To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

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by Arthur Herman

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To Rule the Waves tells the extraordinary story of how the British Royal Navy allowed one nation to rise to a level of power unprecedented in history. From the navy's beginnings under Henry VIII to the age of computer warfare and special ops, historian Arthur Herman tells the spellbinding tale of great battles at sea, heroic sailors, violent conflict, and


To Rule the Waves tells the extraordinary story of how the British Royal Navy allowed one nation to rise to a level of power unprecedented in history. From the navy's beginnings under Henry VIII to the age of computer warfare and special ops, historian Arthur Herman tells the spellbinding tale of great battles at sea, heroic sailors, violent conflict, and personal tragedy — of the way one mighty institution forged a nation, an empire, and a new world.

This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Editorial Reviews

From its uncertain beginnings under Henry VIII, the British Royal Navy developed into a force that enabled Great Britain to become a global power without precedent in history. Arthur Herman's To Rule the Waves shows how the Royal Navy toppled Spain and Portugal's world economic system and replaced it with another, far more powerful and resilient. This popular narrative about England's epic the journey from the age of tall ships to the age of computer warfare is penned by the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World.
William Grimes
[Mr. Herman] is particularly adept at explaining the changes in technology and battle tactics that kept the British Navy a step ahead of the competition. Even more impressive, he describes the evolution of the navy's bureaucracy in such dramatic fashion that Samuel Pepys, secretary to the Admiralty, becomes as stirring a figure as Horatio Nelson. The British Navy scored its greatest victories largely because it was better organized, better financed and better equipped than its enemies. For this, Pepys gets much of the credit.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World returns with this quite splendid history of the British Royal Navy. Probably to no one's surprise, his thesis is that the British Empire was the foundation of the modern world and the Royal Navy the foundation of that empire. By and large, he sustains that thesis in a fluent narrative that stretches from the Elizabethan Age to the Falklands War. Although definitely Anglocentric and navalist, the author has done his research on a scale that such a large topic (to say nothing of a large book) requires. The Royal Navy's discipline and food in the age of sail may not deserve quite as much rehabilitation as he gives them, but on the other hand, he is frank about the limitations of British warship design, poor Victorian gunnery and lack of preparations for antisubmarine warfare between the world wars. He also writes extremely well, whether dealing with the role of the Royal Navy in founding the British iron and steel industries (it was a major customer) or grand battles, such as Quiberon Bay (1759) or Trafalgar (1805). Good one-volume histories of one of the modern world's most vital fighting forces appear rarely; this one should rule for a while to come. Agent, Glen Hartley. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The contributions of the British fleet extend beyond the inventive use of rum, sodomy, and the lash. The British Empire, argues Herman (How the Scots Invented the Modern World, 2001, etc.), would scarcely have been possible without it, and "half the world's independent nations would not exist today." The inhabitants of the British Isles, by mere virtue of the fact that they live on islands, have been going down to the sea in ships for millennia. But Herman credits Henry VIII with taking lessons from his fellow rulers in more ambitious lands and rethinking the whole business of the ocean as more than an inconvenient obstacle between England and its holdings in Ireland and France; a "skilled copycat," he built up a modern fleet for his time and, stealing a page from Scotland, mounted its ships with heavy, bronze siege cannons. Its descendant, the navy of Elizabeth's age, sailed the world, mostly in order to chase the Spanish; as Herman notes, the Spanish crown replied by launching three successive armadas in 1596, 1597, and 1598, the last of which set off a national panic, "with citizens of London closing off streets and rushing to Tilbury with 30,000 militiamen to repel the imagined attackers." England's swabbies found worthy opponents in Napoleon's fleet, too, which dogged them around the globe and made heroes of Lord Nelson and his lieutenants; in the fleets of the Germany in WWI and WWII; and even in the Argentine navy, which gave England's ships a hard fight in the Falklands War of 1982. The last conflict, the author notes, forced a rethinking of the fleet's increasing reliance on high-tech gizmos and put it back in touch with the old traditions: "If the British navy was going to winthis war, it was going to have to rely on the human factor, the courage and endurance of its officers and men." There's plenty of courage and endurance here. Herman's thesis is less than groundbreaking, but his narrative ought to please fans of Aubrey and Hornblower-and even the Tudor kings.

