Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization - Steven Solomon (2010)
Part II. Water and the Ascendancy of the West
Chapter 8. The Voyages of Discovery and the Launch of the Oceanic Era
The seaborne fusion of Europe’s disparate northern and Mediterranean resources into a coherent, market-driven, maritime civilization comprised of many autonomous, competing states set the stage for one of history’s epochal turning points—the advent of transoceanic sailing. Europe’s Voyages of Discovery were highlighted by three breakthrough trips in the 1490s scarcely noticed at the time by the rest of the world—Christopher Columbus to Central America, Vasco da Gama around the coast of Africa to India, and John Cabot from England to Newfoundland in North America—that crowned a century of sea exploration by suddenly decrypting the secret code of trade winds and sea currents of the Atlantic Ocean to enable them to sail to and fro across Earth’s open oceans. In so doing they converted what had always been Europe’s impenetrable, storm-tossed water barrier into a dynamic navigational advantage that launched Western civilization on its historic path to global supremacy. Within only a quarter century of the Atlantic voyages, one of Ferdinand Magellan’s ships completed history’s first round-the-world trip. In his 1776 The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith heralded Columbus’s discovery of America and da Gama’s passage to India as no less than “the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind.”
The Atlantic opening ushered in the modern era in which sea power and control of the world’s sea-lanes eclipsed the importance of dominion over the land as the preeminent key to global power and wealth. The new sea-centered world system bound all the regions of the planet more closely together and created a web of international communication and maritime trade that has continually thickened and tightened in space and time into today’s integrated global economy. Although the new era started around 1500, its long-term trajectories did not become clear among the world’s leading civilizations for about two centuries. No civilization gained more than the West, whose maritime position on the Atlantic and superior naval power, often spurred by market economic forces, gave it access to the world’s choicest sea trade superhighways. Whenever land-centered civilizations had broken beyond their frontier boundaries across narrow bodies of water or open plains or deserts, their expansions generally had been regional. Likewise, changes in control of axial sea routes in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean mainly fomented realignments of regional power relations. But the global oceanic opening, by contrast, catapulted Europeans as an irresistible power that reordered world power balances for the next half millennium.
The fitting symbol of Europe’s maritime fusion and its momentous Atlantic breakthrough was the caravel, a small Portuguese vessel that was first launched upon the seas in the first half of the fifteenth century. About 70 feet long, displacing only 50 tons, and manned by a small, 20-man crew with minimal supply needs, the caravel had been specially designed for exploration. It had an internal sternpost rudder and a sturdy, lap-jointed, rounded hull whose flatish bottom allowed it to put in at shallows and other perilous shores. The ship had three masts, often two with square sails for power and one lateen or triangular sail that facilitated nimble maneuvering through headwinds which crucially assured explorers that they had a reasonable chance of returning home as they ventured into the unknown currents and wind systems of the ocean. Both Columbus’s and da Gama’s fleets included caravels.
The caravel married features of both northern and Mediterranean vessels and sailing traditions. Geographically, Portugal made a natural midwife. With its fabulous natural harbor of Lisbon on continental Europe’s westernmost point of land as well as other good Atlantic harbors linked to navigable rivers, Portugal had prospered as a port of call for the coast-hugging Flanders Fleet. Without a window on the Mediterranean, and constantly menaced by large neighbors on the Iberian Peninsula that were coalescing into Spain, moreover, Portugal’s survival and wealth hinged extraordinarily upon its ability to exploit the ocean. For two centuries from 1385, when its independence was secured with the help of an alliance with England, to 1580 when King Philip II successfully asserted Spanish hegemony over it, tiny Portugal had an outsized effect on world history through its pioneering of the Age of Discovery, and its ocean-crossing caravel.
The caravel’s inspirational spirit was one of history’s intriguing, idiosyncratic individuals, Prince Henry the Navigator. The third son of the king of Portugal and his English queen, the tall, blond-haired Prince Henry, then in his mid-twenties, in 1418 set up what amounted to the world’s first scientific research institute. It was dedicated to pure discovery and sea exploration through uncharted Atlantic waters down the African coast to unknown lands. Until his death in 1460, his fortress atop the promontory at Sagres at Portugal’s southern tip was home to the age’s most knowledgeable assortment of sea captains, pilots, cartographers, astronomers, mathematicians, ship instrument makers, shipbuilders and other experts, all collaboratively guided by a scientific methodology unusual for the age and rare to that point in human history. Muslim astronomers and Jewish cartographers escaping religious persecution in Spain, master mariners from Genoa and Venice, German and Scandinavian merchants, visiting world travelers, and even African tribesmen, pooled their knowledge and observations. Henry’s experts systematically mapped what they learned of the Atlantic and its coasts, devised methods to measure latitudes, and in general accumulated as much concrete information about the known world as possible. Every year Henry’s ships were sent out on exploratory missions to bring back logbooks and charts filled with new data and observations, which were used to fill in the maps and help with planning new voyages.
In the spirit of the dawning age of the Renaissance, Henry’s chief purpose was the quest for pure knowledge and discovery for its own sake. But Henry, who lived a monkish existence and is said to have died a virgin, also possessed the crusading zeal of the passing age to find the rumored lost Christian kingdoms of Prester John in East Africa. A third, initially lesser, motivation was the passion for commercial wealth stirring throughout Europe. Henry and his countrymen were tantalized by the prospect of finding the original sources of the gold, ivory and slaves that were brought by middlemen from Africa and the peppers, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and other luxuries from the Indian Ocean that might be reachable by circumnavigating Africa’s cape. Indeed, public support for Henry’s unorthodox enterprise at Sagres, as well as the pace of voyages, picked up dramatically after 1444, when one of Henry’s explorers returned with 200 African slaves—Europe’s first direct involvement in the African slave trade.
The circumnavigation and coastal exploration of Africa had been attempted, in both directions, many times over the course of history. The most famous voyage, recounted by Herodotus, was commissioned by Egyptian King Neko around 600 BC after the oracle had warned him off completing his canal linking the Red Sea to the Nile and the Mediterranean. Neko outfitted a Phoenician crew that in a spectacular voyage sailed south through the Red Sea, around Africa, up the west coast, and returned through the Pillars of Hercules three years later. The only problem was that it probably never happened. Scholars believe that such a voyage was perfectly feasible—indeed, circumnavigating Africa from east to west is technically easier than the reverse—but there is no supporting evidence and most important, it left no historical legacy if it did happen. Other east African coast explorers included the Greek Ptolemies who succeeded Alexander the Great and got as far as the Horn of Africa and figured out that the source of the Blue Nile lay in the Abyssinian highlands of modern Ethiopia. Greek sailors in Roman times reached Pemba and Zanzibar, while Roman military explorers, sent inland along the Nile to do reconnaissance for a contemplated, deep African invasion, reached the Sudd swamps and Lake Victoria. Muslim dhows went all the way south to Mozambique, but never pushed on to the unknown lands beyond the much-feared sea passage between Madagascar and the mainland.
