The Drift

Navigation Brief

This is an e-newsletter first published Nov. 26

ALEXANDRIA – Good Afternoon, Drifters

As the aroma of sage, onion and celery begins to fill my home from the stuffing in the oven and I sip a nice midday dram of Glenmorangie 12 Lasanta (the official single malt of COVID-19, at least in this household), I am assembling something fun for you, my faithful readers here at The Drift.

If you’ve been following The Drift for a while, I tend to do silly or off-the-wall things on holidays. Who could forget the 2019 Year in Review in the style of a New Years’ new day entry:

New Year’s Eve is a day when we often look back,

So, let’s see if our service is proceeding on track,

For our beloved Navy, 2019 has been hard,

I propose we review, in the style of a bard.

And so on and so forth, it was very silly.

The Navy’s Wild Year ... In Verse: The Drift, S. II, Vol. VIII

So, anyway, in keeping with the Drift Holiday Tradition, we’re doing something a little different, if a little less silly. I thought I’d make this Drift a little like that “Our Daily Bread” tract they had in the ship’s library, only for seapower. So, without further ado, here is your Thanksgiving Seapower Devotional, with select quotes from a great seapower thinker, Sir Walter Raleigh.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone, and thank you for continuing to read and put up with me.


Selected Readings by Sir Walter Raleigh on Seapower

I have, of late, gone down a very deep rabbit hole of medieval and early modern English seapower in an attempt to better understand the ideas that helped form our society’s understanding of the importance of the seas. One of the foremost thinkers on seapower in the age of Queen Elizabeth was one of our own nation’s forefathers, Sir Walter Raleigh, an early pioneer of the colony system that evolved into the United States.

He was born into petty nobility and rose – according to Elizabeth’s famously catty courtiers – well above his station. With his flare for swashbuckling adventures, he enchanted the feisty Queen of England and quickly became a favorite hers. This is to our immense benefit as a nation because Raleigh's stature gave him the clout to pursue crazy ideas like setting up permanent colonies in the New World. It was perhaps Raleigh who gave the fair Commonwealth from whence this email emanates its noble name: Virginia. And he was certainly the first Englishman to try and settle a permanent colony, the ill-fated Roanoke. I thought it would be fun to share with you some of my favorite passages from Raleigh on seapower and on the operation of a Navy.

On Owning the Best Navy

Raleigh’s writings are varied and fascinating. Here’s one of my favorite passages, and it’s from his “Discourse on the Invention of Ships, Anchors, the Compass, Etc.,” a dry name for some very fun writing. In this passage, he is discussing the necessity for the English Navy to field the best, most sophisticated ships in the world.

Excerpt: And to say the truth, a miserable shame and dishonour it were for our shipwrights if they did not exceed all others in the setting up of our royal ships, the errors of other nations being far more excusable than ours. For the kings of England have for many years been at the charge to build and furnish a navy of powerful ships for their own defence, and for the wars only; whereas the French, the Spaniards, the Portugals, and the Hollanders (till of late) have had no proper fleet belonging to their princes or states.

Only the Venetians, for a long time, have maintained their arsenal of galleys, and the kings of Denmark and Sweden have had good ships for these last fifty years; I say, that the fore named kings, especially the Spaniards and Portugals, have ships of great bulk , but fitter for the merchant than for the man of war, for burden than for battle . But as Popelinire well observeth, the forces of princes by sea are marks of the greatness of [a state], for whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.

How’s that for a turn of phrase, eh?


On Officer Selection

This next passages come from Raleigh’s essay “Observations Concerning the Royal Navy and Sea Service,” and it is a gem. From that same essay, Raleigh has some words about the who should make up the officer corps on Navy ships. In a society where patronage and family names meant a great deal, Raleigh was a passionate advocate for a professional force, and argued forcefully against commission granted on the basis of favoritism.

Excerpt: First, the chief officers under the lord admiral (as vice - admiral, treasurer, comptroller, surveyor, and the rest) should be men of the best experience in sea-service, as well as of judgment and practice in the utensils and necessaries belonging to shipping, even from [top of the mast to the keel]. And that no kind of people should be preferred to any of these offices but such as have been thoroughly practiced and be very judicial in either kind of the above-named services.

