Primers for naval history

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    My new students always ask me for a simple ‘primer’ in naval history – until they get their sea-legs when they suggest reams of arcane titles to me!

    I always give them a set of five books, which changes with the particular student, their required level of understanding and any special interests (most of my naval history students are American and interested in the Stuart and Georgian sailing navies and the politics of empire).

    I wonder if Forum Members would care to share lists of their top five naval or maritime history books, geared for different types of reader – e.g. ‘primers’ for those with little prior knowledge of the subject; technical treatises; political interests; ancient shipping etc.

    To start, here are my five primers on the navy of the Georgian era for students with no previous knowledge:
    Brian Lavery Nelson’s Navy
    Tom Pocock Horatio Nelson
    NAM Rodger Command of the Ocean (specific chapters)
    NAM Rodger The Wooden World
    Peter Warwick Voices from the Battle of Trafalgar

    It is a difficult task to choose just five, and of course the selection depends entirely upon the readers’ needs.

    I look forward to seeing your comments on this list, and your own suggestions, varying the needs and current knowledge of readers to build a ‘library’ of titles.

    Justin Reay

    Malcolm Lewis

    Justin, other suggestions:

    Seamanship in the Age of Sail, John Harland. If you want to know how they handled ships in the days of sail this is as good as you can get. It is the result of 20 years of research and sells out regularly.
    The Line of Battle: The Sailing Warship 1650-1840. Conway’s ‘History of the Ship’ series. Useful reference book on ship types, construction, armaments and naval tactics, etc.
    TRAFALGAR: the men, the battle, the storm, Tim Clayton and Phil Craig. Dramatic account of the battle through the diaries, letters and memoirs of the men on both sides who took part.
    Regards, Malcolm

    Frank Scott

    As a real primer I would start with Richard Harding’s Evolution of the Sailing Navy 1509-1815, which is short enough to enable them to gain some feeling for the subject very early on in their studies.
    Since you say that most are from America, you might consider providing some Yankee colour to their studies by adding The Nagle Journal edited by John C Dann. As an American who served in privateers, the Royal Navy, and the Honourable East India Company, and who saw a remarkable amount of the globe, his unpretentious memoir should certainly stimulate their thoughts.
    Frank Scott


    Some others from my collection:
    Paul Kennedy – The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery
    Rif Winfield – British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793-1817
    Peter Goodwin – The Ships of Trafalgar
    James D Mack – Matthew Flinders 1774-1814
    Richard Hough – Captain Bligh and Mr Christian
    Peter Ashley


    I suggest adding:
    J R Hill (ed) The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy, Oxford 1995
    Eric Grove The Royal Navy Since 1815: a new short history, Basingstoke 2005
    Both of these get straight to the point, which is useful when deadlines are tight!
    Mike Hessey


    This is always difficult with students as we are not certain as outsiders what the subject material will be covered. However these are my suggestions for an overal synopsis of maritime history:
    1 Peter Kemp (ed.) “The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea”
    2 Brian Lavery “Nelsons Navy”
    3 Jan Glete “Navies and Nations: Warships,Navies and State Building in Europe and America 1500 – 1860” in two volumes
    4 David J Starkey and Alan G Jamieson
    “Exploiting the Sea: Aspects of Britain’s Maritime Economy since 1870”
    5 Peter Padfield “War Beneath the Sea”

    Books come and go and updating research is always useful to try and keep up to date which at times is very difficult. It also depends on one’s interests in the field of maritime history.
    Keith Langridge


    May I suggest two books by Professor Nicholas Rodger? They are in effect the course books for Exeter University’s MA Naval History module entitled ‘British Naval History in the Age of Sail’:
    1) ‘The Safeguard of the Sea’(London, Penguin Books, 2004);
    2) ‘The Command of the Ocean’ (London, Penguin Books, 2005).
    Both have very comprehensive bibliographies and are international best-sellers. ‘Safeguard’ covers the period 660 to 1649, and ‘Command’ continues from 1649 to 1815.
    George Stephenson

    Susan Rose

    Don’t forget that war at sea started long before the sixteenth century; see [my chapter in] the Oxford History of the Royal Navy and also my Medieval Naval Warfare (2002) and The Medieval Sea for a general introduction.
    Susan Rose

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