The Magazine

Ruling the Waves

Why Britons never, never, never were slaves.

Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By HENRIK BERING
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The British Seaborne Empire

by Jeremy Black

Yale University Press, 432 pp., $40

IN AUGUST 2003, THE Manchester Guardian Weekly ran an obituary on the famous British explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger. As a young man in the 1930s, Thesiger had set out to Abyssinia to explore the Awash river and the desolate Aussa sultanate, which included land inhabited by the fierce Danakil nomads who, according to the paper, were "chiefly noted for a disturbing tendency to kill men and carry off their testicles as trophies." But, the obituary noted, this prospect did not unduly alarm the young Thesiger, who had after all survived the rigors of Eton with its floggings and other, more elaborate rituals of humiliation.

Sir Wilfred was a throwback to another time and another world, that of the British empire. He could have stepped out of the pages of British historian Jeremy Black's new sprawling brick of a book on the origins of the empire, its rise and decline, and how it affected all aspects of society, exploration, science, and the arts.

While British intellectuals tend to be masochistic about their former empire, blaming it for a host of modern woes, books on the subject enjoy an increased interest in the United States these days, as America has inherited Britain's traditional role as the world's guarantor of stability.

Britain is an island nation and its empire was based on its maritime strength, hence the title--The British Seaborne Empire--which echoes the titles of classic works on the Dutch, Portuguese, and Spanish empires. When reading the book, it is a good idea to have a globe next to you, preferably one of those old Victorian ones where everything British is marked in red.

In the Middle Ages, according to Black, the English kings had been dead set on conquering France, but the loss of Normandy and Gascony to Charles VII and the defeat at Castillon in 1453 put an end to that. So they started looking across the oceans for new possibilities. Compared with Spain or Portugal, England was not as well situated, nor as experienced in deep sea navigation, but with its large population of fishermen, there was a strong maritime base on which to build.

IT TOOK A WHILE getting shipshape, so to speak. In 1545, Henry VIII had the unpleasant experience of watching, from the shore, his great top-heavy Mary Rose--as much a piece of gorgeous woodcarving as a functioning warship--capsize right before his eyes. She had just left Portsmouth harbor and was about to engage the French, when a sudden gust of wind caused her gunports to be flooded. Improvements in ship design, however, gradually improved the odds of survival.

England needed its navy partly to defend against invasion and partly to protect its trade from the Spaniards and the Portuguese, while attacking theirs. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the navy and a strong "Protestant" wind defeated the Spanish Armada, and Francis Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. For his services, he was knighted by the queen in 1581 on board his ship, The Golden Hind. In retrospect, this was a defining moment in the history of the British empire, recognizing Sir Francis, with his talent for piracy, as the embodiment of English courage and resourcefulness.

But naval advancement was not up to the swashbucklers alone. At the time of the Restoration, Samuel Pepys was made Clerk of the King's Ships and rose to become secretary to the admiralty. When not frolicking with his mistresses or attending the theater, the famed diarist was striving mightily to improve the efficiency of the Royal Navy, laying the foundation for it to play an important role on the world stage.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Black writes, an ideology of empire began to develop in Britain. Protestantism, economic growth, and increasing maritime power all contributed to the sense that the British were a chosen people. The writers of the day were keen students of history, and they believed that Britain's emphasis on liberty set it apart from other empires past and present, and guaranteed that it would not perish in corruption and tyranny.

This pride manifested itself in a variety of ways, as when Samuel Johnson extolled the past glories of the navy in his early poem "London," and when he and his friend Richard Savage, too poor to pay for lodgings but "brimful of patriotism," would walk around St. James Square at night and resolve that they would "stand by the country." Or when the former sea captain Thomas Coram established The Foundling Hospital in London. Foundlings made such capital sailors, the good captain thought.