Voyagers sailing south along the Atlantic likewise had limited success mastering Africa’s western coast. The most celebrated and well-recorded was the voyage of Carthage’s Hanno, who successfully established African coast colonies sometime in the fifth century BC. Precisely how far Hanno got is still a matter of dispute, but by most reckonings he reached the crocodile-infested waters of the Senegal River and beyond to Sierra Leone, and turned back before reaching the searing heat and stagnant currents of the Gulf of Guinea. Less successful was the Persian explorer Sataspes, who explained to an unsympathetic King Xerxes that he had been unable to complete his mandate to circumnavigate Africa because his ships had simply stopped while his men were attacked by hostile natives when they put in at shore: Xerxes, who had mandated Sataspes’ venture in reprieve of his death sentence for violating one of the court ladies, promptly had him impaled. A Greek explorer of the late second century BC managed to get only partway down the coast of Morocco. Nor did Muslim merchants a thousand years later risk the many hazards of west coast exploration while their camel caravans already enjoyed a trade monopoly with the sub-Saharan kingdoms of west Africa. Without question, sailing Africa’s Atlantic coast was dangerous, as the Vivaldi brothers of Genoa discovered in 1291 when they outfitted two galleys filled with merchant wares for trading, made it partway down the coast, and then disappeared without a trace.
So difficult was the circumnavigation feat that by late antiquity Greek writers had concluded that doing so was simply impossible—the heat was too great, the waters of the Atlantic too windless, muddy, shallow, and choked with seaweed to be sailed. Thus little was known of the western shores of Africa when Henry the Navigator, enthused by the budding European revival of Greek knowledge, Herodotus’ story about the Phoenicians’ circumnavigation of Africa for Pharaoh Neko, and the rediscovery of treatises like Ptolemy’s, determined to undertake his explorations to open an Atlantic sea route to India. Yet the revival of classical knowledge also reconjured Greek terrors of the Atlantic, including the belief that at a certain point the waters coagulated so that ships became stuck and sailors could never return home.
Overcoming these Greek-inspired fears posed at least as daunting a challenge to fulfillment of Henry’s dream as the physical challenge itself. Among the gargantuan psychological barriers in the minds of Henry’s mariners was Cape Bojador, just south of the Canary Islands on the northwest coast of Africa. Henry’s explorers believed that the waters beyond this small cape, a barely noticeable bump on today’s map of Africa, were so shallow and rife with treacherous currents and winds that no ship could return from it. To conquer Cape Bojador, Henry sent out 15 expeditions between 1424 and 1434, enticing captains with the promise of great rewards to push ever farther. Always they returned before passing the dreaded cape, until one finally veered boldly westward into the open ocean and then south, to find that he had successfully rounded the cape. Once the psychological barrier of Bojador was overcome, it was merely a matter of time before the rest of the African coast yielded to Prince Henry’s systematic scientific methodology and explorations. By the time of Henry’s death in 1460, Portuguese ships had passed Cape Verde near the mouths of the rich Senegal and Gambia rivers and reached as far as modern Sierra Leone. Fittingly, that was the year of the birth of Vasco da Gama, the man who would fulfill Henry’s dream of circumnavigating Africa and in the process crack the Atlantic’s final enigmas and inaugurate the great age of cross-ocean sailing.
In contrast to the navigationally simpler, reversing seasonal monsoons that governed sailing back and forth across the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic’s predominant feature was three large trade wind systems that blew in the same direction all year round. The central trade wind system blew west toward the Caribbean from northwest Africa and in the summertime, to the great natural advantage of Portugal and Spain, as far north as the Iberian Peninsula where Henry’s mariners easily gained access to it. Farther south, after passing through nearly windless latitudes called the Doldrums, was a second trade wind system that blew steadily from Africa toward South America. In the far north was a third belt of trades blowing west toward the New World, that in spring offered a brief, easterly moving wind that enabled an easy return sail home at the latitude of Britain. Beyond the trade wind systems, at extreme latitudes in both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, were countervailing west-to-east wind systems; in the far south at the 40 degree latitudes they led around the African coast into the Indian Ocean with such strength that mariners called them the “Roaring Forties.” Cutting across and interlinking the trade wind system were several strong sea currents, notably the warm Gulf Stream flowing from the Caribbean to northwestern Europe, and in South America, the southerly flowing Brazil Current. “Considered as a whole,” writes historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, “the wind system resembles a code of interlocking ciphers. Once part of it was cracked…the solution of the rest followed rapidly.”
The three breakthrough voyages of the 1490s finally unraveled the interlocking Atlantic codes that Prince Henry and his successors had been trying to decipher for decades. Genoese captain Columbus’s second Atlantic crossing for Spain in 1493 established viable routes outbound and home across the central Atlantic. Sailing for England, fellow Italian John Cabot’s 1497 round-trip between Bristol, England and Newfoundland, Canada utilized the briefly available spring westerly later much exploited by the British colonizers of North America. Finally, and most important, Portuguese da Gama’s 1497–1499 round-trip from Lisbon around the Cape of Africa to India revealed the secrets of the wind and current system of the South Atlantic, which ultimately girdled the globe. Once European sailors had broken the navigation codes of the storm-tossed Atlantic, all the world’s seas suddenly became penetrable by their sturdy ships. With it came monopoly access to the wealth of the New World and an alternative, cheaper, and faster all-water route to India and the Spice Islands. The Voyages of Discovery crowned Europe’s transformation into history’s first, world-straddling maritime civilization.
After Henry’s death, the commercial allure of Africa was sufficiently tangible for the Portuguese king to be able to lease monopoly rights on the Guinea trade in gold, ivory, slaves, and pepper to a wealthy Lisbon citizen, Fernao Gomes, in exchange for a promise of further exploration and a state share in his profits. Within five years, Gomes’s profit-seeking sailors had explored a length of the African coast equal to the distance covered by Henry the Navigator in thirty years. By 1481 the economic rewards of exploration were so great, and the risk of failing so reduced, that the king granted the trading and exploration franchise to his own son, who himself soon became King John II and vigorously carried on Prince Henry’s legacy. In retrospect Henry the Navigator’s research institute effectively proved to be as much a precocious landmark in Europe’s evolving political economic marriage between private markets and governments as it was a scientific prototype. The state, in the person of Prince Henry, effectively underwrote the front-end cost of the speculative, basic research until commercially profitable returns became foreseeable enough to attract private risk capital for further targeted development. Once actual profits materialized, entrepreneurs and governments equitably apportioned the new wealth between themselves through politically negotiated tax rates, lease fees, and other revenue-sharing arrangements. This model was very similar to the pattern of government-funded research in the West to the present day.
