippled by its inability to extract taxes from the church or from the nobility, and instead taxes only the politically impotent traders and impoverished workers, industrial and rural. This not only eventually results in the French Revolution; it also in the meantime makes major wars against Britain impossible to finance for long enough to win them.

Padfield waxes lyrical at the modernity and prosperity first of the Dutch and then of the British – the Dutch Golden Age, Rule Britannia, etc.. He notes the rise of the liberal spirit, and of liberal philosophers who codified and rationalised it, like Locke and Hobbes.

But – and it is a big and admirable but – he notes how very imperfectly these self-styled free peoples managed to embody these principles in their own conduct.

The matter of taxation I have already referred to. The biggest blot on the historical record is of course slavery and the slave trade. You can point out all you like that liberal consitutionalism was not the only political system of, say, the seventeenth century, that practised and profited from slavery; they were all at it. True, they all were. And equally true, it was the liberal constitutionalists of Britain and America who eventually decided to get rid of slavery, and they duly did, pretty much. But before they did that, they profited from it mightily. Their first reaction to slavery was not to recoil from it in moral horror; it was to get it organised and internationalised, and more profitable, and hence inevitably to make it a much bigger trade than it had been before. Only later, when they felt they could afford to, did they get rid of it.

The other great exception that Padfield points to is the treatment of the men upon whom all this liberty and prosperity ultimately depended, the sailors themselves. The British were eventually able to make the life of a sailor in the Royal Navy actually better than the life of a contemporaneous land-based labourer (dead sailors, after all, do not fight so effectively), but that took a long time. As with the moral glories of the anti-slavery campaigns, the age of relative comfort at sea, now enjoyed by crews all of whose members have volunteered, was preceded by a far longer age of extreme naval discomfort, and what was for all practical purposes slavery as complete as that endured in the plantations of the West Indies or of the southern states of America. Many a sailor in the Royal Navy embarked upon his service to the crown by being press-ganged – forcibly captured, in plain English – and from then on life was horrible until he died, which he did quite soon, usually horribly, either from some ghastly death in action, or from some equally ghastly disease brought about by the prolonged deficiencies of the naval diet.

Nevertheless, although these liberal constitutionalists may have been decidedly imperfect in the application of their liberal principles, they did at least they proclaim them. The standards these people set, even if they only imperfectly lived up to those standards themselves, eventually became the standards against which the affairs of all of mankind are now judged. Are the people free? Are they passably comfortable? Can they get rich? Are they happy? It was the maritime supremacists who put these principles on the map, so to speak. They created a momentum not only of material progress but also of moral progress which shows no sign of being halted.

Padfield’s book has a happy ending, not just in the form of the success of the American Revolution, with all its portents of freedoms and prosperities to come, but with the publication in 1776 of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

Throughout the period of mercantile national rivalry, the merchants of both sides tended, despite all their blockading and market capturing, tended still to trade with one another. Simply, it made no sense not to. Both parties gained. What Adam Smith did was nail this principle down in a big, fat and important book. Trade is not a fixed-sum battle which you won or lost with war ships. It is in everyone’s interest. For people to get rich, it is absolutely not necessary for them to steal either each other’s ships or each others markets. All can gain.

He also did much to free the slaves, by arguing that free men are more productive, and hence more profitable to live with than slaves.

At its best, Padfield’s book is wonderful. At its worst it is somewhat confusing, with rather too abrupt switches from the details of a sea battle to the alleged (but sometime insufficiently explained) consequences of that battle on land, in the form of another set-piece description of something like the Glorious Revolution or of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. His ambition is splendid, but his execution imperfect. In this respect his book resembles the story it tells. Above all, why no detailed discussion of the Athenians, the Venicians? Or of the Americans, once they had got into the stride of being a major naval power? But better a book you want to be longer than a book you do not see the point of because it is not saying anything, or is saying something pointless, or wrong, or saying it badly. I loved this book, and enthusiastically recommend it to, well, anyone who thinks they might like it.

I learned all kinds of little titbits, especially about the technology of naval warfare. I did not know, until reading this, that the English had better guns and gunners than the Spaniards at the time of the Armada, while nevertheless both then and for many decades after that having much to learn from the continentals about ship design and construction. I knew nothing, until now, of ‘carronades’, which are – for all you ignoramuses who still do not know – miniature canons which the English were very good at mass producing (unlike the French), and which had the great advantage that they were light enough to put lots of them on the top decks of ships without capsizing them. And I knew nothing of the naval significance of copper (another English industrial ace). Copper bottomed ships are better because they are barnacle-free, hence smoother, and hence faster.

