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Alfred Thayer Mahan & Imperialism

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  • 0:03 The Age of Imperialism
  • 1:28 Mahan's Monumental Work
  • 3:25 ''Sea Power's'' Impact
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: James Moeller
In 1890, US Navy Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote a landmark book entitled, 'The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783.' The book had great impact on navies around the world, and its influence can still be seen in military defense today.

The Age of Imperialism

The late 19th century has often been called the Age of Imperialism. Occurring sometime between 1850 and 1920, it was a time when powerful nations believed it was in their best interest to take over smaller nations as a means of protecting their homelands, fostering trade, and providing coaling stations for their large navies. The most common naval vessel of the day was known as a dreadnought battleship, a type of warship ran on steam and required large quantities of coal; the famous USS Maine that was blown up in Havana harbor and is often blamed for starting the Spanish-American War, was this type of ship. The range of these ships was limited and thus required a resupply of coal from worldwide locations, like Hawaii and its naval base, Pearl Harbor.

Unfortunately, there were racially-motivated considerations for colonization as well, which were embodied by the famous poem and phrase of the time, The White Man's Burden, written by the famed author, Sir Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book. This phrase fostered the idea that it was the 'burden' of European and other similar nations to take the white man's culture and civilization to 'savage' tribes in Africa and elsewhere. It was in this kind of environment that Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, a Navy captain turned instructor, wrote and released his works.

Mahan's Monumental Work

Although Captain Mahan had command experience in the US Navy, his record of service would hardly be considered exemplary. Records show that ships under his command would collide with other vessels or stationary objects. As a lieutenant in the US Civil War (1861-1865), he did have some combat experience, but it was limited. However, after his promotion to captain in 1885, with command of the USS Wachusett, his career shifted from naval commander to teacher, when he accepted a post at the US Naval War College in the same year.

He taught Naval War History and by all accounts appeared to be an excellent instructor. The commanding officer of the War College, Rear Admiral Stephen B. Luce, asked him to research and write a series of articles on the influence of sea power on history. Mahan later took Admiral Luce's place as the college's first superintendent on October 16, 1885. It was this series of articles that formed the basis for Mahan's famous book released in 1890, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783. Basing his book on momentous naval events, such as the War of 1812, the Napoleonic Wars, and the American Revolution, Mahan insisted that it was naval sea power that made the difference in these conflicts.

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