But we see it oftentimes to fall out otherwise: for sometimes, by the special favor of princes, (and many times by the mediation of great men for the preferment of their servants,) and now and then by virtue of the purse, and such like means, some people , very raw and ignorant, are very unworthily and unfitly nominated to those places when [skilled and deserving men] are held back and unpreferrerd to the great hinderance of his majesty 's service, to the prejudice of the navy, and to the no little discouragement of ancient and noble able servitors, when favour or partiality shall thus eat out knowledge and sufficiency in matters so nearly concerning the service and safety of the kingdom.


On Command

Similar to his ideas on officer selection, Raleigh felt strongly that commanders needed likewise to be the best men for the job, and not men elevated to their station through patronage. But I think what’s profound here is the emphasis on commanders who are loyal to the sovereign and who can be trusted tell the truth to the sovereign when truth needs to be told.

What Raleigh is warning against, it appears, is elevating commanders who are “other men’s men,” and who might fear that passing along bad news will bring disfavor on the one who got them the job in the first place.

Excerpt: At all such times as his majesty's ships are employed in service, it were very convenient that such gentlemen as are his majesty's own sworn servants should be preferred to the charge of his majesty's ships, choice being made of men of valour and capacity, rather than to employ other men's men; and that other of his majesty's servants should be dispersed privately in those services to gain experience, and to make themselves able to take charge. By the which means his majesty should ever have gentlemen of good account his own servants, captains of his own ships, instead of petty companions and other men's servants, who are often employed, being, indeed, a great indignity to his majesty, to his shipping, and to his own gentlemen.

For that in times past, it hath been reputed a great grace to any man of the best sort to have the charge of the prince's ship committed unto him; and by this means there would ever be true report made unto the prince what proceedings are used in the service, which these meaner sort of captains dare not do, for fear of displeasing the lords their masters by whom they are preferred or being of an inferior quality have no good access to the presence of the prince, whereby to have fit opportunity to make relation accordingly.

This may seem like an era far gone, with talk of princes and “his majesty,” but I think we can, today, understand the necessity of elevating a commanders who will speak truth to power rather than telling power what they want to hear.

(By the way, you should incorporate the phrase “other men’s men” in your lexicon, because it’s a good one.)


On the Need for a Navy in Peacetime

After the victory over the Spanish Armada, it appears there were those who were seeking a peace dividend and to save the royal treasury some coin by drawing down the Navy. Raleigh was having none of it, and closes his essay with a passionate defense of naval expenditures in a foreshadowing of Teddy Roosevelt’s classic quote: “A good Navy is not a provocation to war It is the surest guaranty of peace.”

Excerpt: But now, forasmuch as I doubt not but that some contrary spirits may ... say unto me, why should his majesty and the state be

troubled with this needless charge of keeping and maintaining so great a navy in such exquisite perfection and readiness, the times being now peaceable, and little use of arms or ships of war either at home or abroad, but all safe and secure? To this I answer, that this , indeed, may stand (at the first sight) for a pretty superficial argument to blear our eyes, and lull us asleep in security, and make us [negligent] and careless of those causes from whence the effects of peace grow, and by the virtue whereof it must be maintained.

But we must not flatter and deceive ourselves, to think that this calm and concord proceeds either from a settled immutable tranquility in the world, (which is full of alterations and various humours,) or from the good affections of our late enemies, who have tasted too many disgraces, repulses, and losses, by our forces and shipping, to wish our state so much felicity as a happy and peaceable government, if otherwise they had power to hinder it. And therefore though the sword be put into the sheath, we must not suffer it there to rust, or stick so fast, as that we shall not be able to draw it readily, when need requires. For albeit our enemies have of late years sought peace with us, yet hath it proceeded out of the former trial of our forces in times of war and enmity. ... And well we may be assured, that if those powerful means, whereby we reduced them to that modesty and courtesy as to seek us, were utterly laid aside and neglected, so as we could not again, upon occasion, readily assume the use and benefit of them as we have done; those proud mastering spirits, finding us at such advantage, would be more ready and willing to shake us by the ears as enemies, than to take us by the hands as friends. And therefore far be it from our hearts to trust more to that friend ship of strangers, that is but dissembled upon policy and necessity, than to the strength of our own forces, which hath been experienced with so happy success.

I confess, that peace is a great blessing of God, and blessed are the peacemakers; and therefore, doubtless, blessed are those means whereby peace is gained and maintained. For well we know that God worketh all things here amongst us mediately by a secondary means, the which means of our defence and safety being shipping and sea-forces are to be esteemed as his gifts, and then only available and beneficial when he sees fit to grant his grace to use them aright.

And to that, we all say “Amen.”


And that’s it! Happy Thanksgiving to all!

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

More In The Drift