Europe went to the cusp of its maritime breakthrough in February 1488 when two caravels of Portuguese captain Bartholomew Diaz rounded Africa’s southernmost Cape of Good Hope. If not for a rebellion among his crew after a terrible storm, Diaz would have continued on as the first European to sail into the Indian Ocean. His reluctant return to Lisbon harbor in December 1488 instead shaped a dramatic twist in the course of European history. By riveting King John II’s energies on the singular ambition of a follow-up trip that would yield for Portugal the grand prize of the all-water route to India, Diaz’s voyage promulgated the king’s final rejection of a proposal by Christopher Columbus, who had been entreating the sovereign and his experts since 1484, for funds to sail westward across the Atlantic, where he believed India lay at a distance no more than the length of the Mediterranean Sea. King John II’s experts were far more correct than Columbus in reckoning the actual, much-farther distance to India. Nevertheless, Columbus’s blind faith and perseverance withstood further rejections by England and France until 1492 when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain agreed at the last moment to outfit his voyage into the western unknown in celebration of their decisive triumph at Granada over the last Islamic stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula. His three ships departed on August 3, 1492—on the very same tide that carried away many emigrating Jews on the deadline date of their expulsion by the Spanish Inquisition—and sighted the islands of the West Indies two and half months later on October 12. Columbus returned to the New World a year later with a 17-ship fleet and 1,500 people to establish the first of many permanent Spanish settlements.
The far-reaching impacts of Spain’s sweep through the New World are well recorded by history. Armed with muskets, and unknowingly with far-deadlier European diseases like smallpox and measles, Spanish conquistadores decimated the native Amerindian populations they encountered, reducing their number from about 25 million to only a few million within a century. The disease-enfeebled Aztec empire in Central America fell to them between 1519 and 1522; the South American Inca gave way between 1531 and 1535. By 1513 the Pacific was reached across land, some six years before Magellan’s ships set sail from Spain on the first round-the-world sea voyage. Soon Spanish galleons were sailing the Pacific Ocean, and serving colonies that stretched from the Rio Grande on the modern Mexican-U.S. border to the River Plate dividing modern Uruguay and Argentina. While Spanish vessels discovered vital New World foodstuffs such as potatoes, corn, and squash that provided a huge boon to European population growth and health over the long run, the Spaniards’ overwhelming obsession was gold and silver, which began to be exported home to the Old World in vast quantities during the 1530s. At Columbus’s parting, King Ferdinand purportedly exhorted, “Get gold, humanely if possible, but at all hazards—get gold.” High up in the Andes, at over 13,000 feet, the Spanish discovered a veritable silver mountain at Potosí, which filled its treasury and tempted its ambitions for many decades. Water-powered mills to crush the silver ores were introduced in the 1570s, fed by an expanding network of storage dams and feeder canals to turn the waterwheels. In 1626 one of the dams collapsed, doing so much damage that the then-declining mining operation never recovered to full capacity and striking a powerful blow against the Spanish economy.
New World bullion transformed Spain into a rich and powerful state and helped launch its Habsburg monarchs, Charles V and his son Philip II, on their overweening quest to unify Europe as a Catholic region under their political aegis; this in turn helped stir a long period of religious and political wars and conflicts critical to the forging of modern Western society. The influx of so much bullion into the European monetary economy also fueled a great continental inflation in which prices rose three to four times by the end of the sixteenth century. The ironic, unintended net result of this inflation was a stealthy redistribution of wealth that hastened the rise of northern Europe with its bourgeois tradesmen, sea merchants, and private capitalists who could respond fastest to rising prices and unsettled the static economic and class relationships underpinning traditional, land-based aristocratic societies, including Spain itself.
To prevent Columbus’s discovery of the New World from triggering a land grab war between two loyal Catholic states, the pope drew a demarcation line from the North to the South Pole and granted all new lands to the west to Spain and those to the east to Portugal. However the pope, the notoriously wanton, Spanish-born Borgia pope Alexander VI, drew the line with such a heavy bias in Spain’s favor that it did not even leave Portugal sailing room to continue its African voyages. But Portugal’s clearly superior naval power facilitated a swift diplomatic settlement between the sovereigns and the dividing line was relocated some 865 miles farther west through a new 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas.
The line dividing the world between Portugal and Spain cleared the way for Portugal to carry out its planned rounding of the African cape to exploit the first all-water sea trade route to India. For the task Portugal’s king chose Vasco da Gama, then thirty-seven. The son of a minor official, da Gama was well qualified for a nautical and political task that was far more challenging than Columbus’s. He was a skillful and disciplined sea captain, and audacious as he was ruthless and diplomatic. His voyage took him across many unfamiliar seascapes and presented complex leadership challenges onshore and offshore, including managing a crew that was out of sight of land for 4,500 miles and ninety-six days, nearly three times more than Columbus.
Da Gama’s four ships departed Lisbon harbor on July 8, 1497, with stores for a three-year voyage. He was accompanied by Diaz as far as the Cape Verde Islands. Then, in order to avoid the treacherous Gulf of Guinea, he began his famous southwest detour almost as far as Brazil. This wide arc enabled him to traverse the southeast Atlantic trades and catch the strong far south westerlies that carried him back east toward the African cape. He ultimately rounded it on November 22. Vast distances of wild coastlines and unsailed seas followed. Finally, in March 1498, after an arduous voyage and a month of delay for ship repairs and rest, da Gama sailed through the treacherous channel between Mozambique and Madagascar and thereby shattered the insuperable barrier that had thwarted the advance of Muslim dhows down the African coast. Entering into the civilized sphere of the Indian Ocean, da Gama’s fleet docked at the thriving, Muslim port on the island of Mozambique. The gold, jewels, spices, and silver of the Muslim merchants heartened him, as did news, which eventually proved spurious, of lost Christian kingdoms inland and up the coast. Proceeding northward, he finally dropped anchor at Malindi, one of several important ports along the Zanzibar coast near modern Kenya and Tanzania, where earlier in the century Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho had secured a giraffe for his emperor’s amusement. With good fortune, da Gama secured at Malindi an expert Arab pilot—some historians believe it may have been Ahmad Ibn Madji, the most renowned Arab navigator of the era—to guide his fleet in twenty-three days across the tricky Arabian Sea. On May 20, he reached his intended destination of Calicut on India’s Malabar coast. The next three months were spent in difficult diplomacy with the local Hindu ruler, to whom he explained his mission as seeking “Christians and spices.” Da Gama failed to conclude a treaty with him, however, due to hostility from Calicut’s established Muslim merchants and the unimpressive gifts he could offer as a foretaste of future trade benefits with Portugal.
Unfavorable winds cursed da Gama’s homeward journey across the Arabian Sea. So many on board died of scurvy on the three-month voyage that he was compelled to burn one of his ships for want of a crew to sail it. Nevertheless, in summer 1499 da Gama reached Portugal in triumph. Although less than one-third of his original 170-man crew returned alive, the peppers and other cargo paid for the cost of his voyage sixtyfold. Portugal’s lust for the riches of the Indies was excited by the discovery that although it had little to offer in desirable traded goods it possessed one irresistible advantage that its would-be trading partners simply could not refuse—vastly superior long-range sea cannonry and a new Atlantic style of naval warfare of small crews fighting from a distance.
