Historians traditionally subdivide naval history into three broad eras: The Age of Galley Warfare, the Age of Sail, and the Age of Steam or Modern Era. The names come from the system used to propel warships—oars, wind, and steam, whether produced by burning coal or nuclear energy. Other characteristics, such as weapons and tactics, separate the eras in roughly the same manner. During the Age of Galley Warfare the main weapons were rams and infantrymen who executed “land battles at sea.” Projectile weapons were of significantly lesser importance. The Age of Sail coincided with the development of gunpowder and cannon, which led gun duels to replace boarding tactics as the decisive factor in battle at sea. During the Age of Steam smooth-bore cannon gave way to rifled ordnance that was later supplemented and finally largely replaced by guided missiles. The Age of Galley Warfare is sometimes called the Age of Warfare under Oars because the vessels were powered by rowers, usually slaves. Commanders were more likely to be officers from the army than specialized naval officers, and the fighters aboard the galley, infantrymen. By the Age of Sail, the crewmen were mariners of varying levels of skill, often pressed into service from merchant ships, and commanded by officers in a separate sea service. Two exceptions to this rule were the “Generals-at-Sea” of England’ s seventeenth-century Commonwealth period and the army officers called upon to replace naval officers who had remained loyal to the king during the early phases of the French Revolution a century and a half later. By the Age of Steam, naval officer corps became increasingly professional with all that the term implies.
At Lepanto, in 1571, the largest sea battle to date and the last great galley battle, the Holy League of western Mediterranean states defeated the Ottoman Turks. Henceforth the Muslim power would be confined to the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. In the Far East, where maritime nations had yet to develop, the oared “turtle ships” of Korea and China repulsed a Japanese invasion fleet in 1597, marking an end to warfare under oars in that hemisphere.
Portugal and Spain held sway as the great imperial and naval powers from approximately 1450 to 1650. Portugal carved out a massive empire, with outposts on the coasts of Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, and Spain laid claim to the entire Western Hemisphere, a division of the world recognized in the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. By 1515 Portugal controlled the Indian Ocean. Trade between India and Europe shifted from overland routes controlled by Turks, Arabs, and Italian city-states to the all-water route around Africa controlled by Portugal. In 1540 Portugal established commercial relations with China and was setting up trading stations in Southeast Asia. It was Portugal’s navy that allowed the penetration of the region by its traders. Meanwhile, Spain developed a great empire in Latin America and used its navy to bar trading by other countries with the region.
During the second half of the sixteenth century the northern European nations of France, England, and the Netherlands mounted a challenge to Iberian hegemony that resulted in containment of Spain by the French and English, and Holland stripped Portugal of colonies such as the Cape of Good Hope and Melaka, where naval power could be brought to bear. Portugal retained colonies such as Brazil, where sea power could not be decisive, and Spain acknowledged the right of France and England to establish colonies in North America.
England followed its long-running war with Spain (1568–1604) with two additional series of largely maritime wars, first with the Netherlands (1652–1654, 1665–1667, and 1672–1674), which resulted in English control of New Amsterdam and the Cape of Good Hope, then with France (1688–1697, 1701–1713, 1740–1748, 1756–1763, 1778–1783, 1792–1800, and 1803–1815). In the Great War for Empire, 1754–1763, England, now Great Britain, virtually evicted France from Canada and India and contained French expansion in the Caribbean. During the Wars of the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1815, Britain, the sea power, decisively defeated France, the continental power.
Concurrent with the ebb and flow of these tides of empire, other nations entered the balance of power on a regional basis. For varying periods of time and over various waters of the world, the navies of Catalonia, Imperial and Soviet Russia, China, and other countries have contended for power, but never quite supplanted one of the great powers. In restricted areas the naval forces of still other nations have held sway for varying periods of time, e.g., the Austrian-Hungarians in the Adriatic Sea; Indians in the Indian Ocean; the Hanseatic League, Danes, and Swedes in the Baltic; and Barbary Corsairs in the Mediterranean.
During the early twentieth century a number of regional naval powers, particularly Japan in the eastern Pacific, Italy in the Mediterranean, Germany in the North Sea, and the United States in the Caribbean, Western Pacific, and even the Atlantic eroded Britain’s command of the sea. During the twentieth century two world wars eliminated Italy, Japan, and Germany as contenders for great navies, but the cost of fighting those conflicts so sapped Britain’s strength that by the second half of the twentieth century, the U.S. Navy had replaced the Royal Navy as the supreme sea service of the world.
