In place of freedom, the rallying call of territorial empires has been to patriotism and glory.


Maritime supremacy is the key which unlocks most, if not all, large questions of modern history, certainly the puzzle of how and why we – the Western democracies – are as we are. We are the heirs of maritime supremacy. Our civilization (if we can lay so large a claim), our beliefs, our dominance are products not of superior minds or bravery, cunning, greed or ruthlessness – common attributes of mankind – still less of the Christian religion, the ‘Protestant work ethic’ or blind chance, but of the particular configuration of seas and land masses that has given the advantage to powers able to use and command the seas. It has been an evolutionary process. In the unrelenting struggle of peoples, those ascendant at sea have, at least in the modern era, proved consistently successful either singly or in alliance against those with a territorial power base;[1] hence it is the system of beliefs and of government associated with supreme maritime power that has prevailed.

Of course maritime supremacy offers no clue to the profounder questions of the spirit, pure philosophy or ethics, or to the directions in which we may be carried by venal science. It cannot explain our terrifying hubris as a species. It is, however, the key to simpler questions: our faith in democracy, personal freedoms and human ‘rights’, and the other comforting prescriptions of the humanist liberal credo, stem from the supremacy of maritime over territorial power. Pragmatists may deplore this as crude determinism, as another vain attempt to construct a general theory of history. They should reflect on the sort of political philosophy and structures we might now adhere to had the Habsburgs, Bourbons, Bonaparte, Hitler, Stalin or his heirs prevailed in the titanic world struggles of the past four centuries. Ultimately all failed. None found a formula for overcoming maritime supremacy. Their territorial empires and the great navies they built to challenge the maritime powers collapsed. It was not chance. There were potent causes. They were analysed towards the end of the nineteenth century by an American naval captain, A. T. Mahan, in a series of extraordinarily influential books describing the workings of what he termed ‘sea power’ and its influence on history.[2] That his chosen historical periods were practically confined to an era of British naval dominance under sail did not prevent him claiming that the principles adduced from his studies were ‘of the unchangeable, or unchanging order of things, remaining the same, in cause and effect, from age to age’, belonging ‘as it were, to the Order of Nature’.[3] And it is true that, in the hundred years, two world wars and global stand-off since, amid bewildering changes in ships and weaponry, his principles and overall thesis have held good. The downfall of the Kaiser’s Germany, Hitler’s Reich, finally the Soviet empire in face of alliances led by powers commanding the seas appear to belong to his ‘unchanging order of things … as it were, to the Order of Nature’.

Three centuries earlier, the Elizabethan adventurer and would-be colonizer of North America Sir Walter Ralegh expressed Mahan’s central tenet: ‘Hee that commaunds the sea, commaunds the trade, and hee that is Lord of the trade of the world is Lord of the wealth of the worlde.’[4] Mahan’s explanation was rather fuller: traffic by water was and had always been easier and cheaper than by land – a principle that holds good for most commodities even after the development of railways, motorways and air transport – hence the use and control of the sea lanes was the central link in the chain of exchanges whereby wealth was accumulated. And wealth was, of course, the sinews of war.

The conditions Mahan held necessary for a state to control the sea were first geographical: a position on main trade routes, a coastline with deep-water harbours and, most importantly, no land borders requiring defence against powerful enemies or offering opportunities for aggrandizement, so allowing concentration on sea trade and naval power. His other conditions concerned the inhabitants, the size of population, the character of the people, and the type and disposition of the government.

It is these latter conditions that seem least persuasive today; indeed, the argument of this book is that the outlook and beliefs of peoples and their systems of government are results quite as much as determinants of their power base, whether maritime or territorial; that is to say, in those states which have enjoyed optimum geographical conditions for maritime supremacy in successive ages, the character of the people and the type of government have been moulded by the acquisition of sea power rather than the other way about. It is a natural process: seafaring and trade beget merchants; merchants accumulate wealth and bring the pressure of money to bear on hereditary monarchies and landowning aristocracies, usually poor by comparison; and sooner or later merchant values prevail in government. Chief of these are dispersed power and open, consultative rule, since concentrated power and the arbitrary rule of closed cabals are unresponsive to the needs of trade and fatal to sound finance.

The other distinguishing mark of merchant power is freedom, since both trade and consultative government require the widest dissemination of information and free expression of opinion; thus the basic freedoms of trade spread through all areas of life, tending to break down social hierarchies and the grip of received ideas, creating more open, mobile and enterprising cultures. Liberty has always been the pride and rallying cry of powers enjoying maritime supremacy.

Territorial empires provide a mirror image: having grown by land conquest or dynastic marriage and absorbed different cultures and ethnic groups, their most fundamental drives have been to preserve internal unity and to protect and extend the external borders. They have necessarily developed centralized, authoritarian governments – absolute monarchies, directorates, dictatorships – supported by landholding warrior elites and professional bureaucracies. These have exhibited total incomprehension and contempt for the needs of trade and sound finance. Central control of trade and industry has often led to spectacular gains in desired directions, but has been accompanied by a general, cumulative uncompetitiveness, the cost of which has been borne by the citizens. Meanwhile the ideals of the nobility of the sword, or latterly ideologues, and the necessity for internal control have produced static, hierarchical societies in which expression of ideas has been curbed by censorship, tortures and imprisonment. In place of freedom, the rallying call of territorial empires has been to patriotism and glory.

