Shinsuke Satsuma. Britain and Colonial Maritime War in the Early Eighteenth Century: Silver, Seapower and the Atlantic. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2013. 298 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78204-174-0.
Reviewed by Ian Saxine (Northwestern University)
Published on H-War (April, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
War, at Sea
Early modern Britons—and subsequent generations of historians—associated Great Britain with naval prowess. But why did the English (later British) spend so much time fighting their foes on faraway seas? Shinsuke Satsuma argues that early modern British leaders developed an argument for “pro–maritime war” to satisfy strategic objectives and fill the coffers of both the state and private individuals. This argument fixated on Spain as the ideal target for maritime warfare, which, at various times, consisted of plundering treasure fleets, intercepting trade, conquering Spanish colonies in the Western Hemisphere, and forcing Spanish colonies into favorable trading arrangements with British merchants. Satsuma focused most of his investigation on the War of Spanish Succession (1702-14).
The book is divided into three parts. The first traces the origins of the pro-maritime war argument to the “ideological tie between maritime war and profit inherited from the medieval age,” which “was given a new life in a new setting: the Atlantic”(p. 9). It follows the development of arguments in favor of maritime war for profit and their influence on party politics through 1714. Part 2 traces the impact of the pro-maritime war argument on naval operations and legislation during the War of Spanish succession, with another chapter examining the role of the South Sea Company in an abortive plan for a naval expedition in 1712. Part 3 explores further arguments about a maritime war against Spain after 1714.
The book draws heavily on official British government records and political pamphlets from the early eighteenth century, and Satsuma casts a broad net for secondary sources, making this work a valuable primer for anyone looking to further study early modern British naval policy. However, the details will be daunting for anyone unfamiliar either with the intricacies of parliamentary politics or the historiography of early modern naval history. Satsuma aims his arguments at specialists in early eighteenth-century British parliamentary politics and naval historians. Anyone without a strong background in the political history of the era will struggle to keep track of the revolving door of ministries and factions. Satsuma also populates the text with mentions of assorted historians who, again, will be unfamiliar to all but a handful of specialists.
Amidst all the information presented, many readers will be left wondering about the larger implications of this work. Satsuma clarifies that the pro-maritime war argument is different from the much-discussed “Blue Water Strategy,” wherein Britain eschewed continental warfare in favor of colonial warfare (p. 2). Nor does he directly engage with scholarship about the rise in jingoism among the British public, the role of popular opinion in shaping policy, or even the ideology driving British imperial activity. Satsuma seeks to explore the “ideological connection between war at sea and profit … [that] has not attracted sufficient attention from naval historians”(p. 10). He proves his point well enough, but what was novel about the British use of violence to enrich political elites? Did this British pro-maritime war ideology differ meaningfully from the Dutch, Portuguese, the North African states, or any other contemporary maritime powers? Was the British phenomenon he covers just a nautical version of the strong preying on the weak? Was it a new, hard-nosed attitude towards war at odds with practices of waging war for religion or glory? Did the wartime importance of the South Sea Company signal the rise in the importance of joint-stock companies in national war aims? Late-Stuart British scholars and naval historians will find solid research to deal with in these pages, but most other readers will be left feeling that this book is not directed at them.
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Ian Saxine. Review of Satsuma, Shinsuke, Britain and Colonial Maritime War in the Early Eighteenth Century: Silver, Seapower and the Atlantic.
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