ADMIRAL, the title of the general officer who commands a fleet, or subdivision of a fleet. The origin of the word is undoubtedly Arabic. In the 12th century the Mediterranean states which had close relations with the Moslem powers on the shores or in the islands of that sea, found the title amir or emir in combination with other words used to describe men in authority; the amir-al-mumenin—prince of the faithful—or al-bahr—commander of the sea. They took the substantive “amir” and the article “al” to form one word, “amiral” or “ammiral” or “almirante.” The Spaniards made miramamolin, out of amiral-mumenin, in the same way. “Amiral,” as the name of an eastern ruler, became familiar to the northern nations during the crusades. Layamon, writing in the early years of the 13th century, speaks of the “ammiral of Babilon,” and the word was for long employed in this sense. As a naval title it was first taken by the French from the Genoese during the crusade of 1249. By the end of the 13th century it had come to be used in England as the name of the officer who commanded the Cinque Port ships. The English form “admiral” arose from popular confusion with the Latin admirabilis. Such errors were naturally produced by the fantastic etymology of the middle ages. In Spain, Alphonso the Wise of Castile, in his code of laws, the Siete Partidas (Seven Divisions), accounts for the Spanish form “almirante” by its supposed derivation from the Latin admirari, since the admiral is “to be admired” for the difficulties and dangers he overcomes, and because he is the chief of those who see the wonders of the Lord in the deep—mirabilia ejus (sc. Domini) in profundo. Both in Spanish and in Elizabethan English the word has been applied to the flagship of an officer commanding a fleet or part of one. The Spanish almiranta is the ship of the second in command, and the capitana of the first. In this sense it is not uncommonly found in the narratives of Elizabethan voyages or campaigns, and it is so used by Milton in Paradise Lost—“the mast of some tall ammiral.”
As the title of an office it was borne by the great military, judicial and administrative officer known in France as grand amiral; in England as lord high admiral; in Spain as almirante mayor. His functions, which were wide, have been generally absorbed by the crown, or the state, and have been divided among judicial and administrative officials (see Navy, History; Admiralty Administration; and Admiralty Jurisdiction.) The title of admiral is still borne as an hereditary honour by the descendants of Columbus, the dukes of Veraqua, in Spain. It is a purely honorific distinction representing the admiralship of the islands and Ocean Sea, conferred on the discoverer by the Catholic sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella.
In the staff of a modern navy the admirals correspond to the general officers in the army. Where, as in Russia, the grand admiralship is annexed to the crown, the highest rank is that of lieutenant admiral general. In Great Britain there is the rank of admiral of the fleet, corresponding to field-marshal. It is, however, little more than an honorary distinction. The three active ranks are those of admiral, vice-admiral and rear-admiral, corresponding to general, lieutenant-general and major-general in the army. They are found in all navies under very slightly varied forms. The only difference which is not one of mere spelling is in the equivalent for rear-admiral, which is contre amiral in French, and in other navies of the continent of Europe involves some slight variation of the word “contre” (first used at the time of the French Revolution). The vice- and rear-admiral of Great Britain are again honorary titles, without the active functions, conferred in compliment on senior naval officers. “Admiral” is also the name given to the chief of fishery fleets. On the banks of Newfoundland it was given to officials who had powers conferred by the state. In the case of an ordinary fishing-fleet in European waters, it is of private origin, and is of merely customary use.
Authorities.—Sir N. Harris Nicolas, History of the Royal Navy; La Roncière, Histoire de la marine française; Youge, Geschiedenis van het Nederlandsche Zeewezen; C. Fernandez Duro, Historia de la Armada de Castilea.