Andrew Lambert on naval history

Andrew Lambert est le « Laughton Professor of Naval History » au sein du département des War Studies, King’s College London. L’un des plus grands historiens navals au monde, il est spécialiste de l’histoire navale et de la grande stratégie britannique au XIX° siècle. Il nous parle de ses recherches, ainsi que des directions de l’histoire navale.

In your view, what are the main defining features of the British strategy in the XIX° century?

During the XIX° century, the British have achieved global sea control. As a result of the Vienna and Gent treaties in 1814-1815, the British have retained the ability to use the sea against their opponents. The American, the French, the Russians… wanted the British to change their rules about the use of the seas, but the British managed to keep the way they conducted war at sea. The territories the British gain after the Napoleonic wars are miniscule (Corfu, Malta, Helgoland…), but are strategic chokepoints. This is the enduring difference between the British and the other empires: the British have control of the ocean and see the world through the sea. By the second half of the XIX° century, the British control global trade and they extract the resources necessary to maintain the empire. The story of the XIX° century is the story of how the British managed to establish and maintain their control of the sea.

British strategy is very much about deterrence and positioning. A lot of people who write about the British Empire confuse the size of the empire by 1914 (with the seizure of India for example) with core British policy aims. British policy was to avoid letting any other country controlling strategic chokepoints, because it would have been dangerous for the British. If we take Egypt, for example, the British never wanted to control the country. They would have been perfectly happy to simply control the canal, but it was not possible, so they seized the country… If you read British political discourses between 1815 and 1914, most British politicians do not want more empire. In fact, they want less empire: and as soon as a bit of the empire is ready to rule itself, they let it go (Australia, Canada, New Zealand…). What the British want is the Commonwealth, a global network of sympathetic countries.

Understanding how this organization works is fascinating. A lot of work I have been doing recently has been to try to explore the cultural aspects of this imperial project. It is all too easy to forget that the people we are studying were human beings, reading the newspaper, going to the church, etc. I explore the moment when the British realized that their empire was different from other empires: they start to get the Greeks, they start to get Venice, they start to get a sense of the Portuguese, but mostly they look at Carthage. The analogy with Carthage begins with the Napoleonic wars, when Napoleon was presenting his empire as the new Rome, and the British presented themselves as a new, and this time victorious, Carthage.

As an historian, I think you need to understand the people, as well as the organizations, this is why my late research involved a great deal of biographic activities.

You have written an authoritative biography of Nelson, in which you write that he went through a « transfiguration » process after his death at Trafalgar. What is Nelson’s importance in today’s British identity?

Nelson fought and died to save everything about Britain. This is why he is such a hero. He is a conservative genius. He fights to save the constitution, the King, the country, the Church: all the things he grew up with, he’s fighting for. On the opposite, Napoleon is fighting to change everything. These two enormous figures represent different ways to think about the world: stability and change, certainty and chaos, tradition and revolution. Nelson represents the ultimate “Britishness”, fighting and making the ultimate sacrifice for his country at a time we’re only becoming British (and no more Scots, English, Welsh, etc.) because of Napoleon.

You have also worked on Franklin, a scientific navigator, and his legacy. You seem to be interested in how people become heroes.

Most biographies have this annoying habit to finish when the subject dies. But a critical aspect is to explore what happens next: we remember people because of the way they were re-imagined after they died. For example, Nelson was mythologized this way. He was branded the “Butcher of Naples” (although historical evidences dismiss this ridiculous title), and this almost sounds as a Greek tragedy. The hero rises, makes a mistake and falls, to rises again and become this quasi-divine figure: don’t forget that Nelson is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral. He was a man of enormous strategic genius, who could understand the role of campaigns and battles to deliver strategic effects. There is nothing “bottom-up” about him: he always thinks “top-down”. When he know he is going to win, he makes sure to win in the most effective way to secure the diplomatic and political objectives. He became a hero because of his genius and because he was the man Britain needed.

It is the same with Franklin. He was wrongly pictured as an explorer by his grieving widow, who did not understand that he was in fact a scientific navigator, who enormously contributed to our understanding of scientific phenomena at sea. The greatness of Franklin was not in finding things, but in his contribution to the study of the relationship between the earth’s magnetic fields and navigation. He is a far greater man if you see him in that light.

I wrote these biographies because it is fascinating to see how different epochs see and construct their heroes: it tells a lot about their culture, priorities and identities. How we think about the past is extremely important, and military historians tend to do less of that because there is always something interesting to study: a battle, a campaign, a war… But I do find that the construction of the past is an essential aspect of our activity: I want to know how we got where we are. It is very easy to find evidence, the difficulty is to know what evidences mean.

What are the new fields of research for naval history?

Naval history has always been trying to reinvent itself, and many naval historians think that finding new fields is the answer. I think we should never forget that we are primarily talking to an audience of military professionals. You cannot divorce the subject from the audience. If we are not talking to navies, we miss the plot. Talking to the military helps you understand the “long term” aspects of a military organization, something that is fruitful for your research. But you must never forget that you come with a specific expertise, being a military historian, and that your research has to be as professional as possible. We use specific professional tools (historical research) to teach another profession (the military), and we must never lose sight of the two worlds we evolve in. I think every military historian should have an experience in teaching the services.

We also need to ask bigger question about how navies fit into the construction of states, why is it that maritime states have democracies and centralized economies much earlier than other states. The Dutch, the Swedes, the British had to sustain extremely expensive navies, and this had an effect on the formation of the state.

We need to be more confident and assertive, and show the importance of our research. I think, for me, the main question is how all these aspects fit together and help explain why this country [Britain] is different from any other country. We have always been a maritime country, and we see the world through the sea. This is why we cannot blend into a European project: seen from Berlin, Vienna or Paris, the world is what is beyond a land masse. Seen from Britain, we just go round Europe to access world trade. With the current crisis, it could be that NATO will evolve (we don’t have to defend continental Europe any more) and a new line will divide maritime country (Sweden, Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands…) and continental countries.


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