And, in general, I knew very little indeed about the exploits of the British eighteenth century navy against the French. All that blockading of the French coast in those times came as a huge surprise to me. For me, the British Navy of that time was, you know, 1805 Battle of Trafalgar, preceded by a great fog of Hornblower-modified ignorance. Admirals Hood, Hawke, Anson – even the wonderfully named Sir Clowdisley Shovel – were for me mere names, if that, until now.

The title I have chosen for this posting comes right at the end of the book, when Padfield describes the kind of Americans who agitated for a complete American break from Britain, and the kind who argued against that. Plenty of colonists were, of course, opposed to this break, and regarded the merchants who financed the effort to achieve it and the firebrands who argued for it as motivated by mere greed.

Here is Padfield writing about how the US Constitution got ratified:

In the subsequent public discussion and pamphlet war over whether the constitution should be ratified by the states, there were striking similarities with the fierce debates in the English parliament at the time of the foundation of the Bank of England soon after William’s ‘Glorious Revolution’. Then the landed classes feared the merchant/financial interest would take over government and preside over a rising spiral of deficit financing for its own advantage, raising taxes to service the ever-mounting debt and spreading government into ever greater areas of English life. Their fears had not proved exaggerated. It is doubtful if Americans, who had just thrown off the shackles of the resulting mighty fiscal-military machine, recognized the precedents, but it was again the great landowners, joined by small farmers and small businessmen, a great many in debt to their wealthier fellows, who provided the opposition to the proposed federal constitution, discerning behind it the designs of the commercial and moneyed interest and fearing tyranny by an aristocracy of merchant wealth.

No doubt the motives of those in favour of the constitution were not so self-interested as they were painted by the opposition: there was boundless idealism and optimism for a republic created on a clean slate with all history and the latest Enlightenment ideas as guides, granting power not to hereditary nobles, but to the people. For all that, the ‘Federalists’ were concentrated in the seaport cities and were led by wealthy men of business and finance who attracted to their cause the professional, skilled and unskilled classes dependent on commerce and even those farmers outside whose livelihoods were bound up with city and international markets. Indeed, the dispute over the constitution was characterized by a member of the New York ratifying convention as ‘between navigating and non-navigating individuals’. It was the ‘navigating individuals’ – whose concerns, it will be recalled, had sparked the original rebellion against British rule, and who had influence over the press and in the legislatures — who eventually won the vote in a surprisingly low turnout, and the new constitution was ratified by the majority of states in 1788. The next year ten amendments were passed to give American citizens statutory rights which the British had acquired in common law or by Act of Parliament: freedoms of religion, speech and the press; rights of peaceable assembly; security against unreasonable searches of the person, home or effects; trial by jury; the right not to be a witness against oneself, nor to be oppressed by excessive fines, excessive bail or ‘cruel and unusual punishments’.

So the liberalizing inspirations of the great trading cities of the United Provinces, transferred to England under William of Orange and spread under the shelter of British trading and naval supremacy to the North American colonies, were inscribed in the constitution of the infant United States of America.

So too, but without formal adoption, were the commercial and colonizing compulsions. The establishment of land-speculating companies, often subscribed on both sides of the Atlantic, and the westward migration of settlers had preceded the American Revolution; in those colonies where the Crown set limits to westward expansion, it had contributed to the desire for independence. Native tribes such as the Cherokee and the Creek in the south had already ceded vast tracts of territory as payment for trading debts they could never otherwise have met, and with the coming of war these had allied with the British to prevent further encroachment. It might be said that they were the true losers at the Peace of Versailles, yet in the long run, whatever the outcome in 1783, it is impossible to imagine any native tribes long resisting the expansionary forces and materially powerful system – not to mention the smallpox and syphilis – of the white men and women who had arrived on the commercial tide from Europe. Ruthless exploitation of less materially endowed peoples and their land and every living creature within their power was as much the mark of trading strength and merchant power as were liberal values.

Of these values, freedom was sovereign. …

That quote captures pretty well what this book is all about. In it you get both Padfield’s excitement about the political principles upon which naval supremacy conferred victory, together with a lively sense of the disappointments and miseries this caused to those on the receiving end of the raw power that both caused and was then further unleashed by these principles. You see the same principles springing to life in one location, and then being as it were passed on, like an Olympic torch, to the next bearers of the flame. Who will be next, I wonder? And what will their ‘ships’ be, exactly? What will be their ‘sea’?

For me, then, the perfect book. And all the more so because you can sum it up as the history of the ideas that Samizdata exists to spread to all corners of the earth and beyond, and of a large chunk of the physical circumstances that gave birth to them. Strongly recommended. And I got it in a remainder shop for a mere £5.99. Trade. I love it.

