#Reviewing To Master the Boundless Sea

To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire. Jason W. Smith. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

When examining the United States’ imperial ambitions of the 19th century, scholars are immediately drawn to the romanticized history of Manifest Destiny and the pioneers’ virtuous determination to expand across North America “from sea to shining sea.”[1] In his new and seminal work, Jason W. Smith—2019 recipient of the John Lyman Book Award in naval and maritime science and technology—offers a wider lens of U.S. expansionism and a revival of 19th century American predetermination. To Master the Boundless Sea draws on maritime, environmental, social history, and the history of naval science to highlight those who helped chart the course for America’s expansionist goals. With today’s changing climates, rising sea levels, and shifting coastlines, Smith’s work is both timely and valuable for military strategists and policy makers when facing challenges concerning the open seas, littoral zones, and brown waterways affecting naval operations and the future of America’s global influence.

Smith’s chronology begins in the 1830s, a period marking the height of the age of sail and the burgeoning US Navy as a competing global influence. Smith contends the Navy was, in fact, at the forefront “as one of the most important scientific institutions of the 19th century.”[2] Naval science began as a means for safe and speedy navigation for merchant vessels in a global marine environment where naval cartography and hydrography paved the way. The US Navy’s leadership emerged when, in 1830, it established a formal bureau to provide charts and navigational guidance for merchant and whaling ships, encouraging the growth of American commerce.[3] What began as the Depot of Charts and Instruments—led by the “Pathfinder of the Seas,” Navy Commander Matthew Fontaine Maury—later expanded in 1844 to become the US Naval Observatory office in Washington DC. While commonplace today, Smith cleverly acknowledges the link between the US Navy and science as a novel assembly when it began, one that set the stage for an empire. The Navy amassed charts and surveys as “instruments of power” with military and strategic ambitions and Maury’s work Wind and Current Charts was the genesis in the growing emergence of maritime science.[4]

Yet, as Smith illustrates, the environment itself would dictate the narratives of a growing empire as naval scientists regularly encountered the dangers of the uncharted “watery wilderness.” They experienced treacherous weather, shipwrecks, high mortality rates, unpredictable currents, hazardous underwater ecosystems, and indigenous cannibals on “savage coasts.”[5] Smith exposes naval science as a “fraught place in the ranks” amidst two global rivals—the United States, led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and the US Exploring Expedition, and Great Britain’s Royal Society led by James Cook. This first rivalry was joined by a second global contest between the undying curiosity and determination of human nature and the natural world itself. Accounts from journals, hydrographic charts, and publications propelled numerous literary authors of the 19th century to publish tales of the sea, resulting in works like Herman Melville’s highly popularized novel Moby Dick. Naval science persisted over the ocean environment for the sake of mapping and navigating the seas for the future of an American empire.

Constructing a book that crosses several historical disciplines is a challenge, and Smith skillfully connects the United States’ commercial and strategic interests with the environmental and economic history of the 1800s by exhausting dozens of primary sources from the manuscripts, diaries, journals, charts and surveys of naval scientists. He concludes with the 1898 Spanish-American War and the turn of the century when Alfred Thayer Mahan’s concepts of sea power dominated discourses on naval strategy and American imperial influence. This empire, Smith asserts, came with new challenges of defending newly acquired post-war territories that were restricted, again, by the oceans, bays, harbors, and coasts of the natural world, and limited human knowledge of them.[6]

Smith addresses the importance of this work to a wider public beyond simply an academic audience. He acknowledges “the sea has long been and continues to be a force with which the navy must reckon.” Reliance on the sea as a means for control, both strategic and commercial, will continue to challenge naval operations and national security.[7] The global climate and maritime environment are rapidly changing and for policy makers who make decisions, this raises questions concerning the United States’ future maritime economy and military operational reach. The strategic implications are especially appropriate in an era of heightened tensions with adversaries that include territorial disputes or strategic chokepoints in the contested waters of the Persian Gulf, the Sea of Japan, and the South China Sea. 

Noting the wide breadth of historical genres within his study, naval historians will welcome the value of Smith’s work as a prologue to understanding American imperialism and Mahan’s doctrine supporting sea control, specifically to the maintenance of colonies.  Smith does this by positioning the American sea power as a comparative model against the British Empire. The US Navy’s reliance on British charts for cartography and navigation, as well as its identity of nationalism in both commercialism and strategy, were “central to the expansion of empire.”[8] Situated within the broader field of military history, this argument is a key feature of Smith’s historiography and central to the readers’ broader understanding of the book.

Smith also recognizes the critical authors whose prior work has contributed to our understanding of early maritime explorations, such as Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory. Environmentalists, too, will appreciate his nod to the infamous works of William Cronon and Roderick Nash.[9]  In his epilogue, Smith advocates for the Navy to grasp the natural world with its own competing political, military, commercial, scientific, and environmental interests for the sake of national security and inevitable climate changes it will face.[10] Ultimately, Smith’s book will accommodate both scholars and seekers of American naval heritage. Its reception among historians proves this work as a major contribution to many fields and the broader understanding of the 19th century naval history that led to the American empire. One can appreciate the title To Master the Boundless Sea as an endless endeavor to challenge ourselves to strive and understand the immeasurable depths of the seas and the relationship between knowledge and the environment in which we live.    

Kevin M. Boyce is an officer in the United States Marine Corps and a former history instructor at the United States Naval Academy. He currently serves as an aviation command and control officer and planner with the II Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Lejeune, NC. The views contained are the author’s alone and do not represent the Department of Defense, United States Marine Corps, or the United States Naval Academy.

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Header Image: “Tropical Sunset at Sea” (Mauritz Frederick Hendrick De Haas)


[1] Katherine Lee Bates, “America the Beautiful,” Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1893.

[2] Jason W. Smith, To Master the Boundless Sea: The U.S. Navy, the Marine Environment, and the Cartography of Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018), 7.

[3] Ibid., 15.

[4] Ibid., 8.

[5] Ibid., 38 and 53.

[6] Ibid., 169.

[7] Ibid., 208.

[8] Ibid., 31 and 9.

[9] Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery; The U.S. Exploring expedition, 1838-1842 (New York: Penguin Books 2001); William Cronon, ed. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W. W. Norton, 1995); and Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967). 

[10] Smith, 209.