Voyages of Discovery: Da Gama & Cheng Ho
Long-range sea artillery stands out among a handful of military innovations that has profoundly altered the course of world history. On land, the Gunpowder Revolution altered long-standing power balances, including by breaking down the defenses of walled fortresses with large cannons, as the Ottoman Turks dramatically demonstrated in taking Constantinople in 1453. Its effects were even more far-reaching when it was applied to sea combat, which since antiquity had been based on ramming and boarding for hand-to-hand combat. An evolutionary step toward missile-launched sea warfare had occurred in the thirteenth-century Mediterranean with the intensive use of crossbows to prevent enemies from approaching and boarding. But it was in the Atlantic that sea cannonry was most precocious. The English possessed some sea artillery by the late fourteenth century, while Venetian galleys in the Mediterranean didn’t carry them until the early to mid-fifteenth century.
The big difficulty was handling the cannon’s tremendous recoil upon firing. Serendipitously, the sturdy caravel and its related family of Atlantic sailing vessels had bestowed one last gift upon European civilization. Its superior balance proved highly adaptable to absorbing the recoil across the deck of the heavy, long-range, mid-fifteenth-century French and Burgundian cannons. By the dawn of the history-making Voyages of Discovery, heavy long-barreled guns that could bombard with accuracy of up to 200 yards—sufficient to prevent enemies from approaching near enough to carry out traditional ramming and boarding attacks—were commonly carried aboard Portugal’s seagoing vessels. “There is no doubt that the development of the long-range armed sailing ship heralded a fundamental advance in Europe’s place in the world,” writes historian Paul Kennedy. “With these vessels, the naval powers of the West were in a position to control the oceanic trade routes and to overawe all societies vulnerable to the working of sea power. Even the first great clashes between the Portuguese and their Muslim foes in the Indian Ocean made this clear…[T]he Portuguese crews were virtually invincible at sea.”
The Portuguese wasted no time in pressing their naval military advantage. Armadas were dispatched almost annually to the Indian Ocean to seize freely by brute force what they had been unable to win by trade. Da Gama himself led the second armada, totaling 20 ships, which departed two and half years after his initial voyage. He expressed his cold-blooded intentions unhesitatingly upon returning to India’s Malabar coast. Seizing a dhow carrying Muslim pilgrims on their way home from Mecca, he pirated the treasures on board, then burned the ship with its several hundred passengers, women and children included, locked up inside. Proceeding to Calicut, he rejected the local leader’s friendship offer and instead demanded his immediate surrender as well as the banishment of every Muslim from the town. To demonstrate his seriousness, he bombarded the harbor. When two score fishermen and traders sailed out to sell him their wares, he had them immediately hung, dismembered, and sent their body parts back to the ruler with a note inviting him to make a curry of them. Upon filling his cargo holds with treasures he sailed home, but not before deploying ships to stay behind as Europe’s first permanent naval force in Indian waters.
The sphere of Portuguese power continued to expand rapidly with the sailing of each new armada. To confront its growing menace to Islamic trade, the rival Egyptian Mamluks and Ottoman Turks united to send a large fleet of dhows out of the Red Sea. The decisive battle between Islam and the West for control of the Arabian Sea was fought off the Indian port of Diu near the mouth of the wide Gulf of Cambay in 1509 between heavy cannon-fitted Portuguese warships, manned by small crews, and a much larger, oared Muslim fleet. It was little contest. Portuguese broadsides decimated the enemy dhows before they could penetrate close enough with their weak artillery to execute their antiquated naval tactics of ram and board. After Diu, Portuguese hegemony over the Indian Ocean was asserted expeditiously. Goa fell in 1510. Malacca, controlling the narrow straight between Malaysia and Sumatra and access to the Spice Islands or Moluccas of Indonesia, was taken in 1511. By 1515, Hormuz, at the head of the Persian Gulf, was permanently occupied by Portugal, and Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) was captured. The Portuguese failed only to take Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, which was the route for supplying Alexandria, where goods were reloaded on Venetian vessels for distribution to the markets of the Mediterranean. In 1516, a Portuguese ship sailed up China’s Pearl River and docked at Canton. By the mid-sixteenth century, Portugal had a chain of forts that extended from the Gulf of Guinea, around the cape and up the East African coast, across the rim of the Indian Ocean to Malacca and to the mouth of China’s Pearl River at Macao. It was a stunning achievement for a nation of only 1 million people—a primacy it owed to its pioneering role in unleashing the latent power of oceanic sailing and sea power upon the world.
The effects of the sudden rise of Portuguese sea power reverberated everywhere. Power balances were upended. Trade was rerouted. The Venice–Alexandria trade monopoly with the East was shattered; within four years of da Gama’s historic voyage the price of pepper in Lisbon was only 20 percent of its price in Venice. Venice’s overtures to Egypt, starting as early as 1502, to reopen Pharaoh Neko’s old “Suez” canal to shorten transport time and costs likewise came to naught. In 1521 Portugal felt sure enough of its position to refuse Venice’s desperate offer to buy its entire stock of spice import. Venetian power never recovered. Islam’s decline, too, was hastened by the loss of its monopoly over the rich Indian Ocean trade and competition from the far cheaper, faster, and safer all-water route to the Indies. Islam’s overland West African trade was likewise outflanked by Portuguese ships, each of which could carry as many goods as an entire plodding, 5,000 to 6,000 camel train. Within Islam, the Mamluk Empire in Egypt and Syria, which depended mostly on the wealth of the Indian Ocean trade, soon was conquered by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks, in turn, exerted new military pressure on Europe from the east, by land and in the Mediterranean. The Turks’ threatening Mediterranean advances throughout the sixteenth century forced Venice and Spain to devote great naval effort and expense to repel them. As a result, the central locus of intra-European power tilted even more decisively throughout the sixteenth century away from the Mediterranean and in favor of the insulated, northwest Atlantic sea powers.
One other noteworthy water innovation played a complementary role in maritime Europe’s speedy conquest of Earth’s open seas. Keeping drinking water fresh aboard ships was one of the banal, yet most frightening challenges of long-distance sea sailing. Despite countless jealously guarded formulas, there was simply no way to keep water fresh aboard ship for a long time. Explorers’ first order of business upon landing at any unknown shore was finding a freshwater source. Even putting in at civilized ports didn’t always guarantee freshwater in an age when drinking discolored, briny, germy, and polluted water was so much the norm that many restricted their water imbibing to alcohol-disinfected beer or wine, or to boiled hot drinks. The situation for seamen improved somewhat in the fifteenth century when Europeans developed an improved cask to keep water fresh for longer periods. Such casks enabled da Gama to make his long sea voyages to India and barely sufficed on Magellan’s landmark first global circumnavigation from 1519 to 1522. As Magellan’s crew wandered lost for thirty-eight harrowing days through the 334 labyrinthine miles of false bays, snowy fjords and narrow passages of the thereafter-named Strait of Magellan linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and then needed more than a hundred days to traverse the vast Pacific, which was much larger than expected, a despairing onboard diarist recorded on November 28, 1520, that the water they drank was yellow and putrid.
