Over the next several weeks, we will be reviewing a series of books about what life was like in Nelson’s navy. The first is Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy by Roy & Leslie Adkins, subtitled “the extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy.” A fascinating and well written book.
One of the criticism of many books addressing Nelson’s time are that they either romanticize or are overly harsh is their descriptions of conditions aboard the ships of the Royal Navy. Jack Tar does neither. It provides a wealth of detail and description, which neither glorifies nor vilifies the complexity and contradiction of life aboard a man of war. The image that emerges is full and nuanced, sketching the mix of culture and rank in the teeming and cramped society that was a King’s ship.
Beyond an introductory note to provide the reader an historical timeline and a bit of background about the ships themselves, Jack Tar stays focused exclusively on the seamen and officers of the fleet. In a literal sense, Jack Tar gives the long lost lost sailors voice, by the extensive use of letters, excerpts from diaries, and official reports. The hopes, fears, concerns, grievances and often wry humor of the seamen and their officers come through vividly to a modern reader.
We hear the stories told by pressed men, carried away from their homes or from merchant ships, as well as sailor’s complaints about food, both the monotony and quantity. We read of fogs and bad weather and storms and ship’s sinking. Likewise, in the Chapter “A Wife in Every Port” we hear of the women aboard ships, the legions of prostitutes and even a few wives, rowed out to be with their men while the ship was at anchor. The sailors were rarely allowed ashore to prevent desertion.
There are chapters on shipboard routine and discipline, on sailing with convoys and the results of enemy capture, of shipboard medicine and surgery, as well as leisure time. We also see the ships and sailors in bloody battle. The details are vivid and the prose is gripping. The final chapter addresses victory, prize money and finally peace, when the Royal Navy, which employed 145,000 dropped to less than 20,000 in 1817, sending many thousands of sailors ashore without employment or prospects.
Roy & Leslie Adkins are both archaeologists, historians and authors. Individually and as a team they have written numerous books over a wide range of historical or archeological topics. Roy Adkin’s Nelson’s Trafalgar: The Battle That Changed the World is widley admired as is Leslie Adkin’s Empires of the Plain: Henry Rawlinson and the Lost Languages of Babylon. In 2008 they teamed up to write, The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo and wrote Jack Tar in 2009. Available in Great Britain, it has only recently become available in paperback in the United States.
Jack Tar is an immersive and fascinating look into a the life of the British Jack Tar during the Napoleonic Wars. Highly recommended.