10 comments to Navigating individuals

  • Ryan

    The reason that Chesapeake Bay essentially loses America for the British is that the French fleet prevents the British from reinforcing Cornwallis at Yorktown, thus necessitating his surrender and the end of hostilities (at least until around 1812).

  • Brian,

    this might interest you in this context.

    The Battles That Changed History by Fletcher Pratt. Jerry Pournelle recommends it for history students.

  • The significance of the naval battle in Chesapeake Bay is that it was a key piece of the Battle of Yorktown. George Washington made a secret forced march from New York down to Virginia and began a classic siege of British forces in Yorktown under the command of British general Charles Cornwallis.

    Washington’s forces had been well trained by a Prussian whose name escapes me. There was also a significant contribution of French troops. The Americans and French performed a competent siege, digging slanting trenches to get close enough to the British defenses to begin shelling them. Later, Americans stormed two British positions and took them, beating off a British counter-attack.

    The British ground force was distinctly in peril. However, the Royal Navy was not able to evacuate Cornwallis and his forces, nor to help them in any way (e.g. fire support, landing reinforcements). The French Navy had defeated the RN in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay and had driven the RN away, and then blockaded the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. After 20 days of siege, with no hope of relief from the RN or any British ground forces, Cornwallis was forced to surrender.

    The Battle of Yorktown was the last major battle in the American Revolutionary War. The defeat caused the British government to fall, and in 1783 the British and Americans signed the Treaty of Paris, in which the British recognized American independence.

  • A historical note, for those interested in such things. Three of the great aircraft carriers belonging to the Americans just before WWII were USS Lexington, USS Saratoga, and USS Yorktown. Those ships were named after the three most important victories won by American forces during the revolution. Lexington was the first major battle of the war (actually fought in Concord, but who cares about that?). Saratoga, New York, was where “Gentleman” Johnny Burgoyne was forced to surrender. And Yorktown was the last battle in the war, the one which finally caused the British government to give up on trying to suppress the revolution.

  • Aaron Pollock

    The Prussian’s name was Baron von Steuben. As I understand it, the sea battle was inconlusive from a tactical standpoint; the real significance was that the RN headed offshore to fight the French and was unable to reinforce Cornwallis in time.

  • So trade comes before both military might and underpinning philosophy? So, what underpins trade in the first place? And does this mean that the good libertarian should be out there trying to make as much money as possible?

    Much of this is about a world in which trade is done by sea and its protection is carried out by navies. What are the implications for a world in which a lot of trade is carried out on land or the internet and (up to now) air power is supreme?

  • > the sea battle was inconclusive from a tactical standpoint

    … so what? The French achieved their strategic goal. See also The “Glorious” First of June, where the French battlefleet sacrificed itself to let the convoy it was screening get past the British fleet. A tactical sacrifice to win a strategic victory.

    Quiberon Bay has to be one of the most insane risks anybody ever got away with in all of military history. For those who haven’t read the book: the British Admiral Hawke was chasing a French fleet. When they tried to escape into Quiberon Bay – a very narrow, rocky inlet for which the British fleet had no pilots – in a North Atlantic gale, he decided to follow them anyway, got in, and annihilated them. Nelson was not an isolated one-off.

    See also Calder’s Action, shortly before Trafalgar in 1805. The short version is that Calder attacked a larger French fleet, and was court martialled for only managing to sink or capture a couple of them with no losses to his own fleet. The longer version is that he shouldn’t have been where the battle took place at all, and by haring off after that particular French fleet he left the Channel unguarded. He probably wouldn’t have been court martialled if he’d won a bigger victory, though.

  • George Atkisson

    I’m a retired US Naval officer. It was reading the history of these events, plus Mahan’s The influence of Sea Power Upon History that put me out on the briny deep. Got chills reading your article. Off to Amazon to find my own copy.

    Thanks, George

  • So trade comes before both military might and underpinning philosophy? So, what underpins trade in the first place? And does this mean that the good libertarian should be out there trying to make as much money as possible?

    I don’t think that this was the point, Patrick. Without a large merchant fleet, you won’t have the requisite number of skilled seamen to recruit from for your navy. And Brian pointed out in his post that landbound countries won’t have good guns to put on their ships for they won’t have good enough guns.

    As to modern trade: The goods maybe sold over the internet, but the goods are still delivered physically. And international trade still depends on merchant fleets (but I think that navies recruit their people much
    less from merchant fleets than they used to).

  • Errol Cavit

    Nelson was not an isolated one-off.

    Per Cunningham’s WWII quote, it takes 300 years to build a tradition.