TO RULE THE WAVES: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, by Arthur Herman. 648 pages. HarperCollins, $26.95
The tone and approach of Arthur Herman’s “To Rule the Waves” is captured by the title of an earlier book: “How the Scots Invented the Modern World.” Here we are told that every significant development of the past 500 years was instigated or controlled by the Royal Navy.
In his if-all-you-have-is-a-hammer-everything-looks-like-a-nail historiography, Herman frequently sinks into self-caricature. For example, in his version the Invergordon mutiny of 1931, a minor labor strike, instigated the decision by the Bank of England to take the United Kingdom off the gold standard.
Real historians, it should not be necessary to say, have a more complex story.
The story of the navy is worth a real historian’s attention. Traditionally, King Alfred is called the father of the English navy. Herman never mentions him and is correct to start the story of the modern navy 600-odd years later. That is one of his rare good choices.
John Hawkins, slaver, smuggler and pirate, is credited as the pioneer of England’s venture into distant waters. Herman displays few virtues as a historian but one is that he pays attention to more than the thunder of guns and the clash of cutlasses.
He credits the Navy Board (inaccurately) as the start of modern western bureaucracy. The Inquisition would be a better choice, and even if limited to military matters the Venice Arsenal has a strong claim. However, the Navy Board was important in changing the navy from a mélange of free-lance bandits and aristocratic warriors into an instrument of continuous state power.
Oddly, hundreds of pages later Herman opines that in the ‘60s, as the Royal Navy was being shrunk to a size appropriate to a small nation, the Admiralty was acknowledged as “the most efficient of the three services’ headquarters.” He appears never to have heard of Northcote Parkinson nor to know that the Admiralty was the subject of the study that led to “Parkinson’s Law.”
The story flows smoothly, if inaccurately, forward from Hawkins and Drake. Almost no figures can be trusted; some are so ridiculous that any reader will understand that it was not true that sugar consumption in England grew to 12 pounds per person per day. Other numbers are equally wrong if not so obviously so.
The book was incompetently proofread (if proofread at all) and the overall impression is that it was put together with all the care lavished on an undergraduate term paper begun the night before the day it is due.
It is not only numbers that are unreliable. Herman says the commander of the assault on the Dardanelles forts was Admiral Ian Hamilton. In fact, Hamilton was not there and in any case was an army general. Herman has Bill Halsey commanding at Midway when – in one of the most famous naval anecdotes of the Second World War – he was in sick bay, opening the way for the outstanding battle commander of that conflict, an unknown junior flag officer named Spruance.
In one of the most misguided sentences I have seen in print in a long time, Herman writes in his acknowledgments: “Allen Flint painstakingly went through the final manuscript with a discerning and erudite eye.”
The Royal Navy really did do a great deal to shape the modern world. “To Rule the Waves” is nearly worthless if you want to learn how.