History Empire of the Deep by Ben Wilson | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on August 5th, 2013


Empire of the Deep: The Rise and Fall of the British Navy by Ben Wilson

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Blurb: The story of our navy is nothing less than the story of Britain, our culture and our empire. Much more than a parade of admirals and their battles, this is the story of how an insignificant island nation conquered the world’s oceans to become its greatest trading empire.

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Few other nations have fallen so deeply in love with a branch of the armed forces as the British did with its Navy. Yet, as Ben Wilson shows, there was nothing inevitable about this rise to maritime domination, nor was it ever an easy path. For much of our history Britain was a third-rate maritime power on the periphery of Europe. EMPIRE OF THE DEEP also reveals how our naval history has shaped us in more subtle and surprising ways – our language, culture, politics and national character all owe a great debt to this conquest of the seas. This is a gripping, fresh take on our national story.

(Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013)

Alan Judd, The Spectator 

“Part of the value of Ben Wilson’s excellent account is that he shows how exceptional those decades of nautical dominance were during the long run of Britain’s relations with the troubled seas around her coasts; also, how our present diminished state has brought us back full circle to our period of greatest naval weakness in the Middle Ages … [A] fascinating and thought-provoking account.”

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Sam Willis, Telegraph

“One of our finest young historians … With such a variety of peaks and troughs to choose from, this book can only generate discussion: it is, in its essence, a book about rise and fall that explodes the notion of rise and fall. It is a wonderful book because it does not tell you the answer from on high but, instead, it asks the question: what do you think?”

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Paul Kennedy, The Times

“In presenting in a single though hefty volume the whole sweep of Britain’s naval history from the early Saxons to the latest dismal Defence Review, the author seems to have done a very good job indeed. If, like this reviewer, your knowledge of the country’s maritime development begins with Henry VIII’s top-heavy galleons of the 1530s, the accounts here of the Saxon v Viking sea wars, medieval commerce and Anglo-French contests in the Channel make for a good and fresh read … But will Empire of the Deep succeed in stirring national consciousness about the importance of the sea to Britain? One doubts it.”

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Andrew Lambert, The Sunday Times

“After the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the City of London gripped the levers of command, making the navy the primary instrument for the security and expansion of the trade that made Britain great. After this, and after Nelson and Trafalgar, the 20th century was always going to be a disappointment. At this point, Wilson’s book loses momentum, and the later chapters reflect resources skimmed but not mastered. The hard slog through two world wars lacks the insight and sparkle of earlier centuries and the Battle of the Atlantic, possibly the navy’s most important victory, is wrapped up in dubious generalities. Although occasionally “at sea” on the finer points of ships and stars, Wilson’s mastering of 1,500 years of naval history is, nevertheless, no small achievement.”

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Stephen Taylor, New Statesman

“Wilson tackles this formidable canvas with zeal and spirit. He is strong on strategy and analysis, yet also throws himself into the great battle scenes … Yet there was so much more to the navy than battle … Wilson acknowledges that ending slavery was one of the navy’s most noble battles, yet he finds scant space for it and fails to mention that it took the lives of almost 17,000 British seamen, mainly by disease. (The number killed at Trafalgar was 459.) More seriously, he fails to examine in any depth a thread running through the narrative. The navy may have produced great commanders and ships but they would never have stirred from port but for the common seaman … Jack Tar’s contribution to naval supremacy is barely addressed here.”

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