The wealth earned by Portugal and Spain as first movers of the Age of Discovery whet the desire of the rest of maritime Europe for a share of the prize to be had from the high seas. They did not acquiesce to the pope’s assignment of the globe to Iberian, Catholic primacy. Over the ensuing three centuries of the oceanic age of sail, the intra-European struggle for supremacy was a primary force in defining the political, economic, and religious character of Western civilization, and the interlinked, colonial world-system it helped create.
One early effect of the large inflow of New World bullion to Spain was to spur its regal Habsburg rulers, Charles V and his son Philip II, to try to extend their family’s mastery over many European states into a consolidated, autocratic Catholic empire by marriage or force or arms. They were harassed in this ambition by the lesser powers of England and France, whose rulers commissioned entrepreneurial privateers—state-sanctioned pirates—to plunder the gold and silver Spanish treasure ships sailing out of ports in the western Caribbean on the renowned Spanish Main. From 1566 they were joined by able seafaring privateers from the Netherlands, where a Protestant revolt for religious and political freedom against Spanish overlordship had been answered with brutal reprisals by Philip II’s troops. England’s Queen Elizabeth covertly and overtly supported the Dutch rebels against their common Habsburg Catholic adversary with financial aid, safe haven for Dutch privateers and on one occasion by interdicting the pay intended for Spanish troops in the Netherlands when the ships carrying it were forced by weather to dock at English ports. By 1576, the combined effect of piratical disruptions of bullion shipments, the cost of Spain’s contemporaneous struggle against the Muslim Turks in the Mediterranean, and Philip’s own monarchal overreach forced Spain to default on its international bank loans and to suspend payments to its troops fighting in the Netherlands. Spanish troops mutinied by sacking Antwerp, then the richest city in the Spanish-controlled Netherlands.
Private capital fled to nearby Amsterdam in the also-rebellious free northern provinces, galvanizing its rise and long reign as Europe’s leading center of finance, trade and market capitalism. In 1579, the seven northern provinces united against Spain and soon formed the tiny, commerce-centric Dutch Republic. While the southern provinces of the Spanish Netherlands eventually succumbed to Spanish troops, the north successfully resisted Spain’s superior army by opening dikes to defensively flood landscapes that lay below sea level and taking their battle to the northern sea-lanes, where Spain’s land power advantage was neutralized by the natural exigencies of seafaring. By the 1580s the Dutch Protestant rebellion had escalated into a full-blown international struggle with its own momentum. It set up an inexorable military collision between Spain and England, whose denouement came in the celebrated summer 1588 sea battle against the Spanish Armada.
The struggle between mighty, prosperous Spain and the small, relatively poor English island-nation proved to be one of history’s outstanding examples of the equalizing effect of sea power on otherwise militarily unmatched enemies. England relied exclusively on its naval prowess for its defense. Philip II, on the other hand, planned to bring to bear Spain’s formidable panoply of oceangoing galleons and other ships to hold the English Channel in support of a land invasion led by 30,000 of his troops who were to be ferried across the Strait of Dover from Dunkirk near the Spanish Netherlands. The revolution in naval warfare in which battleships were employed as mobile batteries fighting from long distance with on-board cannonry was only partly complete by the time the Armada sailed. England’s Royal Navy, since the time of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, had been in the vanguard of that revolution. Its cannons fired long-range, light 17-pound rounds through side portholes. Its naval captains commanded all on board without regard to social rank. Its sleeker and faster ships were among the most maneuverable on the seas. Spain, by contrast, lagged behind in the naval power revolution. Its large fleet carried heavy cannons that fired 50 pound shots but over a shorter range. It was far less maneuverable sailing windward, maintained an aristocratic chain of command, many swordsmen and musketeers for close-in and traditional on-board fighting.
Underlying these tactical differences, notes British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan, was a more profound “difference of social character between Spain and the new England. Private enterprise, individual initiative and a good-humoured equality of classes were on the increase in the defeudalized England of the Renaissance and Reformation, and were strongest among the commercial and maritime population.” Enriched by its New World bullion, Spain remained fixedly wedded to its medieval class hierarchy, centralized political authority, army-centered military power, and a state-directed command economy anchored in traditional agriculture. The battle of the Armada between England and Spain, in short, contained within it a contest between two competing political, economic, and social tendencies for Western civilization’s future.
To lead England’s defense, Elizabeth turned to its resourceful privateers of the Spanish Main. Foremost among these was Francis Drake. Although second in formal title, he was first in shaping and executing England’s strategic battle plans at sea. Drake in many ways personified the spirit of the rising English nation. Born of a Protestant tenant farmer in the early 1540s, his family fled a Catholic uprising and lived for a while in the hull of an old ship moored along the Thames. At 13 he was apprenticed to the captain of a small trading vessel that traveled among North Sea ports. Seeking fortune and adventure, at 23 he sailed for the West Indies. Although an early trip on which he had been second-in-command ended in financial ruin when his ship was attacked by Spanish vessels, Drake’s skills came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth, who granted him his own privateering commission. Thus was launched the career of England’s greatest privateer, explorer, and naval innovator.
Drake’s plundering expeditions along the Spanish Main throughout the 1570s brought him such fortune and fame that in 1577 he was chosen by the queen to command the greatest raiding expedition in history—a stealthy, surprise marauding of Spanish ships and settlements in the Pacific Ocean. Drake’s three-year journey in his 75-foot flagship, the Golden Hinde, developed into history’s first round-the-world voyage completed by a single captain. Upon navigating through the treacherous Strait of Magellan—astoundingly, in only sixteen days—Drake turned northward along South America’s Pacific Coast. So easy was the plundering of more than 10 tons of gold, silver, pearls, and precious stones from undefended Spanish outposts that before long Drake’s booty-stuffed vessel was sailing below her watermark. Continuing northward toward Canada, Drake unsuccessfully searched for the northwest passage to the Atlantic, and for a time anchored in the San Francisco Bay area, which he claimed for England. Notwithstanding almost losing everything at one point when his ship ran aground on reefs, he returned home in 1580 by way of the Pacific, bringing with him a treaty for England to trade for spices in the Moluccas. Ignoring vigorous Spanish protests about his piratical exploits, Queen Elizabeth personally knighted him aboard the Golden Hinde after his return.
