Who Rules the Waves


A message from Edgar Knowlton reminded me that children in England used to sing "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves". I assumed it went back to the Napoleonic wars, but here are the first few verses:

Rule Britannia
a song by Thomas Augustine Arne, 1740

When Britain first at Heav'n's command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain;

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.

The nations not so blest as thee,
Shall in their turns to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.

Rule, Britannia! Britannia, rule the waves:
Britons never will be slaves.

So the song goes back to 1740. 1740? Sir Robert Walpole was finishing his long term as prime minister. The War of the Austrian Succession did not begin until 1742, so I don't know what the excitement was all about in 1740. And who on earth was Thomas Arne? Notice the first line which embodies the American belief in Manifest Destiny.
Edgar writes: " I am reminded that when I was young we all knew England was mistress of the seas, and were quite happy. A few year later, I recall seeing a navy training film in which it was pointed out to us that it was America's duty to rule the seas. The idea struck some of us as so bizarre, that there was a burst of laughter at that pompous statement. Just a few years can make a difference. And think what has happened to our merchant fleet". RH: Yes, but America is determined to rule the waves, although there is no song celebrating it. That this means as far as the coast of China may be a bad omen. Spain once declared the Pacific a mare clausum, meaning it was boss there. The reaction was the doctrine of the freedom of the seas, proclaimed by Grotius in Mare Liberum (1609). The US position is similar to that of imperial Spain.


Ronald Hilton -


Webmaster