The Naval History Blog: No. 1

Why Does Naval History Matter?

The first question to consider before approaching a response to why naval history matters is: why does any history matter? Before the professionalization of the field in the nineteenth century, the answer to this question seemed fairly obvious; historians “took it for granted that history furnished the basis for a rational analysis of politics.”[1] As the field progressed, however, the implicit assumption that historical study provided practical guidance for the policymaker lost its shine. In place of that justification, a range of answers has emerged.  Among the most compelling of these answers is that historical study allows us to place events and behaviour in a broader context such that we may more fully understand them—that, while history’s predictive power is certainly weaker than the traditionalists believed, we can still use it to identify processes and question assumptions in a way that bears usefully on the modern world.[2]

Behind and within the range of answers that have been provided lies a second question: why does naval history matter to whom? Naval history has traditionally enjoyed a unique placement among fields of historical study “because of its schizophrenic character as a tool for naval education that relied on academic methods.”[3] Naval history matters for different reasons to different audiences; John Hattendorf has posited that within the United States there are “four distinct audiences, each of which requires different approaches, levels of understanding, and vantage points.”[4] So the answer to the question differs for naval officers, strategists, and decision makers on the one hand and for the general public and academic historians on the other hand.

With that distinction in mind, I argue that naval history matters for three broad reasons: as a body of experience for the professional study of naval operations; as a key area for insight into the formation of national identities; and as a means for understanding the formation and operation of large institutions, and how the development of those institutions bears on state formation and activity.

First, history offers a body of evidence and catalogue of experiences for naval officers and strategists seeking to derive lessons and principles for professional conduct in the present day. Indeed, the development of the field at its inception was animated by this very search, which endures as perhaps the most obvious function of naval history – at least in professional military settings – into the twenty-first century. Even today, a particular sort of didactic history provides the basis for lessons in operational art and tactical leadership in professional military education institutions like the U.S. Naval War College. Historical study of this kind gave rise to the navalist movement in the Anglo-American world that grew at the close of the nineteenth century to inform national strategy, but according to Andrew Lambert, “Mahan’s historical endorsement of battlefleet-based ‘Sea Power’ at the United States Naval War College is only the best known example of a process that affected every contemporary naval history.”[5] The historical narratives that formed out of these processes are being supplemented and questioned today. [6]

One of the ways naval history has usefully spread out from its original preoccupation with operational concerns is in its consideration of navies’ contribution to the construction of national identities. This is perhaps clearest of all in popular British history; any schoolchild could tell you that Britain is a maritime nation, that the wooden walls of the Royal Navy have kept the nation free from the defeat of the Armada down to the Battle of the Atlantic. Nicholas Rodger has brilliantly illustrated the roots of this “myth of sea-power”, present already in the Elizabethan period.[7] The narratives that feed the construction of national identities like this one are informed by historical study—and the work of professional historians has been critical to identifying, over the last several decades, that national identities are indeed constructed, as “the product of a conscious, evolving process … in which historians are deeply complicit.”[8] The explicit identification and analysis of this process is one of the more valuable contributions of naval history to the historical profession at large, because “the past is critical to our sense of identity … [and] will inform our decisions about the future.”[9]

In addition to giving unique insight into the formation of national identities, naval history offers excellent opportunities to learn about the operation of large institutions and to consider how those institutions play a role in state formation and development. Scholars of the ‘new’ naval history have analysed institutional details of the Royal Navy of the 18th century, particularly in the areas of administration, logistics, manpower, and technological development.[10] These deep studies give greater insight into how the institution and its various parts worked, and how it interfaced with other government organisations and with senior decision makers—and have provided good raw material for analysis of organisational behaviour.[11] Navies are particularly suited for this sort of study because they have left behind vast stores of documentary evidence.[12] Studies of this kind have given rise to higher-level consideration of the effects of large institutions like navies on state development. As scholars have emphasized the significance of navies as institutions and particularly their impact on state finance, including the huge proportion of government revenues that were devoted to the eighteenth century British navy, the concept of a “fiscal-naval state” has emerged in competition with the “fiscal-military state” as an explanatory mechanism.[13]

Naval history, then, is not simply a collection of operational histories that form the domain of technical specialists within modern navies. In the last decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, the field has expanded and strengthened and now, in addition to providing valuable tools for the professional officer or strategist, it offers significant insights and perspectives for the historical profession more broadly.



[1] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 6th ed. (London: Routledge, 2015), 36.

[2] Tosh, The Pursuit, 29-36

[3] A.D. Lambert, “The Construction of Naval History 1815-1914,” The Mariner’s Mirror 97, no 1 (2011): 217.

[4] John B. Hattendorf, “The Uses of Maritime History in and for the Navy,” Naval War College Review LVI, 2 (2003): 22.

[5] Lambert, “The Construction”, 208.

[6] Richard Harding, Seapower and Naval Warfare, 1650-1830 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999); Harding, Modern Naval History: Debates and Prospects (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 4-8; Roger Knight, “Changing the Agenda: The ‘New’ Naval History of the British Sailing Navy,” The Mariner’s Mirror 97, no 1 (2011): 225-227.

[7] N.A.M. Rodger, “Queen Elizabeth and the Myth of Sea-Power in English History,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 14 (2004): 153-174.

[8] Lambert, “The Construction”, 219.

[9] Lambert, “The Construction”, 221.

[10] Knight, “Changing the Agenda,” 228.

[11]For example, see Christian Bucket, The British Navy, Economy, and Society in the Seven Years War (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013); R.J.B. Knight and Martin Howard Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy, and the Contractor State (Rochester: Boydell Press, 2010); and especially Janet McDonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, 1793-1815: Management Competence and Incompetence (Rochester: Boydell Press, 2010).

[12]Harding, Modern Naval History, 10; Knight, “Changing the Agenda,” 228.

[13] Knight, “Changing the Agenda,” 236-7.


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