#Reviewing Islamic Seapower During the Age of Fighting Sail

Islamic Seapower During the Age of Fighting Sail. Philip MacDougall. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2017.

Over the past five years, strategic horizons have shifted east and drawn closer attention to increasing naval power across the Pacific. Analysts have pointed out that the rising size of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy, to say nothing of the growth of the Chinese Coast Guard fleet, has caused neighbors to adjust their own building plans. Some have even suggested that there is a naval arms race underway in Southeast Asia. The United States is not a passive observer of these trends either, shifting the balance of the U.S. fleet so that 60% of American warships are in the Indo-Pacific region. The nations in that part of the world have noticed American naval developments in parallel with those of China.[1]

People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Vessels (Defence Lover India)

This focus on naval power, in a region made up of archipelagic and island nations, peninsulas, and massive expanses of maritime space, certainly makes strategic sense. But the Indo-Pacific is not the only part of the world with navies and naval developments. At the same time observers have trumpeted naval races in the Pacific region, they have reinforced the idea that landpower and armies dominate the Middle East and the Islamic world.[2] Closer examination of both the past and the present suggests this strategic perception is not as persuasive as it appears at first blush. The naval past and present of the Islamic world offers a great deal to study.

The modern Mediterranean and Arabian Seas are neither peaceful, nor secure from a maritime perspective. The daunting movement of migrant people flowing across the Mediterranean has challenged the maritime security capabilities of even the most advanced European navies.[3] Meanwhile the war in Yemen has repeatedly spilled onto the sea, with engagements of both Saudi and American warships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. A reconsideration of the sizes and shapes of navies in the wider Middle East buttress the operational realities and naval combat on the fringes of the Islamic world.

It is not only the nations of the Pacific that are strengthening and modernizing their fleets, it is happening throughout the Islamic world as well. In 2017, the Turkish Navy launched its fourteenth ship in the last fifteen years. Turkey has expanded its industrial base from 37 shipyards to 80, and has announced the continued development of newer, modern warships including a national frigate program and the construction of their first aircraft carrier, based on the Spanish Juan Carlos amphibious assault carrier design.[4] Other Mediterranean nations from Egypt to Algeria, and even the nascent governing body in Libya, have increased their small fleets with new corvettes, gunboats, and conventionally powered submarines in the past year. The increasing tensions between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran also have a naval component as both nations continue to strengthen their maritime forces. The Iranians continue to develop their weapons and tactics, and the Saudi Navy has seen combat off Yemen and placed orders for a frigate version of the American Freedom class Littoral Combat Ship, maritime helicopters, and naval patrol aircraft.[5] From the Maghreb to the shores of the Indian subcontinent, the 2018 report on world naval developments by the U.S. Naval Institute shows that the Navies of the Islamic world are growing and modernizing just as the maritime forces are in the Pacific.[6]

While the maritime developments of 2017 challenge the easy focus on landpower in the wider Middle East, and suggest a rising role for Islamic navies in the modern day, Philip MacDougall’s new book Islamic Seapower During the Age of Fighting Sail demonstrates that there is also an overlooked history of naval power in the region. Specifically focused on the navies of the Age of Sail period, roughly from dawn of the 16th century to the midpoint of the 19th century, MacDougall’s book examines a wide expanse of history and naval affairs. The book offers a valuable contribution to the field of both naval history and the history of the Middle East. As with all good books, astute readers are left with some hard questions, and the book creates room for continued work by both historians and modern-day analysts.

The book is roughly divided into three parts, which are broken up geographically. The first section examines the naval history of the Ottoman Empire over six chapters, from the force’s adoption of galleons over galleys to their faceoff with the combined European fleet at Navarino in 1827. This is the longest of the three sections and recounts the rising and falling of the size of the Ottoman Fleet. In doing so, MacDougall relates some of the political and administrative elements of how that fleet was developed and maintained, as well as delving into the logistics, maintenance, and construction of the Sultan’s naval forces. The second part of the book includes two chapters that consider the naval forces of the Maghreb, or the Barbary States as the Europeans then knew them, and a chapter on the naval forces of Egypt. The final part of the book is by far the shortest, including a chapter about the navies of ArabiaOman and the modern day emirates of the Persian Gulfand a chapter on navies in Muslim India.

MacDougall offers the caveat that his book is not about naval battles, and that it is not about warships, per se. However, there are plenty of examples where he relates the basics of significant naval engagements. MacDougall’s accounts of the repeated conflicts between the Turks and the Russians across the era resulted in plenty of operational history for more tactically and combat minded readers. Likewise, the rise of the raiders from the Maghreb, who would go on to fight both Europeans and Americans in the numerous small Barbary Wars, is recounted with operational detail and examples. However, for the most part, MacDougall remains true to his goal of examining the larger questions of fleet organization, administration, construction, and leadership rather than making the book a sequence of battle histories.

MacDougall points out that, for the most part, the Islamic states of the early modern world saw land and land power as the source of their wealth. This limited how they looked to the sea, and detracted from their ability to develop national merchant marines and create the trade based wealth that appeared to coincide with naval power in Europe. This is one of the contradictions of Islamic Seapower During the Age of Fighting Sail, that it is really about naval power rather than seapower since there is little examination of the other maritime forces like trade and nautical culture. MacDougall highlights the challenges that Islamic navies faced in terms of their leadership, and the administration of their navies. In America, Sea Power, and the World, Jim Bradford wrote that it was during the Age of Sail that modern navies began to develop. He categorized naval modernization through a fleet’s adoption of three things: purpose designed and built warships, a professional officer corps, and a permanent shore establishment to construct and administer them.[7]

MacDougall mirrors Bradford’s observation without realizing it, focusing on the Islamic navies challenges with these three elements. Falling back on the analysis of Alfred Thayer Mahan, MacDougall suggests that the key element missing from the Islamic development of seapower was leadership. Internal governmental challenges resulted in hiring foreigners to build and design their ships or buying them outright from European powers. Political elites commonly purchased commissions in the Ottoman navy, rather than developing a professional, career officer corps. These factors combined with corruption and politicization of the naval administration, to limit the Ottoman navy and the other forces of the Islamic world.