As systems, supreme maritime and territorial powers are each of a piece: holistic, self-sustaining, inevitably conditioning their peoples in different views of society and political philosophy. While all great powers in the modern era have contained elements hostile to their basic character – territorial power groupings within maritime states, and vice versa – all have conformed distinctly to one or other opposing system. It is the clash of the two systems, both within states and between states and alliances, which has provided the underlying structure of modern history, and the success of the maritime system which has resulted in the dominance of Western power and assumptions – in essence merchant power and merchant needs over warriors, bureaucrats and ideological compulsions.

It has been suggested that these profound differences – or, more specifically, the exceptional character of the maritime powers in an age of European absolutism – may be explained by the great financial and organizational demands that navies place on the state. While absolute territorial monarchs were capable of the relatively simple task of mobilizing huge armies, the complexities of creating a supreme navy – by far the greatest industrial-bureaucratic organizations of the time – required consensual government involving, in the words of one leading naval historian, ‘maximum participation by those interest groups whose money and skills were indispensable to sea power … the shipowners and seafarers, the urban merchants and financiers, the industrial investors and managers … all the classes, in short, which absolutist government least represented and least favoured.’[5] This might be a description of merchant government; it is not an explanation for its development, since it is contradicted by the facts. The first results of the ‘naval revolution’, when ships grew larger and and mounted great guns on the broadside, were, like the contemporaneous ‘military revolution’ on land, to increase state bureaucracy and centralization under powerful monarchs.[6] Moreover, the fleets built under those archetypal absolute monarchs Louis XIV, XV and XVI of France were in general larger, better ship for ship, and more scientifically conceived and administered than those of their maritime rivals.

The reason territorial monarchs failed time after time against maritime powers was not that absolutist, non-consensual governments were incapable of building great fleets in peace – quite the reverse – but that they were unable to fund them in the crises of war. This was partly because they lacked the fiscal and financial institutions developed under the merchant governments of their maritime opponents (who could thereby raise more money more cheaply), but mainly because they were forced to divert resources from the fleet to their armies, to fight territorial rivals frequently financed by their maritime enemy from the profits of sea trade. By contrast, maritime powers in crisis invariably poured more funds into the navy to protect the commerce on which their very life depended.

Geography, then, appears to be the defining factor in the growth of both territorial and maritime power and their opposing systems of government. The primary concerns of Continental states like France, Austria and Brandenburg-Prussia were with land neighbours and the opportunities and threats they posed; maritime cities or states, on the other hand, enjoyed natural protection from their most powerful neighbours – usually in the form of sea or river moats – and were situated at the confluence of important trading routes. They lived or died by trade, and hence by the navy which protected their merchants’ ships and interdicted those of their opponents. Inevitably merchants took power in government and attempted to achieve a monopoly of violence at sea. The events leading to this outcome were contingent and unpredictable, driven by character and chance, but the outcome itself, by whatever circuitous, aberrant routes it may have come about, was determined by geography and, of course, the powerful compulsions common to all human societies.

This book details the struggles of the first supreme maritime powers of the modern age, the Dutch and the British, and ends with the emergence of their ultimate successor, the United States of America. By this this time the ground work had been done and the system had been established for the conquest of the world. Earlier maritime states had been supreme in particular seas, notably the Mediterranean. The greatest was the Venetian Republic, which engrossed the most valuable trades of the eastern Mediterranean and enjoyed a dazzling reputation for wealth, humanist thinkers, arts and a constitution based on tortuous checks to concentrated personal power. In the oceanic age which heralded Venice’s decline, the Dutch were the first to employ the same trading and financial skills to dominate the most lucrative trades of the world, becoming in their turn famed for wealth, humanist thinkers, arts and a constitution exemplifying diffused power. In this sense there has been a direct transfer of market and capital expertise and associated political values from Venice and the city states of the Renaissance, and before them Athens and the thalassocracies of the ancient world, to the Dutch and their British and American successors. The final stages of the process, when the British maritime empire gave way to the American, and democracy and women’s freedoms blossomed from the liberal ideal, require a further book. Mahan’s term ‘sea power’ has not been adopted here, since all great powers built navies and exerted a measure of power at sea; ‘maritime supremacy’ is used instead, to describe the mature system described above when trading, financial, industrial, in short merchant power prescribes the nature of government and permits (or dictates) the manifold expressions of a free society; when naval command is fundamental but just one manifestation of the whole.

In consequence, two distinct threads run through the book: on the one hand the ships, weapons, tactics, strategies and decisive sea battles with which the maritime powers overcame their territorial opponents – something rare in political or social histories; on the other hand a description of the effects wrought by trade and naval supremacy on government and society – something rare in naval histories. Yet neither thread is quite comprehensible without the other. (Pg.11)

WE&P by: EZorrllaM

“Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval campaigns that shaped the modern world, 1588-1782 (The Maritime Trilogy Book 1)” by Peter Padfield.