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Read an Excerpt

To Rule the Waves
How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World

Chapter One

Incident at San Juan de Ulloa

A Sea-man hath a valiant heart,
And bears a noble minde,
He scorneth once to shrink or start
For any stormy wind.
-- Anonymous Ballad

For three days the ships had struggled to hold their own against the hurricane. The wind out of the southeast had howled through the masts and rigging, tearing at their battered sails and smashing waves across their decks. There were five of them, sailing blind into the storm, in hour after hour of blackness. All they knew was that they were somewhere west of Cuba, and that they had to keep their ships pointed into the wind or else they could end up being thrown onto the coast of Spanish Florida. Their only guide through the perpetual darkness was the wildly tossing stern lantern of the Jesus, the flagship of their leader and commander, John Hawkins.

Storm-tossed ships: five tiny flyspecks in the midst of an empty hostile sea, and in the heart of a hostile empire. Yet without knowing it, they were about to alter history. A crucial moment had arrived in the struggle for global power. A new antagonist was about to enter the fray: England. John Hawkins's experiences over the next twelve days in September 1568 would mark the start of a century-long struggle with Spain for dominion over the New World, and also the start of the modern British navy.

No one would have been more surprised by this than John Hawkins. Thirty-five years old, small and spare, he was not a visionary but a man of action, a tough experienced mariner and the kind of man others naturally followed -- even into a three-day hurricane. He had spent every moment of those three days on deck. Rain streamed from his hair and beard as he ordered men aloft to take in sail so that the hurricane wind did not snap off a weakened mast or spar like a matchstick. At one desperate point, he had even been forced to cut away the top section of his mainmast to reduce the strain.

The Jesus was an old ship, a leaky tub with sprung timbers and a rotten hull. Now, after days of battering, she* was ready to give way completely. The carpenter came up from below and bellowed in his ear that the timbers around the stern post were about to burst. The gaps between them were so wide that fish were able to swim through into the hold, the carpenter said; if those timbers opened any wider, they would founder and sink.

This was John Hawkins's third trip into the Caribbean. His father, William Hawkins of Plymouth, was the first English merchant to gatecrash the trade monopoly Portugal and Spain enjoyed with their colonies in the New World. William Hawkins had made a fortune running goods from the Guinea coast -- the two thousand miles of African coastline from the Senegal River to the mouth of the Niger -- to Portuguese Brazil. His sons William and John had joined him on those dangerous transatlantic voyages when they were barely teenagers. But unlike his father, John Hawkins wanted more than just the occasional smuggling raid. He envisioned a regular trading network from Africa to America, with English ships offering the one commodity of which Spanish settlers could not get enough: slaves.

Slavery was a fact of life in the sixteenth century. The African slave trade was already the largest form of commerce in the world. No one had the least qualms about it, least of all Africa's own tribal rulers. It was also vital for running Spain's empire in America. Hawkins figured he could offer Spanish settlers slaves in greater quantities and at a lower price than they could get from their own merchants. Then they would pay him with the product from the New World everyone craved but which Spanish law forbade to all outsiders: gold and silver from the mines of Peru and Mexico. Once the trade got going, the Spanish colonies would flourish, England would prosper, and Hawkins would be a rich man -- the uncrowned king of the New World.

In 1562 Hawkins sought permission for his first slaving voyage from Queen Elizabeth. "The voyage I pretend," he wrote, "is to load negroes in Guinea and sell them in the West Indies in truck of gold, pearls, and emeralds." He got her tacit approval, as well as backing of a large syndicate of London merchants. In October he set out from Plymouth for Tenerife, the central island of the Canaries and gateway to Africa and America. After stopping several Portuguese slave ships off Guinea and buying or hijacking their cargo (it is unclear which), Hawkins made his way across the Atlantic to Hispaniola, the island where Christopher Columbus had landed seventy years earlier and which was now a thriving Spanish colony.

Hawkins did a brisk business with the local planters. They liked being able to buy their black labor at a fraction of the official price of one hundred ducats per head. Hawkins returned triumphantly home in August of 1563, in ships laden with gold, silver, pearls, sugar, and hides -- so much sugar and hides, in fact, that he had to hire two extra ships to carry it all. Everyone was happy, except of course the slaves (although Hawkins took better care of his expensive cargo, even outfitting them with shirts and shoes, than did slavers in later centuries), and the Spanish authorities, who had just seen their monopoly broken and their laws flouted.

Hawkins had done everything to try to accommodate and placate them even though the Spanish were Catholics and Hawkins a God-fearing Protestant. He appealed to the traditional alliance between England and Spain; he pointed out how the trade would benefit Spaniards, not just the English and himself. He had even shipped some of his goods on to Seville, so that he could pay customs just like any regular Spanish merchant (instead, the authorities seized the lot and threw Hawkins's men in prison) ...

