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Recovering Naval Power: Henry Maydman and the Revival of the Royal Navy

22 Mar 24

212 pages

Prof Andrew Lambert

Henry Maydman served in the Royal Navy as a sailor, and latterly a Purser, from 1661 to 1691, when he settled in Portsmouth and published the main text of his book Naval Speculations and Maritime Politics, which included projects to create a seminary for seamen, a Royal fishery and ensure success in the current war with France. Maydman’s self-publication is a very rare title, hardly noticed by historians of the period. It is a contribution to English/British naval history, where it joins works by contemporary authors Samuel Pepys, John Evelyn and Josiah Burchett, all of whom were involved in naval administration, and wrote to address issues of contemporary importance. Pepys’ copy has survived, but not his opinion of the book, or the man. Maydman’s voice is important, he was an outsider, and a critic of the system. He addressed himself to the City of London, already a powerful, independent economic actor in national politics, which took control of the Navy in 1688-89, to serve its’ own ends, and restrain the monarchy.

The text, edited to improve access, and set in modern type, is linked to contemporary scholarship, addressing both the historical and contemporary themes. The editors also use the text to explore the development and reconstruction of contemporary navies. This continues Maydman’s approach to the past as precedent, deploying enthusiastic references to Carthage, an exemplary seapower state, defeated and destroyed by a military superpower, echoing the ideas of Sir Walter Raleigh. France was the new Rome. He argued that, “whatsoever nation has the sovereignty of the seas, shall be courted by all the world. For it is in his power to make any of the nations of Europe, to live unhappy, uneasy, and in poverty…” In essence he urged a strategy of sea control and maritime economic warfare, perhaps a subtle critique of William III’s continental military project. His argument remains relevant today.

Maydman’s contemporary relevance is linked to the evolution of the Navy of the People’s Republic of China. It is not clear how the modern equivalent of this politically subversive text, published independently by a retired Purser, urging maritime economic alternatives to current regime policy would be received in Beijing. Most of the problems that Maydman addressed in 1691 stemmed from the political turmoil, and struggle for power that followed the 1688 Revolution, which replaced the pro-French King James II, with his Dutch son-in-law William of Orange, launching a dramatic diplomatic reversal of recent diplomatic policy. Now France was the enemy, and the Navy, shaped by three Anglo-Dutch wars, was ill-prepared for the new challenge. Despite that it was thrown into battle by the new regime, leading to a tactical defeat at Beachy Head. William’s furious reaction to the defeat reflected his culpability. His attempt to shift the blame onto Admiral, Lord Torrington, was unjust, Torrington was acquitted by his naval peers, despite intense Government pressure for a conviction. British naval officers repeatedly used the Court Martial process to reject political interference in operational and tactical issues across the centuries. Such independent action would not be possible in an authoritarian one-party state. A lively link between past and present that reminds us just how rich the recorded past can be. Maydman and his editors reminds us that history is written to inform the present.