naval history

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naval history. In about 1436 Adam de Moleyns in The Libelle of English Policy wrote: ‘Flemings to our blame, Stop us, take us, and so make fade the flowers of English state.’ This may be the earliest polemic in English urging a system of mercantile protection, at a time when the fleet of Henry V had been dismantled. Nearly 150 years later Richard Hakluyt could view a more spacious world, and in a new dimension. In 1580, securing the translation of the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier's account of North American shores, Hakluyt insisted that the English should be throwing off ‘their sluggish security and continual neglect’ of opportunities the French were so actively seizing. The foothold gained, however tenuously, in Newfoundland (1583) and the founding of Virginia (1607–19), events occurring before and after the Spanish Armada of 1588, may have helped to assuage the proselytizing zeal of Hakluyt. But he, and such forwarders of enquiry as Lord Burghley, who confessed to ‘fantasising of cosmography’, encouraged the beginnings of naval history as a scholarly discipline, separable from the demands of canvassing causes. Canvassing of course continued—how could it not, given such issues as the state of the early 17th-cent. navy, the self-perpetuating problems of timber supply, and manning? But the triumphs over the Dutch and Spanish 60 years after the Armada afforded the English an awareness of the implications of maritime superiority.

No man in his time was better equipped to write a comprehensive naval history than Samuel Pepys, and by 1680 he had accumulated material for such a work which, he rightly believed, would ‘consort mightily with my genius’. Unfortunately, Pepys did not complete his history; the one written by a successor in the Admiralty secretaryship, Josiah Burchett (1720), is of value only for the period 1689–1713 of which Burchett had intimate knowledge. But in 1735 Thomas Lediard's two-volume history was of an altogether different calibre, and was usefully supplemented by John Campbell's The Lives of the Admirals (1742–5), which brought the personalities of past commanders into focus. It is questionable how far John Charnock's Biografia navalis (1794–8) advanced on Campbell, though his enquiries were pertinacious. In 1806 Charles Derrick, of the Navy Office, brought out the first valuable treatment of the navy's administrative history.

Possibly the first ‘modern’ panoramic treatment of the navy's history was W. L. Clowes's seven-volume work 1897–1903, but perhaps a more estimable contemporary was Sir John Knox Laughton, an indefatigable researcher and effective founder, in 1893, of the Navy Records Society. That year Derrick found a successor in M. M. Oppenheim, who brought out an administrative history of 1509–1660 (the volume designed to follow it never appeared). Coincidental with Britain's naval race with Germany, the great age of naval history scholarship arrived, and was dominated by Sir Julian Corbett (1854–1921) and Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond (1871–1946). The definitive history of the navy in the First World War From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow (1961–70) was in fact written by an American, Arthur G. Marder, the Second World War being covered in S. W. Roskill's The War at Sea (1954–61). Both these distinguished historians, but especially Marder, enjoyed the inestimable benefit of perspective: today's historians have fewer bearings in a world where sea-borne missiles can destroy inland cities and where, irrespective of financial constraint, there are complex dilemmas in forward planning. Above all, British seafarers, the ultimate makers of naval history, are in drastic numerical decline.

David Denis Aldridge