The British Seaborne Empire

John MacKenzie samples two new works on the maritime history of Britain.

John MacKenzie | Published in

Captain Peter Hore


ISBN 0283073128


The British, as Bill Bryson once noted, have a curious habit of driving to the coast, parking by the beach, and looking wistfully out to sea. Since I lived by the seaside for thirty years, I can confirm this from personal observation. The British also take, proportionately, more cruising holidays than any other people. Ships of the P&O, Fred Olsen, Saga, Cunard, Swan Hellenic and more are packed full of British ‘seafarers’ experiencing voyages as comfortable tourists where their Royal Navy, merchant marine, and emigrant forebears did it for real. Although the central cultural and social significance of the navy, not to mention the economic importance of shipbuilding and mercantile shipping, may have declined in the final decades of the twentieth century, the British have not entirely abandoned their love affair with the sea.


These two books deal with the ‘special relationship’ between the British and the oceans of the world in very different yet complementary ways. Back in the 1960s, a series of magisterial works on the seaborne empires appeared, notably The Dutch Seaborne Empire, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire (both by Charles Boxer) and The Spanish Seaborne Empire by J.H. Parry. The companion volume on the British Seaborne Empire never appeared and it would seem that Jeremy Black now seeks to plug that gap. As it happens, the centrality of the word ‘seaborne’ in all these titles has tended to suggest that empires by definition involve overseas conquest and trade. This neatly lets the Russians and the Americans off the hook, leading to much confusion about the nature of empires. We should remember that the Roman and Ottoman Empires were only partially seaborne while the Mughal was entirely land-based.


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