Book Review: A Treatise On The Relative Rights And Duties Of Belligerent And Neutral Powers In Maritime Affairs

A Treatise On The Relative Rights And Duties Of Belligerent And Neutral Powers In Maritime Affairs, by Robert Ward

I disagreed with a lot of the argument of this book.  But in many ways the argument of the book is itself an interesting enough one and the history of the obscurity of the book interesting enough that it is worthwhile even with the issues that the book has.  Indeed, this book was written in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars when the British navy sought to justify its high-handed approach towards neutrals, an approach which led in large part to conflict with Denmark as well as the United States, and which led Great Britain to be thought of as particularly arrogant in its dealings with other nations.  As a result, this book rather predictably went out of print and except for a few copies was lost for decades until someone during the time of the Crimean War thought that it would be worthwhile to bring the book and its arguments back, where the book has remained at least somewhat in the consciousness of those who are interested in the debate over maritime law and the rights of neutrals.  It should be noted that the rights of neutrals has always been of interest to the United States and has been a source of frequent conflict between the United States and various other maritime powers.

This book is about 200 pages or so, and it consists mainly of the author trying to debunk the idea that neutrals engaged in shipping on the high seas have rights that belligerents must respect.  The author’s mindset is that only the strong have the right to sail where they wish, and claims that if neutrals want their rights to be respected on the high seas they need to become stronger.  Naturally, even though the British empire was keen on having the right to search and seize when it was the most powerful naval power, it sang a different tune in the Civil War when the Union searched and seized its own ships in search of rebel envoys.  That this book was rescued from obscurity suggests that it was of use to someone in the Victorian British world, but at the same time the contemporary reader will be most interested in seeing the legalistic way that the author interprets the history of maritime law to make a point that is obviously due to self-interest rather than the interests of justice for the rest of the world as a whole.

To what extent is a book like this relevant today?  To be sure, wars are pretty rare between superpowers that have massive navies, and so one would think that issues of search and seizure would not be as common now as they were in the Napoleonic era.  Yet in this day and age the issue of drugs and the search and seizure of small boats on the high seas to try to stop the flow of drug imports into the United States and other developed countries is certainly an issue that deals with questions about neutrality in the drug war.  Such concerns are not in the mind of the author, obviously, but he is particularly fierce when it comes to defending the right of Great Britain as a naval power in being able to search and seize at will despite what anyone else has to say about it.  This book could only be written by someone who is speaking on behalf of a predominant naval power, because the experience of being the weaker party would make the author less strident and more empathetic in his tone.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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