For several years Drake settled down as the mayor of the port of Plymouth in southwestern England—and organized an early freshwater supply system, featuring a 17-mile-long aqueduct known as Drake’s Leat that lasted for three centuries. In the mid-1580s he returned to raiding Spanish interests in the New World, so successfully that it impinged Spain’s international ability to borrow. When it became known by 1586 that Philip II, with the blessing of Pope Sixtus V—one of Rome’s Renaissance Water Popes—finally had resolved to invade England directly, Drake, in command of some 30 vessels, led a spectacular surprise raid on Spanish shipping at ports at Cádiz, Lisbon, and Cape St. Vincent that did so much damage that it set back Philip’s plans by an entire year. Yet by mid-1588, the enormous Spanish Armada of 130 ships with 8,000 sailors and some 22,000 soldiers was rebuilt, outfitted, and bound for the English Channel to spearhead the invasion of England.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada has become enshrined as one of England’s hallowed national myths. In fact, the outcome more closely resembled a comical farce decided by the haphazard forces of nature than by the heroic deeds of man or, as claimed by the victors, divine intervention. Although led by its 25 formidable warships, the Spanish fleet also included many slow-sailing, converted Baltic merchantmen that had difficulty traveling upwind. As a result, the nimbler English fleet of roughly the same size had little difficulty winning through the first rule of fighting under sail: to always get and stay windward of the enemy. Yet even with this advantage, the light English cannon could not sink a single Spanish ship. For their part, the heavier Spanish cannonballs turned out to be so poorly fabricated in Spain’s notoriously inferior iron foundries that they split apart on the few occasions they got close enough to strike their English targets. As a result, most of the battle was engaged with the two fleets firing futilely at one another as they floated with the tide and wind down the Channel toward the narrow Strait of Dover.
When the Spanish fleet anchored hoping to support the crossing of the army invasion force that had yet to show up, the English unleashed eight burning fire ships down the current toward the wooden Armada—one of the oldest tactics in sea warfare. To avoid catching flame, the Armada hastily cut anchor and fled in panic. Chased by an attacking fleet of English warships which itself ran badly low on ammunition, it was driven out of the Channel into the North Sea, past the troop rendezvous points and unable to sail back to it. With the wind against it, the Armada had no choice but to try to return to Spain by sailing north around Scotland and Ireland into the Atlantic. But in the rough weather of the September Atlantic, many of the ships, their crews weakened by low rations and disease, began to break up and were driven into the rocky coastlines. In the end, only half the Armada returned safely to Spain, its mission unaccomplished.
Despite its comical aspects, the battle of the Spanish Armada deserved its place among the great sea engagements that dramatically altered history. It saved England’s independence, as well as saving the Dutch Republic from extinction, while ensuring the survival of northern Europe’s Protestant Reformation and its seafaring, market economy and fledgling, liberal democratic states. At the same time, it presaged the decline of Spain’s bid for hegemony, the shift of European power to North Atlantic states using the most advanced, mobile, long-distance artillery-based naval warfare, and the early transformation of the small English nation of 5 million, only half that of Spain at the time, into what would become the nineteenth-century colonial British Empire of 24 million. As for Francis Drake, the celebrated captain was sent by Queen Elizabeth to Panama in 1595 to seize two of its settlements for ransom. He succeeded in taking Nombre de Dios, but himself contracted dysentery and died. He was buried at sea.
With the decline of Spain and the Habsburg’s bid for European dominance, the new fulcrum of European and world power in the age of oceanic sail shifted to two small maritime trading nations, the Dutch Republic and England. These states gave wider berth to private enterprise, market economy, religious and political liberty, and representative government than other European nations. During their primacy in the next two centuries, they became progenitors of modern capitalism and liberal democracy. Through their colonies and influence as global powers, their peculiar mode of political economy was exported far and wide to societies throughout the world.
The Dutch were the most precocious. A republic ruled by the merchant classes that prospered as sea trading middlemen, the United Provinces were lineal descendants of the traditions of ancient Athens and medieval Venice. Its leading seaport, Amsterdam, in the province of Holland, bore a striking resemblance to Venice. It arose in the thirteenth century from its inhospitable, muddy, often flooding lowlands—over a quarter of its territory lay below sea level—on the arduous labor and ingenuity of land reclamation involving extensive drainage, pumping, dredging, embankment building, damming, diking, and sluicing. Following the historical pattern of association between advanced water engineering and ascendant societies, Dutch land hydraulics set world-class standards during its century-long golden age and has continued to be a leader in modern times. Even more notable, the highly decentralized, democratic nature of the Dutch Republic was a direct outgrowth of the local water boards established in the thirteenth century to manage the water infrastructure sustaining the reclaimed lowlands or “polders.” The success and cooperation of the local water boards—which continue to function to the present day—became an essential part of the model of governance adopted by the seven northern provinces that seceded from Spain to form the Dutch Republic in 1581.
Similar to Venice, Amsterdam’s urban landscape featured its canals, which were designed in semicircular, concentric rings. At its heart, as a Dutch counterpart to Venice’s Rialto Bridge, was a dam on the Amster River controlling the flows to a huge inlet of the North Sea. From the 1500s to the late 1600s, Dam Square was the leading entrepôt of the world market economy. The Republic self-interestedly championed free trade, freedom of the seas, and secure private property rights. Staple goods from the Baltic, the North Sea, the Atlantic coast, Mediterranean, and as far away as the Spice Islands were unloaded and stored in warehouses along the quays near the dam, then bought and sold by merchant representatives meeting in the nearby bourse. Merchant banks facilitated the trade through issuance of credit, discounting bills of exchange, and other financial instruments of modern capitalism. An early stock market developed. Gold and silver flowed in from everywhere, imparting to the Dutch Republic the significant comparative advantages of cheaper and abundant financing enjoyed by states that hosted major world financial centers. From only about 30,000 inhabitants in 1575, Amsterdam’s population multiplied sevenfold to 200,000 within a century.
As a tiny state with little arable land, again much like Venice, Dutch wealth depended heavily upon its unexcelled efficiency in shipping and adding values to other states’ goods. It rose by garnering control of over half of the shipping leaving or entering the Baltic Sea, and dominating the carrying trade between northern and southern Europe. Prominent in this trade was the profitable cargo shipped from Indian Ocean ports into Lisbon by Portuguese vessels.
The seminal event in the sudden rise of the Dutch Republic as a world power dates to 1592 when, in the aftermath of the Armada’s defeat and the continuing rebellion in Holland, Spain’s Philip II in 1592 closed Lisbon harbor to Dutch shipping. Faced with the sudden loss of access to this vital intermediary trade center, Dutch merchants resolved to undertake their own voyages directly to the emporiums of the Indian Ocean. Some 50 ships made the months-long round-trip from the Netherlands over the next ten years, laden with rich cargoes of pepper, nutmeg, cloves, mace, tea, and coffee. Private and public interests invested together in 1602 in the limited liability, joint stock Dutch East India Company, which exerted its regional monopoly trading rights like a sovereign state and for a long period was the most celebrated emblem of Western capitalism. In remarkably short order, the Dutch seized control of the trade from Indonesia’s Spice Islands and the ports of Ceylon. They exploited it more effectively than Portugal ever had. Their power hinged on their domination of two strategic sea passages to the Spice Islands—the Malacca Strait between Sumatra and Malaysia, and the Strait of Sunda between Java and Sumatra on the direct sea route from the African Cape of Good Hope. In 1619 a new colonial center was established on Java at Batavia, modern Jakarta. The Dutch achievement reconfirmed the Portuguese experience of the disproportionate global influence sea power could confer on tiny states in the age of sail.
