21-Gun Salute

“One of the prime expressions of acknowledged sovereign national power is the twenty-one-gun salute, which seems to show interesting analogies with the traditional coming of age of a fully entitled adult, who can vote, drink, serve in the army, have sex, marry, and drive. But this age of adult initiation is only a very recent tradition in the Western world, coinciding with the end of university education, and is in any case today slipping back towards 18 and 16.

In fact, the twenty-one-gun salute has no spiritual origins. It evolved out of an expression of explosive power by the British navy that would demand a first salute from a foreign ship, then give them a withering demonstration of their superior discipline and power with their own salvo. Initially restricted to seven rounds, or seven cannon, it grew expediently with the size and arsenal of the ships of the line, but was capped at twenty-one so as not to waste too much time and powder. It also became less aggressive and by the nineteenth century ships would salute each other with a friendly gun-for-gun exchange.”

Excerpted from: Rogerson, Barnaby. Rogerson’s Book of Numbers: The Culture of Numbers–from 1,001 Nights to the Seven Wonders of the World. New York: Picador, 2013.

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