Gathan Beaga

the command of the ocean

I’m reading the most fantastic book. It’s The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649 – 1815, by N.A.M. Rodger.

I liked the previous one in the series, covering the millennium up to 1649, but this one’s even better: covering as it does one of the more interesting periods of British history, from the English Civil War through the end of the Napoleonic Wars.

It’s full of great stories: both the greater narrative of British sea power that started out as a collective myth but ended up as reality; and the smaller stories, in themselves no less epic. Rodger, in a single page, can outline the material for a book of its own.

Like Captain George Anson, who in 1740 was sent to the Pacific Coast of South America to attack Panama. He set sail with eight ships, enduring a “horrific three month struggle to round Cape Horn against the fierce gales of the Southern Ocean”; and when his squadron reassembled in the Pacific he’d lost three ships – one wrecked, two having turned back – and two thirds of his remaining men to scurvy. Naturally at this point, after a bit of raiding up the coast, he thought he’d emulate Drake by crossing the Pacific, as one does when one is a British officer. By this time he was down to two ships, but with another outbreak of scurvy had to scuttle the other for lack of hands before making for Canton, where he refitted; and while pretending to be making for Britain (presumably to keep the crew happy) took the annual Spanish treasure galleon off the Phillippines coast. After selling it at Canton he made his way back to England, arriving in June 1744, just three months short of four years away. This is pretty amazing when you think about it. But terrible too: according to Rodger, “more than 1,300 members of the original expedition perished, and 145 now remained to see England again”.

And this account, of the 1759 destruction of the French fleet in the Battle of Quiberon (Bay on the southern Brittany coast), an action that eliminated the threat of French invasion during the Seven Years War:

The scene was dramatic. Both fleets were driving eastwards before a rising gale, the French shortening sail, Hawke’s ships shaking the reefs out of their topsails. Before them in the fading light of a winter’s afternoon lay a dangerous coast of which [the British] had no reliable charts.

The French didn’t think the British would be fool enough to follow them into the bay, an unknown shore for them and with a gale behind them, but they were wrong. So wrong. Two British ships were wrecked but the French fleet was destroyed. “No British admiral ever rang such navigational risks or gained so dramatic a victory”, says Rodger.

The other interesting aspect is the view of history though a maritime lens: I had not thought of Charles II and his brother James as great sailors, but they were, and did much to advance the navy. Pepys; Pitt; William III (who would appear to have been is somewhat unfairly not credited by history for his successful invasion of England with his Dutch army in 1688) all featuring to a greater or lesser degree and providing leads for my further reading. And how Protestantism and piracy seemed to go so well together.

And… (this is the best bit) I’m less than halfway through. Bliss.