Dutch colonists fanned out elsewhere over the globe in the same period. One notable fur-trading settlement was New Amsterdam at the mouth of the Hudson River in North America, established following the failure of East India Company–hired explorer Henry Hudson to find a northwest passage to India. In the twentieth century, under its British name, New York, it became a successor of Amsterdam and London as the world center of financial capitalism. Yet perhaps the greatest legacy of the Dutch Republic’s golden era was its fulfillment of the unsurpassed wealth-creating capacity of market-organized economies, and the superior military forces it could underwrite in seafaring democracies competing for primacy against traditional authoritarian kingdoms like Spain.
Where the Dutch led, the English closely followed. Unable to beat the Dutch in the Spice Islands, England successfully supplanted the Portuguese in India and rapidly expanded its colonization of North America. On three occasions between 1652 and 1674, the Anglo-Dutch rivalry for commercial dominance flamed into inconclusive warfare; the second war, in 1665, was triggered by the British seizure of New Amsterdam. By the late seventeenth century, however, they put aside their hostilities to combat a larger, mutual threat—France’s bid for mastery of Europe under Louis XIV.
Between 1662 and 1683, France had dedicated itself for one of the few times in its history to building a powerful navy to complement its formidable, huge army. France’s military success in subduing Europe was such that in 1689, when England came to the aid of the beleaguered Dutch, the French navy held the clear advantage against their allied strength. Financial overstretch, however, delayed implementation of the war plan at the decisive moment that its rare advantage might have prevailed. By the time Louis XIV was able to assemble 24,000 French troops and supporting ships three years later for a planned invasion of England across the Channel in 1692, the combined Anglo-Dutch navies had recovered enough strength to assert their superiority at sea. At the battle of La Hougue, in Normandy, on June 2, 1692, the French invasion fleet was utterly destroyed. With France’s navy in ruins and heavy financial burdens pressing upon the his monarchal state, Louis XIV abdicated the notion of rebuilding a strong state-run navy in favor of the cheaper, traditional outsourcing of naval harassment to French privateers. Meanwhile, England embarked upon a major naval expansion. As a consequence, by the early eighteenth century Britain’s navy reigned supreme among world powers; by 1730 it was as large as the next three or four navies combined.
A pivotal component in England’s breakout as the world’s naval superpower was its ability to obtain abundant, cheap financing for warfare from private capital markets following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The Glorious Revolution, which brought to the throne the Dutch William III and his English wife Mary, was firmly anchored in a new, unspoken governing compact committed to Dutch-style market economics and a liberal constitutional monarchy under Parliamentary control. Financial market institutions were expanded and private investment was widely encouraged as the principal motor of the economy. The confidence of private capital markets instilled by these reforms provided England with an enormous comparative financing advantage over rival centralized monarchies like France, where debt repayment depended solely upon the whim and will of the sovereign. After so many centuries, the long association between seafaring commerce and democratic political traditions had produced an economic mechanism dynamic enough to elevate the liberal democratic model to the forefront of civilization.
England’s naval dominance in the age of long-distance sail enabled it both to defend its island homeland against invasion by rival land powers as well as to win the competition among European powers for control of overseas colonial empires. Sea power conferred a vital advantage in maintaining long-distance colonial supply lines and providing safe passage to British commercial shipping. In times of tension, superior naval power enabled English ships to easily bombard or establish beachheads along enemy coastlines. By the mid-seventeenth century, England was capable of executing its policy of blockading enemy ports in all weather conditions, bottling up rival commercial shipping, military support, or naval counterattack.
In the worldwide Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763, known in America as the French and Indian War, superior sea power proved decisive in routing France and establishing England as the world’s peerless colonial power. The 1758 seizure of the French fort at Louisburg on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island gave England control of the St. Lawrence River. It opened the way for British soldiers and a few colonial American allies to overcome the great bluffs to take Quebec in September 1759—the decisive event in forcing the French to abandon Canada. France’s colonial ambitions in the rest of North America were demolished by a parallel British troop invasion of the Ohio River Valley. This severed the chain of forts France had been building along the key river ways of the Mississippi River basin all the way down to New Orleans in its bid to confine English settlements east of the Appalachians.
France’s counterstrategy of trying to win back its lost colonies through a bold, direct invasion of England likewise was checkmated by superior British sea power in two major sea battles in the summer and autumn of 1759. The first occurred near the Strait of Gibraltar. The second and most devastating was at Quiberon Bay, in southwest Brittany, on November 20, 1759, where the French fleet that had been bottled up by a six-month British blockade at Brest tried to flee when gale conditions forced a temporary English pullback.
France’s worldwide retreat after the Seven Years’ War included its withdrawal from most of India, which soon thereafter became the crown economic jewel of England’s colonial empire. In early 1757 Britain’s superior sea power and logistics enabled the English East India Company’s Robert Clive to expeditiously seize back the Bengal port of Calcutta from rebellious local Indian rulers and their French allies. The Company consolidated British colonial rule in India following a celebrated, improbable victory of Clive’s 3,000 British and Indian troops over 50,000 to 60,000 French-supported Indian forces at Plassey in June 1757. Water, in the form of a monsoon deluge, played a pivotal, if unusual, role in the battle’s turning point. When the heavy rains soaked and rendered useless their gunpowder, the French-backed Indian troops charged en masse toward the British position amid the mango groves on the banks of the Hughli River in the belief the British gunpowder had been similarly ruined. But the badly outnumbered British had kept their powder dry under covering. The attacking native forces were cut down and scattered amid volleys of exploding English gunpowder.
Learning the lesson of the Seven Years’ War that, in the age of long-distance sail, formidable sea power was a prerequisite of great empire, France invested heavily in the following decades to bring its fleet size to parity with England’s. By 1781, France was strong enough to be able to inflict an indirect defeat on England by blocking the resupply of British forces at Yorktown, Virginia, thus forcing the surrender of General Cornwallis’s army to George Washington to end the American colonists’ War of Independence. The balance of sea power also proved decisive a generation later in the Napoleonic Wars. With France’s armies sweeping victoriously through the European continent in 1797, Napoléon Bonaparte had argued that durable French hegemony over Europe depended upon winning command of the sea and subduing England. Indeed, the showdown between France and England proved to be not only the most severe challenge to England’s global leadership in the age of sail, but an historic contest for military preeminence between the greatest naval power and an invincible land army headed by the most brilliant general since Alexander the Great.
