The Command of the Ocean

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

There is an enduring fascination with Britain and its performance during what has come to be known as the Napoleonic Wars, a period of continual conflict with France from 1793 through 1815. Such interest is hardly surprising when one considers that this was the first global conflict, one that ranged from Egypt to the Caribbean region, whose participants numbered in the millions. Keen interest among readers is reflected most notably in historical fiction, where a number of multivolume series have celebrated British military prowess, from C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower of the Royal Navy to Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe of the army.

Noteworthy among recent works in this genre are Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, which have been highly praised for raising historical military fiction to a new level. The volumes in the series examine the fictional lives of Captain Jack Aubrey and naval surgeon Stephen Maturin against the backdrop of Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule as emperor of France. For those who are familiar with the seriesand its followers are legionit is all too easy to accept what O’Brian posits in a work of fiction as an established historical fact. That he was a frequent visitor to the National Maritime Museum in London lends his writing even more authority. By combining an easy grasp of historical research with a perfect pitch for period dialogue, O’Brianin the tradition of the best novelistscreated a world more convincing than the thing itself. Let the reader beware. Every O’Brian aficionado knows that Stephen Maturin continually lambastes the Royal Navy regarding grog, the daily ration of diluted rum which the doctor believes is undermining the sailors’ health. It is with some degree of shock, therefore, to learn that crewmen largely consumed beer or wine and that there are no references in the historical record to a rum ration until 1844. This is just one of countless revelations, both large and small, in N. A. M. Rodger’s book The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815.

Most studies of maritime military history fall into two fairly distinct categories. There are those that concentrate on the sea battles and how the participants brought about victory or defeat and the consequences for combatants. The most common example, of course, is Lord Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, Spain, in 1805. Then there are the technical studies of the ships which describe their sailing qualities, their durability under fire, and their armament, complete with detailed line plans. Each of these approaches has its advantages: The deeds performed by sailors under the most adverse conditions are worth remembering, and one does need to understand how vessels of war perform the way they do.

Although these approaches can reveal much about the design and operation of the machines of war, the risk here is that of freezing a moment in time. One can learn much about late eighteenth century naval tactics from a study of the Battle of Trafalgar, but the action itself reveals little about the political and financial forces that led to the battle being fought at that place and time. Moreover, the British naval force that opposed Napoleon and his allies at Trafalgar was not the same entity that battled the Dutch in the seventeenth century. In other words, what is lacking is both breadth and depth. Happily, readers are well served by N. A. M. Rodger, whose highly lauded previous volume on the Royal Navy, The Safeguard of the Sea (1997), dealt with the period 660-1649. The Command of the Ocean, the second volume in the series, continues with the same high level of scholarship.

Clearly, Rodger has done his research, and he is nothing if not comprehensive. In addition to the thirty-six numbered chapters and the usual introduction and conclusion, the book includes some fine illustrations of common sailors as well as naval administrators, eighteen well-executed maps, eight appendixes ranging from a chronology of events to naval finance, and two extensive glossaries of terms. He even provides a brief note on the conventions used in dates and battle namesa considerate and welcome service for nonspecialists wading through this closely printed book. In spite of its density of detail and historical sweep, Rodger’s book essentially answers some deceptively simple questions: What were the forces that shaped the Royal Navy from the mid-seventeenth century through the Napoleonic period? What enabled Britain to become the mightiest naval power by the time of Napoleon’s defeat in 1815?

In shouldering this task, Rodger could have adopted the...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Atlantic Monthly 295, no. 4 (May, 2005): 112-114.

Contemporary Review 286 (April, 2005): 249.

The Economist 373 (November 20, 2004): 88.

History Today 54, no. 12 (December, 2004): 55-56.

Library Journal 130, no. 2 (February 1, 2005): 99-100.

New Criterion 23, no. 9 (May, 2005): 86-88.

New Statesman 133 (October 11, 2004): 54.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 7 (February 14, 2005): 63.

The Spectator 296 (October 23, 2004): 54.