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Book Review: To Rule the Waves

Every nation and empire able to exert its will over the seas has thrived and prospered, from ancient Rome to Modern Britain. -- Captain Alfred Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History

The ocean is very much like the market. It's unfathomable, ever-changing, and seemingly orderly despite the unpredictable weather and enemies that might attack you at any time. I always read naval books with an eye on what they can teach.

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, by Arthur Herman (New York: HarperCollins, 2004) is everything a good history book should be: insightful, predictive, heroic, and profitable for markets and living. The basic thesis is that naval power is key to implementing the leitmotif of a country; that England had the best navy for 300 years; that through it, she extended her ideas of a society based on property rights, commerce and voluntarism, and defeated dictators whose basic idea was a society based on war, status or servility -- such as Philip, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Bismarck and Hitler.

The book points out that it was the British system of freedom, property rights and rule of law that allowed the flexibility at sea that enabled her captains to win battle after battle. British captains were free to change tactics as needed, giving them the edge over enemies under authoritarian systems. Again and again, timely British naval blockade carried out by great innovative captains with better strategies, better ship design and better technology furthered civilization based on law, honor and property to the detriment of barbarism and slavery throughout the world.

I like the emphasis on science and technology that always characterized the British navy. Over and over again, an enterprising British naval officer gain the edge over enemy forces by fitting his ships with more accurate cannon, better copper on the bottom, better steam engines, better iron or wood or sails, better signaling systems, better navigation equipment for avoiding the shoals and maneuvering in the dark. And it was a naval surveying expedition that took young Charles Darwin to South America aboard the Beagle, eventually leading to the greatest insight of the 19th century.

The incentive system was a major factor in British naval success. Every hand on deck received a piece of the action, in the form of a payment based on the value of the goods, ships and number of men of the belligerents captured. Trading operations that do not put their men on profits remind me of the French system in that they appeal to honor and duty rather than the desire to improve one’s situation.

Here's a quantification of the profit incentive at work:

The all-time record was 485 pounds, paid in 1762 to each sailor on the Active and Favorite for their joint capture of the Spanish galleon Hermione: enough to let men buy gold watches on Portsmouth Hoe and cook them in frying pans for fun. But sailors who were part of less spectacular catches still made tidy sums. One sailor from Anson’s Centurion, who was paid only the first portion of his prize money, was able to get so drunk that he fell into the Thames and drowned with fifteen guineas still in his pocket.

Certain shipboard practices resonate with the speculator. When Napoleon surrendered to the Bellepheron after Waterloo, he remarked on the clear decks and orderly discipline. “’What I admire most in your ship,” he told Maitland, ‘is the extreme silence and orderly conduct of your men; on board a French ship, everyone calls and gives orders, and they gabble like so many geese.’” I have seen many trading operations like the French ships, and hope that mine will always maintain that austere silence and orderliness of Nelson's band of brothers.

Yet the British knew the importance of flexibility. Herman wrote:

Nelson had learned a valuable lesson: no admiral no matter how organized or enterprising, could control the action and tempo of a battle from his quarterdeck. The pace was too fast, the noise and smoke too distracting, the sudden opportunities too fleeing. The best an admiral could do was to devise his strategy, point his shipping in the right direction and trust his captains to carry out the plan as they saw fit.

This balance of discipline and enterprise served as the dynamic for good.

"Naval warfare and sea power had always demanded a delicate combination of organization and discipline on the one hand, and independent judgment on the other,” Herman writes. Britain’s peculiar virtues fashioned her into a great maritime power, even as the maritime power fostered these same virtues in the society at large.

England’s control of the seas and trading routes prevented countries she was fighting with from supplying their citizens and warriors with grains, fuel and ores, thus creating poverty for their businesspeople and revolt among the suffering populaces. Britain could have used this devastating supremacy to aggrandize its power and dictate terms to its neighbors – or to umpire the balance of power in Europe, maintain the general peace and protect the worldwide trade upon which worldwide prosperity depended.

The defeat of Napoleon had been a dramatic repudiation of one of the oldest assumptions about government in human history: that maintaining a large standing army, led by a charismatic ruler and serviced by a centralized bureaucracy, was a natural and effective way to organize the political community. In the final analysis, all power was about domination, and all domination about control of land and territory. The French Revolution and Napoleon had modernized this formula for land-based empire, and perfected it to pursue the complete domination of the world system. This was the great dream of power that Britain had checkmated at Trafalgar, and definitively defeated at Waterloo (although it would revive again in German hands a century or so later).

Instead, what emerged after 1815, thanks to the British navy, was a very different view of how the political community could be constituted, and how the world system should be organized. Instead of a charismatic ruler and his centralized bureaucracy, Britain could offer the world the idea of limited government, with a strong parliamentary sanction and deep suspicion of authoritarian leadership except in times of crisis. This was a direct legacy of the British navy, since the island kingdom’s reliance on maritime strength had made building large standing armies seem unnecessary, even dangerous, rather than a natural part of governance.

Instead of dividing society into those who serve the state – soldiers, courtiers, and bureaucrats – and those who obey it, Britain had made the defining social element the ownership of property. These included mobile and dynamic forms of property associated with commerce and trade, as well as static forms of land ownership. In fact, the more mobile the form of property, the more dynamic and flexible the social structure becomes. This was a point Adam Smith had made in his Wealth of Nations, the bible of the new British world order. But at its foundation was the Royal Navy’s historical role as the defender of the most valuable and mobile part of the nation’s wealth, its overseas trade. Indeed, trade and commerce had increasingly become Britain’s principal relationship with its neighbors and outside world. That, too, could be articulated as a principle for a new global order.