In the summer 1798, the twenty-nine-year-old Napoléon cunningly exploited England’s retreat from the Mediterranean to better defend its northern ports against relentless French army pressure. Under secret orders from the French leadership about his destination, he seized Malta and conquered Egypt with a force of 31,000 troops, 400 sea transports, and 13 warships—and a boatload of Enlightenment-age scholars from many disciplines whose extraordinary mission was to study everything possible about Egypt for the sake of the pure advancement of knowledge. With these conquests, Napoléon had moved into a position to take control of the entire Mediterranean. If he could solidify his hold, he knew he would be able to dictate the fate of the Levant, the Ottoman Turkish Empire and the Red Sea route to British India. Napoléon wasted no time in personally inspecting the ruins of Neko’s ancient “Suez Canal” and ordered French surveyors to study a new canal that would directly link the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. His canal plan was aborted only after surveyors calculated—mistakenly—that the Red Sea was 33 feet higher than the Mediterranean and thus would necessitate canal locks and other complex engineering.
Recognizing its grave strategic vulnerability, England turned to one of its youngest flag officers to foil France’s bid for control of the Mediterranean and to restore Britain’s wavering command of the seas—Horatio Nelson, forty. To England’s good fortune, Nelson would prove to be as brilliant a tactician and commander at sea as Napoléon was on land. Modestly born, with personal courage in battle that was visibly displayed by his loss of an arm and an eye, and possessed of a courtesy, charisma, and panache that earned extraordinary devotion from his crew as well as the ardor of his prominent paramour, Lady Hamilton, Nelson became the embodiment of British pride in its Royal Navy. Not since Sir Frances Drake had England had so celebrated a national naval hero.
Nelson entered the Mediterranean in hot pursuit of Napoléon’s forces. In a frantic search across the sea, during which in the darkness he actually sailed past his foe and thus had to backtrack to Egypt after France had made its conquest, Nelson at last caught sight of the French battle fleet in the afternoon of August 1, 1798. It was anchored in a defensive line at shallow Aboukir (Abu Qir) Bay, near Alexandria and one of the mouths of the Nile. By chance, the French ships were at the moment undermanned because the commander had sent many crewmen onshore to dig wells to restock the ships’ low water supplies. Sensing he had the advantage of surprise, Nelson immediately hoisted his signal flag of preparation for attack. The Battle of the Nile, or Aboukir as it was alternately known, was probably novel in the annals of sea warfare until modern times in being fought almost entirely in the dark. Although the number of warships on each side was nearly equivalent, the more-efficient British gunners could fire twice as rapidly and more accurately than their French counterparts. Nelson took advantage of the static French position to pick off a few ships at a time while staying out of range of the others. When the dawn broke, the scale of the French disaster became visible—11 of its 13 warships had been lost.
The effects of Nelson’s victory were momentous. Britain soon regained the Mediterranean sea-lanes and, with that, renewed national self-confidence and fighting spirit. By controlling the sea supply lines, British naval power rendered untenable Napoléon’s position in Egypt. The great general stealthily abandoned his troops in Egypt to return to France to seize power outright. The sight of Napoléon’s great army in rare retreat emboldened beleaguered European continental powers to conspire in a new anti-French coalition with England. For Napoléon the Battle of the Nile forced abandonment of his grand ambitions to sever England from India and its colonial wealth. Instead, he refocused his master strategy on gathering his naval and armed forces for a direct invasion of England itself.
This set the scene for the great sea battle of the Napoleonic Wars, Trafalgar. Although Napoléon possessed an army three times larger than England’s, to invade his enemy’s island redoubt he needed sufficient sea power to control the English Channel for a few days to permit a safe crossing. Over the few years following the disaster at Aboukir Bay, Napoléon had acquired the Dutch fleet by occupying the Netherlands, which also put him in control of every Continental port from the North Sea to Gibraltar. England’s response had been a comprehensive blockade of French-controlled ports, a years-long effort unique in naval history. In 1805 Napoléon finally ordered his war fleets to break out of the blockades and assemble in Martinique in the Caribbean to prepare for an invasion of the Channel, where French army troops were readying. But after years of captivity in port, the fighting ability of the qualitatively inferior French fleet had deteriorated. The fleet at Brest could not break out. The fleet at Toulon, where Nelson was on watch, managed to put to sea. With Nelson hunting the French fleet back and forth across the Atlantic, the two sides finally engaged off Trafalgar Point in Spain, between Gibraltar and Cádiz, on October 21, 1805. Over a series of dinners with his captains, Nelson had devised an innovative naval tactic that would take advantage of England’s more maneuverable ships and experienced crews. Instead of lining up his ships parallel with the enemy to blast away with cannon fire, he divided them into two columns, with a third in reserve, to attack the enemy line at its center. Thereby, he created two separate battles with England and enjoyed the tactical advantage in each. The English triumph at Trafalgar was definitive. Not a single English ship was sunk, and only 100 men were lost. One of those casualties, however, was Nelson himself, shot in the shoulder and chest at close range by a sniper nestled atop a French mizzen sail.
The Battle of Trafalgar ended any chance for Napoléon to invade England. British mastery at sea allowed it to impede the French army’s resupplies through its strangulating port blockades, while systematically dismembering France’s overseas holdings in the Caribbean, Africa, and the Moluccas. At the same time, trade along the high seas with distant countries like the United States and Russia helped England withstand the European-wide continental commercial embargo Napoléon tried to impose against it. When circumstances finally became opportune following Napoléon’s debacle in Russia, English vessels were free to use the sea to transport their own strengthened troops to the Continent to help in the ultimate defeat of Napoléon, which occurred at Waterloo in modern Belgium in 1815.
The results of the Napoleonic Wars confirmed that, in the age of long-distance sail and cannonry, sea power’s advantage in mobilizing the natural forces of the high seas to level the balance of power against superior, land-based armies, had soared to such a degree as to permit small, democratic seafaring states to prevail in the struggle for global dominance. The English island-nation outlasted its continental rival the Dutch Republic in part because it could concentrate its resources on its naval power without incurring the additional burden of providing for a stout defense against land invasion—which, in an interesting parallel with the fall of the ancient Phoenicians to the neighboring land empires of Mesopotamia, was the final, proximate cause of the Dutchmen’s demise. Throughout the age of sail, from the Armada to Napoléon, every attempted invasion of England had failed. Even as late as the Battle of Britain in World War II, the overwhelming army, tank, long-range missile, and air force might of Hitler’s Nazi Germany was unable to overcome the defensive advantages provided by British naval power and the Channel moat.
Trafalgar was the last major battle fought by wooden sailing ships. Britain would not be seriously challenged again for another century—until World War I. In the nineteenth century, British naval power became invincible because it readily applied the innovations of another entirely unprecedented development that was gathering momentum along Britain’s small, rural rivers—the steam-powered Industrial Revolution.