But this analysis raises one of the most challenging questions for MacDougall’s study, the sourcing of the history considered. Using western analysis of seapower, like Mahan’s work, is just the tip of the iceberg. Much of Islamic Seapower in the Age of Fighting Sail can only be described as an “Orientalist” book, in a Saidian sense.[8] Perhaps a better title would have been What the British and Westerners Thought of Islamic Seapower in the Age of Fighting Sail, because the sources used by the author are almost entirely observations recorded in the memoirs, letters, and archival materials of British officers and other Europeans from the era. Even the American naval hero John Paul Jones makes an appearance as a primary source, the author using some of his letters from his service with the Russian Navy under Catherine the Great when fighting the Ottomans in the Black Sea. While these sources are valuable, and offer important details for historical study, they are not the same thing as studying the actual records of the navies under examination. There is little in the book’s bibliography to demonstrate engagement with Turkish or Arabic language sources beyond a handful of documents found in translation.

"Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha defeats the Holy League of Charles V under the command of Andrea Doria at the Battle of Preveza (1538)" by Ohannes Umed Behzad (WIkimedia)

A secondary challenge for scholars attempting to critically consider the author’s analysis is that the editors reserved footnotes almost exclusively for direct quotes. Readers frequently run across claims and assertions with little documentary support. For example, the author alleges that the raiders and corsairs from the Barbary Coast had primarily and directly religious motivations for their missions. But without notes to support the claim, his only proof appears to be that religious leaders blessed ships before they left port. Given this logic, one could also conclude that all frigate-sized or larger British and American ships were Christian crusaders with religious purposes because they carried religious leaders on board, in the form of Chaplains who regularly blessed the crews. The level of religious fervor from Mediterranean corsairs is a subject debated in the scholarship of the region, and readers are led quickly astray by how the subject is presented in this book.[9]

Despite the complications presented by the sources in Islamic Seapower in the Age of Fighting Sail, the book is certainly an important one. There is very little published on the subject in English, and this may indeed be the first book of its kind as the author claims in the preface. For that reason alone, this is a valuable book because it helps to begin to fill that gap in the available literature. MacDougall’s analysis offers much to consider when modern strategists reflect on what makes a state into a sea power, and what happens when nations that do not traditionally place high value on the sea attempt to build up large and regionally dominant navies. The book leads to important questions about how combat leadership mixes with administrative management in the creation of seapower, and the undervalued role of the construction and logistical support of fleets in the development of sustained naval power.

Today, Egypt is expanding its naval infrastructure by building new piers and enlarging its facilities, the United Arab Emirates continues work on a naval base in Somaliland, Somalia, and other nations in the Islamic world are continuing the buy new warships and weapons from Europe, the United States, and Asia. The patterns of Islamic seapower illustrated by MacDougall appear again in the present day. By engaging with this important book, modern naval and military thinkers will begin to develop an understanding of how naval and maritime power has been developed in the region in the past. This can result in a better framework for them to consider developments and naval strategy in the present and the future. Seapower is not exclusive to one ocean, one region, or one methodology. It was, and is, the first worldwide expression of national power and military strength, and must be viewed through a wide, global vision.

BJ Armstrong is a U.S. Navy officer and Assistant Professor of War Studies and Naval History at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the editor of the 21st Century Foundations series from the Naval Institute Press, which includes his book 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: "The Battle of Lepanto" Andrea Vicentino (Wikimedia)


[1] Elias Groll and Dan DeLuce. (26 August 2016). “China is Fueling a Submarine Arms Race in the Asia-Pacific.” Foreign Policy. http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/08/26/china-is-fueling-a-submarine-arms-race-in-the-asia-pacific/  Koh Swee Lean Collin. (6 May 2017). “Is there and arms race among navies in Southeast Asia?,” Channel NewsAsia. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/commentary-is-there-an-arms-race-among-navies-in-southeast-asia-8817454  “US Navy to have 60% surface ships in Indo-Asia Pacific region” (11 April 2016) The Economic Times. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/us-navy-to-have-60-surface-ships-in-indo-asia-pacific-region/articleshow/51778769.cms

[2] David Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Got Landpower?” War on the Rocks (6 October 2015). https://warontherocks.com/2015/10/got-landpower/

[3] House of Lords European Union Committee, UK Parliament. (12 July 2017). Operation Sophia: A Failed Mission. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldeucom/5/5.pdf

[4] Burak Ege Bekdil (17 July 2017). “Turkey’s naval ambitions boosting local industry.” Defense News. https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2017/07/17/turkey-s-naval-ambitions-boosting-local-industry/

[5] T.J. Gilmore, “Iran Owns the Gray Zone,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 3 (March 2018), 48-53. 

[6] Eric Wertheim, “2018 World Navies Review,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 144, No. 3 (March 2018), 62-73.

[7] James Bradford, ed. America, Sea Power, and the World (Chichester, West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons, 2016), 4.

[8] Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).

[9] Adrian Tinniswood, Pirates of the Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests, and Captivity in the Seventeenth Century Mediterranean (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010).  Paul Silverstein, “The New Barbarians: Piracy and Terrorism on the North African Frontier,” CR: The New Centennial Review, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2005), 179-212.