The Naval History Blog: No. 2

Why Does Naval History Matter?

As a student of history, I have often met with the question ‘but why does history matter?’ Naval history, a specialised and unique branch of academic study, is met with a stronger question about its relevance, even amongst historians, being dismissed as simply ships, scurvy and sea dogs. Naval history is so much more than that. The study of it matters because it helps us understand why the world is the way it is today; can indicate how national identities formed; helps us to further understand the human experience and can entertain, inspire and capture imaginations. The history of the navy is unique in the sense that not only is it multi-disciplinary but it connects people, cultures and countries from all over the world. This piece will specifically focus on naval history and Britain, a nation with arguably the strongest connection to its navy.

Figure 1: Anon., Neptune Supporting his Favourite Son Admiral Lord Nelson, 1806, Royal Museums Greenwich

Naval history, as Richard Harding argues, is “deeply embedded” [1]  into British and world history, as navies have been integral in shaping the modern world. Britain, as an island, “stood a tempting prospect to anyone with a warship or a fleet”[2] and has been under an almost constant threat of invasion from the Romans to the French. Part of Britain’s national identity therefore is that she, to a certain extent, withstood against the threat of invasion with the navy playing an integral role in this. The long eighteenth century saw the Royal Navy win successive victories, ensuring her dominance of the oceans, culminating in the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar meant that his navy had protected Britain from a French invasion – “now, Bonaparte! boast no more, landing upon our native shore” [3]. Figure 1 shows Neptune, the god of the sea, supporting his ‘favorite [sic] son’, thus implying that Nelson and Britain had both the control and symbolic respect of the sea. The way in which Nelson was mourned by a nation shows clearly the importance of the navy to British society and the respect for the “jovial, brave sailor”[4] . Going beyond simply surviving, Britain expanded and, despite her size, had one of the largest Empires the world has ever seen. The navy played a vital role in ensuring that Britain’s trade routes, ships and merchants were protected and helped in bringing new cultures and products to Britain. We can see therefore that the study of naval history matters because it integral and intertwined with the wider history of Britain and her Empire.

The British navy has had an enormous and valuable impact on British culture and has infiltrated its way into daily life. From curries to cups of tea, the navy has been instrumental in aiding merchant ships with bringing various produce and cultures to Britain which in turn have become ‘British’. Naval personnel too brought new elements to British culture and if we look particularly at naval slang, there are so many words and phrases from the navy that have entered the English language and remain in daily use including ‘square meal’ or ‘let the cat out of the bag’. Martin Robson in his ‘dictionary’ of naval slang argues that the continued study of naval history matters because it can act as a way of “bringing people together and helping to spread ideas, words, phrases and experiences”[5]. If we are on a daily basis making reference to naval history, then we can see how engrained it has become and how its study still matters.

Naval history still has a strong hold over the public imagination and continues to be “mimicked by writers of fiction, fantasy and obsession”[6]. In turn however, these works of fiction have influenced academic study. In 2003 the film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was released based on the popular series of novels by Patrick O’Brian. This relatively accurate film, vividly shows the day-to-day lives of the men who served in ‘Nelson’s navy’. Following the release of the film there was a surge in studies about Britain in the age of sail-from companion guides to Master and Commander to detailed descriptions of battles, biographies and life on a ship. A public interest in naval history subject keeps the subject alive and relevant; informs a wider audience and, as in my case, leads to people wanting to study it.

The emergence of ‘new naval history’ in the 1950s saw historians like N A M Rodger starting to “put naval affairs back into the history of Britain”[7], with new approaches and understandings, moving to a field of study that is all encompassing. The continued study of naval history is important as, argues Harding, there “are still very important gaps that need filling and debates to encourage from a range of perspectives”[8]. When compared to other areas of historical research naval history has been ‘left behind’ with historians seeing it as both limited and limiting. One area where naval history is catching up is in the study of the First World War, where the focus is largely on the Western front and the horrors of the trenches. The centenary commemorations have brought about new focuses on various aspects of the First World War including the role of the navy, highlighted by the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. There are other areas of academic study that can and need to be explored by naval historians, which will us to further understand the past and help to inform current debates and issues.

Through battles, wars, conflicts, explorations, trades, migration, technological advancements, social changes and industrial innovations, naval history has been integral in shaping the world. The academic study of it not only provides us with an understanding of the navy but is integral to understanding the history of Britain and can be used to explore a plethora of historical and academic disciplines. Its stories continue to entertain and inspire and we, as historians, must strive to conserve it, learn from it and tell its unique and fascinating stories.



[1] Richard Harding, Modern Naval History (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), Kindle edition, 145.

[2] Ben Wilson, Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy (London: Orion Publishing Group, 2013), Kindle edition, 424.

[3] Cited in: Charles Firth, ed., Naval Songs and Ballads (The Navy Records Society, 1908), 302.

[4] Tim Clayton and Sheila O’Connell, Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon (London: The British Museum, 2015), 152.

[5] Martin Robson, Not Enough Room to Swing a Cat: Naval Slang and its Everyday Use (London: Anova Books, 2008), 7.

[6] Harding, Modern Naval History, 173.

[7] N A M Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, 2006), 1xiii.

[8] Harding, Modern Naval History, 3149.



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