Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World

Duncan Redford looks at the navy’s influence on the nation – and the world  

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Reviewed by: Duncan Redford
Author: Brian Lavery
Publisher: Conway
Price (RRP): £20

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Admiral Sir Jonathan Band, the former first sea lord – the professional head of the Royal Navy – complained in 2009 that the British and especially their politicians were suffering from a malaise called “sea blindness”. This unpleasant disease has, over the last decade or so, caused the British to overlook trivialities such as Britain being an island that is almost totally reliant on the sea to transport its imports and exports.

Brian Lavery’s very interesting book Empire of the Seas was written to accompany the BBC series. It is a very timely reminder of how important both the sea and the Royal Navy have been to Britain. This beautifully illustrated book takes the reader through the story of the Royal Navy from the time of the Spanish Armada to the end of the First World War. Lavery’s narrative and easy, readable style shows the reader just how important the navy was, not just in the obvious way of defending Britain from invasion, but also in numerous other ways that can be easily overlooked or forgotten. After all, the Royal Navy – with the help of people like Samuel Pepys – gave Britain the start of modern government departments and the basis of the civil service. Furthermore, the navy helped Britain into the machine age with the development of mass production techniques in the dockyards; it also encouraged exploration, science and industry. It led the way in the suppression of the slave trade – an activity that was still going on in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea well after the First World War. Along the way, Brian Lavery provides illuminating side stories about a wide range of naval issues, life on board ship, discipline, navigation, technology and personalities, giving the book great colour and personality.

The only serious criticism that I can make of this book is that stops too soon – it doesn’t take the Royal Navy’s story forward from the end of the First World War to beyond the Second World War in order to demonstrate the changes in the Royal Navy over the last 50 years. 

At the same time, some of the photos of Dan Snow working alone on various shipboard tasks don’t convey the sheer numbers, brute force or teamwork needed to work or fight a warship. But these are relatively minor criticisms of a book that expertly discusses the Royal Navy and how it influenced the development of modern Britain.

This is an excellent book, readable yet informed and underpinned by Brian Lavery’s expertise as one of the best naval historians in Britain, if not the world. Buy the book and remember why Britain needs the Royal Navy; a navy that gave her prestige and influence.  

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Dr Duncan Redford is Leverhulme early career fellow, University of Exeter