During the middle of the nineteenth century, while Queen Victoria’s Royal Navy imposed a Pax Britannia on the world, lesser naval powers led the technological revolution that saw steam-powered, armored-hulled ships with rifled ordnance firing exploding shells replace wooden-hulled, sail-powered men-of-war armed with smooth-bore cannon that fired solid shot. The U.S. Navy’s Stevens Battery of 1843 was the first ironclad warship, the Russian navy demonstrated the superiority of exploding ordnance when it destroyed the Turkish fleet at Sinope in 1853, and in 1861 the Monitor and the Virginia fought the first duel between steam-powered ironclad warships.
Be they triremes in the ancient Mediterranean, ships-of-the-line sailing the Atlantic, or aircraft carriers cruising the Pacific, warships are among the most complex and expensive items constructed by man. They are so expensive that only relatively large political bodies have the resources necessary to construct and operate them. Thus warships function as extensions of states, as agents of power that can be used for multiple purposes. Virtually all states with seacoasts, and many with large rivers, have constructed navies. States that are primarily continental or land powers have traditionally employed their naval forces in conjunction with their armies to defend their coasts against invasion or to transport troops along coastal waters, around lakes, and across rivers. When naval vessels ventured far from home it was to attack enemy commerce or perhaps to raid the enemy’s coast. Maritime powers, in contrast, depend on waterborne commerce. They use their navies to protect their merchant shipping and to expand markets for their traders, to blockade enemy coasts, to transport troops for amphibious operations, and to support forces deployed overseas.
Weapons and Tactics
Each of the great ages of naval warfare had its own characteristic weapons, and each age was marked by a gradual evolution within those weapon systems. The earliest battles of warfare under oars involved land forces fighting at sea by boarding other vessels and defeating its soldiers much as they would on land. When bronze rams were added to the bows of the galleys, commanders attempted to ram one another, as in the battle off Alalia in 535 b.c., the first naval battle for which we have a literary description, but victory still generally resulted from boarding tactics. As galleys became larger to accommodate additional rowers to provide the power needed to drive the ram into the enemy ship, artillery in the form of catapults was adapted for use at sea, and archers entered military forces on both land and water. Battles began at longer range with an exchange of projectiles fired by catapults and archers, but basic tactics changed little as the goal of the projectiles was to render unable to fight as many of the enemy as possible before the ship was captured by boarding. Toward the end of the Age of Galley warfare the Byzantines perfected “Greek fire,” a mixture of crude oil, sulfur or pitch, and saltpeter that would ignite spontaneously. The carefully guarded secret of the chemical composition of “Greek fire” was lost, and during the same era gunpowder was developed, which led to the invention of cast metal cannon. Just as the battles of Lepanto and the Spanish Armada marked symbolically the end of the age of warfare under oars and the start of the Age of Sail, so too did they mark the replacement of boarding tactics as the key element in victory by naval artillery. When the ships of the Spanish Armada were unable to get close enough to England’s to board them, and English gunnery began a destruction of the Spanish that was completed by weather and disease, a new age began.
Gunnery dominated warfare under sail, and tactics reflected differing views on how best to employ them. Commanders in England’s Royal Navy sought to get in close to the enemy and hammer his hull until loss of life or fear of sinking led the enemy to surrender. French commanders preferred to stand off from the enemy ship and aim at her sails in the hope of so destroying sails and rigging that the opponent could no longer maneuver, then to close from such an angle that the enemy could return little fire and would surrender rather than risk annihilation. English commanders, accustomed to fighting the French, were surprised when Americans John Paul Jones, Thomas Macdonough, and Oliver Hazard Perry sought or accepted combat at close quarters and continued engagements after their flagships were so battered that each one ultimately sank.
As sail gave way to steam new weapons—torpedoes and bombs—delivered by new weapons systems—torpedo boats, submarines, and aircraft—revolutionized warfare at sea. Half a century later missiles replaced guns as the main antiaircraft, antiship, and antisubmarine weapons, and aircraft and cruise missiles were used to project power long distances over land.