Empire of the Deep by Ben Wilson: When Britain ruled the waves

Britain was designed for maritime power. Stephen Taylor reviews a sweeping history of Britain's naval prowess that covers the great commanders but finds little space for the seamen who served them.

A boy watches a panorama of the Sebastopol siege during the Crimean war
Smoke on the water: a boy watches a panorama of the Sebastopol siege during the Crimean war. Photo: Igor Starkov/Anzenberger/Eyevine
Empire of the Deep: the Rise and Fall of the British Navy
Ben Wilson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 720pp, £25
 
It is an image embedded in our history – the body of a naval hero brought home to a state funeral, his legacy a sea victory that had stunned Europe and secured Britain’s command of the oceans once and for all. Yet the hero was not, on this occasion, Horatio Nelson. Robert Blake’s triumph came at the battle of Santa Cruz in 1657, almost 150 years before Trafalgar and close to 70 years after another victory – over the Armada – that had supposedly obtained the same end. If there is one consistent aspect of Britain’s historical perspective, it is that we were always winners at sea.
 
That view has been refashioned by a new generation of naval historians, such as N A M Rodger, who have brought subtlety and social insight to what had been a fairly bland and triumphalist field. Successes, we now know, were set about with blunders, failures and weaknesses. Rodger is working on the third and final volume of his magisterial series covering this story from 660 to the present day. Now, fresh to the field but first to the line, comes Ben Wilson, with a single book covering the same period.
 
Starting in an age when no one, least of all Britannia, ruled the waves, he explains the mythology that grew up around our shores. There was no navy to start with but the Vikings helped to foster piracy and Henry IV licensed seafarers to destroy enemies of the kingdom and “keep the seas”. So pervasive was this tradition that only in 1856 did Britain formally renounce the licensing of privateers to capture enemy ships.
 
Foreign resources always came in handy. Danish mercenaries served in Edward the Confessor’s navy, when Anglo-Saxon sea power was at its height, and the Atlantic was opened up by that great Englishman Giovanni Caboto of Genoa, also known as John Cabot. From there, it was a short step to unleashing adventurers such as Francis Drake and John Hawkins to plunder the Spanish empire. With so much treasure at stake, it is not surprising that they fought one another almost as ferociously as they did the enemy.
 
Britain was designed for maritime power. It is a compelling truth and though Wilson strives to emphasise the setbacks, they were always of a lesser order than the triumphs. As Pitt the Elder said, the lesson of history is that when exerting power by sea, we become “the dread of the world; when by land, the contempt of it”.
 
This epic is peopled by vividly described national types. Hawkins is one, a dashing roughneck who used the sea – as did Drake and many others – to haul himself up the social ladder. Another is Frederic “Johnnie” Walker, the U-boat killer of the Second World War, whose grit and coolness arguably turned the tide in the battle of the Atlantic.
 
The British love a great ship almost as much as a great commander. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire is the nation’s favourite painting and the Victory is a shrine. In 1418, Henry V launched the Grace Dieu, a colossus. Ultimately, she was the Bismarck of her day, an empty symbol that ended up on the bottom before she could do significant harm.
 
Wilson tackles this formidable canvas with zeal and spirit. He is strong on strategy and analysis, yet also throws himself into the great battle scenes, of which his account of the battle of the Nile in 1798 is particularly effective. Nelson’s preparations in the years leading up to Trafalgar are shown to have been as important as his battle plan, along with his meticulous care for the fleet’s health. “It is easier,” he said, “for an officer to keep men healthy than for a physician to cure them.” Yet there was so much more to the navy than battle. It charted oceans – then gifted this knowledge to other seafaring nations – and opened the world to scientific discovery, as well as trade and commerce. Among its most heroic yet least sung endeavours was the 60-year campaign to stamp out the African slave trade with vessels of the Preventative Squadron.
 
Covering so vast a subject was bound to require selectivity, even in a volume as hefty as this. Wilson acknowledges that ending slavery was one of the navy’s most noble battles, yet he finds scant space for it and fails to mention that it took the lives of almost 17,000 British seamen, mainly by disease. (The number killed at Trafalgar was 459.)
 
More seriously, he fails to examine in any depth a thread running through the narrative. The navy may have produced great commanders and ships but they would never have stirred from port but for the common seaman. British hands, Wilson notes, developed a habit of victory. After Trafalgar, a French captain was surprised to see that whereas his men were “either drunk or disabled”, the English worked with as much order as ever: “We were amazed, wondering what the English sailor could be made of.” Jack Tar’s contribution to naval supremacy is barely addressed here.
 
Stephen Taylor’s “Commander: the Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain” is published by Faber & Faber (£20)