Lambert, Andrew. War at Sea in the Age of Sail, 1650-1850.

London: Cassell, 2000.

My father was an Iowa farm boy whose family moved to San Diego (more congenial winters) and though he became a career army officer, he developed a lifelong taste for sea stories. When I was in junior high, I discovered his shelf of Hornblower novels and worked my way straight through them. I didn’t understand most of the jargon, of course, so I was often unsure exactly what was happening. That sparked my own interest in naval history, strategy, and battle tactics, which continues unabated. And I have a much better grasp these days of what’s going on when O’Brian or Stockwin describes a maneuver. Books like this one are a lifesaver for fans of naval historicals, but few are so well organized and well written.

(Cassell has been publishing a better-than-average series, “The Cassell History of Warfare,” edited by John Keegan, and Lambert himself is Professor of Naval History at King’s College, so it’s reasonable to have high expectations of this volume.) Lambert begins by setting the stage — the role of sea power in the development of an island nation, the use of deterrence and the extension of naval power onto land, the place of increased industrialization in designing and creating the physical navy. Then he lays out the theory and function of ship design — the different sizes of vessel and details of their designs for very specific functions, the necessity of which landlubbers often are not even aware of. Then he embarks on a chronological exploration of the Golden Age of sail, from the Anglo-Dutch wars (naval power as a tool of international commercial rivalry), through the Seven Years War, the American War (as it’s often known to the British), and the Napoleonic wars, to the advent of steam. The French navy had its day in the sun, as did Russia to a lesser degree (Peter the Great’s Baltic fleet of Venetian-style galleys wasa an odd deviation from the general course of naval history), but Britain came to the fore with the beginnings of truly global conflicts in the early 18th century. And for most of the following century, Britannia really did rule the waves. In fact, some reviewers have carped on the Anglo-centrism of this book, but it seems justified by history. Lambert walks a well-judged line between academic and popular history; there are no footnotes, but he assumes intelligence and a certain amount of fundamental knowledge on the part of the reader. There’s an abundance of illustrations, mostly of a useful size, including period paintings and engravings, detailed diagrams of key naval engagements (some of them a bit difficult to read because of over-colorization), and a few photos of surviving ships and equipment. A not terribly expensive, slightly oversized volume that any student of naval history or fan of Jack Aubrey should consider.

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Published in: on 26 January 2010 at 11:07 am  Leave a Comment  

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