To Rule the Waves
How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World
. Copyright © by Arthur Herman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Arthur Herman is the author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World as well as The Idea of Decline in Western History and Joseph McCarthy. He has been a professor of history at Georgetown University, Catholic University, George Mason University, and the University of the South.

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To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the most cohesive accounts of world naval history in print.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Black-Badger More than 1 year ago
When I hit the footnote that Constantine was born in Britain (p47) it was over.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Campbellson More than 1 year ago
Arthur Herman shows how a group of pirates and murchants pulled nation together and developed a system that beat everyone that was out there to end up ruling the trade and politics for more than 200 years.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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John219 More than 1 year ago
In today's politically correct world we only hear of the negative aspects of imperialism and the militarism that supported it but we never are told the positive changes that also resulted from it. In To Rule the Waves Arthur Herman goes beyond the sea battles to examine the benefits that Great Britain via the Royal Navy brought to the world including the end of piracy and slave trade on the open seas. Contrary to modern propaganda, as the sole superpower for much of the 18th and 19th centuries Great Britain used its power to liberate much of the world from despotism while attempting to enforce world peace, The modern concept of Freedom of the Seas and much of the scientific achievements of the past 200-300 years would not have been possible without the dominance of the Royal Navy. As Kipling observed while seeing the endless masts of Royal Navy frigates "If such power belonged to any other nation it would have been used to enslave rather than to liberate." As for the book, To Rule the Waves is well written and interesting. Not being a Royal Navy buff, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it held my attention and I always looked forward to having the chance to continue my reading. I am so impressed with Mr. Herman's writing that I am looking forward to reading some of his other works.
lrg More than 1 year ago
First, one must be interested in the subject matter before picking up this book. As the title implies, seafaring history is the major theme, with British history generally as more of a backdrop providing context to the main events. The culture of British colonialism also plays a role, though less so. I found the concentration to be on the early stages of British expansion prior to the imperial period. The hypothesis undoubtedly is that naval superiority fueled this expansion as well as a colonial/imperial sense of self-righteous dominance. The details wane after the introduction of steam-powered, armored vessels. This is partly due to the writing style, which keeps the book moving and exciting: descriptions of sailing techniques and naval tactics as they developed between the 15th and 19th centuries. Anyone who is interested in those subjects will find this book enthralling. I know nothing of these subjects and therefore could have benefitted from illustrations of how these tactics and techniques were executed.

The book makes clear that naval tactics took a decidedly modern turn in the early 19th century during which none of the old techniques of the previous four centuries applied. It was at this point that the book sort of lost me, and it appeared to also lose interest in itself. Fortunately, this section comprises only the last 25% of the book.

