To Command the Ocean is to Command All

Nicknamed “Jupiter”, the immense & brilliant Pierre André de Suffren (1729-1788) was the only French naval commander judged by strategic historian AT Mahan equal or even superior to the great admirals of the British empire. The implication was that what he achieved, & could further have achieved had his government supported a maritime strategy, is within the scope of any coastal nation, not just Britain. The lesson was lost neither on Germany, Russia, Japan, or America. Portrait c1785 by P Batoni. (Public domain.)

First published 1890, The Influence of Sea Power upon History by Capt AT Mahan, USN, now belongs on every Top 10 of military strategic thought, along with the works of a Sun Tzu or Clausewitz. Within purely naval strategy, it’s a barely disputed Top 1. Light reading it isn’t. Drawing mainly from the Age of Sail, Mahan’s substance may (or may not) be partly dated. But his repetitive style, however nourished by sharp & fresh details, hints of a bygone age.

Still, it’s a masterpiece. Mahan set himself a simple but definitive task: to explain why England’s Royal Navy, from mainly 1660 to 1783, became the most effective maritime force in history. His answers circle, with hypnotic iteration, around 3 main points:

1) For ambitious nations (or any state hoping to defend itself against these), a credible naval policy is such a multiplier of strength that it has become fatal if not inconceivable to neglect this dimension.

2) An armed navy never rests on a void, or on a merely militarist policy, but draws its resources & power from an even healthier, flourishing commercial navy. This insight, or instinct, is the innermost “secret” of England’s maritime empire.

3) Yet to undermine an enemy sea power, or in modern military jargon seapower, it won’t do to attack only its trade. You must specifically engage its armed fleet, in bold, decisive battles. Not its commercial vessels, colonies, or even supply posts alone. Destroy, annihilate the warships that safeguard all that. Such was England’s strategy, time after time. France stubbornly insisted on the opposite doctrine, & ended up as the also-ran.

To Mahan, a flamboyant exception proving these rules was French Admiral Pierre André de Suffren. Almost alone among his compatriots he understood war in English terms, conducting it even better than his enemy. Yet without support from his peers & superiors, decisive victory kept eluding him. Precisely because his success was so obviously shackled, here he represents how further afar France or any nation might reach, the very moment they set out to imitate the English way.


Mahan, Capt AT, USN. The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. New York: Dover Publications, 1987 (1890, 1894). ISBN 978-0486255095.

An abridged version of this article is posted on LibraryThing.

(Webfront illustration caption & credit here.)

Categories: History of Science & Tech, Sea & Space

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