Otherwise, this book was well-researched, well-written, and definintely something that could be picked up again and again for a good read, especially for those interested in seafaring techniques, naval battle tactics, and British history generally from the 15th to 19th centuries.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Ruling the waves is a salty and poetic description of how the `British navy shaped the modern world¿ by dominating the world¿s sea lanes as Arthur Herman sees it in his book To Rule The Waves. This hefty volume can¿t be digested in a sitting, or even a few, unless you can subsist on little sleep, rum and hardtack with a bit of lime thrown in to avoid scurvy. And, should you choose to read it, I would strongly suggest that you first read the 16 pages following page 648, in the Harper Perennial paperback edition. It sets the course, lays out the route, navigates you through the shallows of history and prepares you for a journey well taken. Here, history moves along and as it unfolds, men interpret events as snapshots of a bigger picture. Herman does a masterful job of connecting the dots You will not be disappointed or run aground on the shoals of specious research as you might on some other seagoing history trips. While you absorb as much as you can of this very precise historical treatise, you may come away the more informed for it. After you¿ve turned the last page, paused to let it all sink in, your perspective on history might be altered. Then again, it might not, since history is often adjusted du jour, while the men who make it stay much the same over the centuries. Herman has managed to make a cohesive story out of facts taken from the perspectives of French, Dutch, Spanish and British naval officers and politicians, to mention the major countries and players. Of course, many of the minor countries also played a role, as did below deck crews, and Mother Nature herself in inserting storms and other weather conditions that were crucial in determining battle outcomes. Limited communications of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created great time lapses before news of either victories or defeats could be brought home. Battles were fought, ships sunk and men died even after wars were over, before they got the word. This book gives us a truncated version of how we broke with our former ruling Empire, establishing our own country. The nuances you will discover for yourself. It gives us insights into the stories we all grew up with, including the mutiny on the Bounty, the miraculous voyages of famed Captain Cook, a laundry list of other names you will recognize, or not, and anecdotes you will treasure. Earlier, we roam the world as most of it as it was being discovered, with Herman¿s characters. And, think of this: it all happened in less than 500 years, a mere blink in history¿s sight. There¿s a treasure to be found in mining the attention to detail, a gift from authors like Herman. It¿s a long passage but well worth the journey. Finally, we learn more about the British war with Argentina, 8000 miles away in the Falklands. The world did not seem to pay much attention to that war. In a few pages, Herman gives us glimpse of both the political and military significance.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book to be facinating and highly recommned it to British and American history buffs. After getting this perspective, I can not wait to return to my reading of American history with this whole new perspective.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Arthur Herman has realized an impressive tour de force in explaining how an insignificant island nation rose to world prominence at the expense of such continental superpowers as Spain, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. Herman clearly shows the essential role that the Royal Navy played in propelling Britain to the poll position in the concert of nations between the 16th and 20th centuries. Herman skillfully weaves into his narration the life and achievements of a wide cast of well-known Britons such as Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh, Queen Elizabeth I, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. At the same time, Herman shines the limelight onto colorful individuals who have sunk into oblivion, despite their essential contribution to the world leadership of the Royal Navy. One can think for example about John Hawkins, John Fox, Samuel Pepys, Edward Hawke and Edward Vernon. Without the Royal Navy, Britain would have been unable to break the back of such strong personalities as King Philip II of Spain, King Louis XIV and Emperor Napoleon I of France. Without the same strong naval forces, Britain would not have been capable to secure most of its conquests around the world and played the role of international policeman. The Royal Navy also fulfilled a major role in the propagation of the ideas that have conquered the world: free markets, democracy, Anglo-Saxon culture ... and Pax Britannica (now Pax Americana). In the 20th century, Imperial Britain and its Royal Navy lost their global leadership due to a lack of means to checkmate the world ambitions of Imperial Germany and Japan. In that century, a Pax Americana superseded the Pax Britannica. American sea power has kept the world¿s sea lanes open. As Herman rightly reminds his audience, the sea remains the pillar upon which most of today¿s global trade system rests. Close to 95% of trade that crosses international borders is waterborne, as is 99.5% of the weight of all transcontinental trade. The U.S. Navy has an essential role to play not only for keeping sea lanes open, but also for deterring any irrational exuberance, especially in Southeast Asia, and bringing help to people in need after natural cataclysms or man-made disasters.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Author Arthur Herman has written an excellent book outlining the growth and development of the Royal Navy from its origins in an ad hoc group of 'gentlemen adventurers' looking for trade and plunder to a well run organization that helped create and guard the largest empire the world has yet seen. Mr. Herman not only recreates the heroic days of ships of the line trading broadsides under the command of Drake, Nelson and Jellicoe, but he also relates how the Royal Navy, as and instrument of enlightened British policies, promoted exploration, ended the slave trade and made the worlds oceans safe for commerce. I recommend it highly as a extremely interesting book.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Arthur Herman's fantastic history of the Royal Navy, 'To Rule the Waves' is a stellar history of the instutition that powered Britain to imperial grandeur. Following the RN's humble beginning western England, when its captains were little more than patriotic pirates, he moves seamlessly forward in time, to Pepys' reforms (taking on the daunting task of making bureaucracy the good guy) and ahead into the Seven Years' War. (The author is particularly strong when describing the navy's evolution as an institution, besides its ships.) He provides all necessary background information to understand the geopolitical significance of the weapon the British wielded in their duel with the French. He progresses ahead to the Napoleonic Wars, outlining various institutional changes that came along the way. Nelson comes across as slightly less grand than he usually does, (despite the author's evident attempts to the contrary) due, in large part, to the myth that has grown around him (which is well-addressed). Herman proceeds through Victoria and WWI to the end of Royal Navy dominance, where he begins to wrap up his narrative (though he does continue all the way to the Falklands in an abbreviated manner). By the time it is over, one has seen a seamless evolution of the institution that 'shaped the modern world'. Two critiques: 1. There are numerous spelling errors in here, which competent editors should have caught. 2. A glossary of naval terms would have been strongly appreciated, since Herman effortlessly tosses around nautical parlance somewhat too freely whilst describing battles like the Spanish Armada or Trafalgar. Otherwise, this is a superb history documenting a superlative institution.