Literary Review: Sons of the Waves by Stephen Taylor

At their peak, early in the 19th century, there were some 262,427 of them across Britain’s naval and merchant fleets. People called them Jacks, but they are nameless mostly. Or nameless to history. Even on surviving musters, their identities can be hidden behind pseudonyms. Some of these – George Million or Jacob Blackbeard, say – express a degree of wish-fulfilment. Others are more whimsical, like the Mark Anthony and Julius Caesar on board the Calcutta-bound Tyger in 1757.

To join them was to enter another world, with its own laws – the 36 Articles of War, read to them every Sunday, besides whatever strictures a captain thought fit to apply – its own rituals, its own argot. “All seemed strange,” one former ship’s boy recalled of his first days on board, “different language and strange expressions of tongue, that I thought myself asleep and never properly awake.”

There were, of course distinctions, among them. The lowest of the low were the waisters, comprised of old men, boys and the most inexperienced landsmen, good for nothing but drudgery. Then came the afterguard, ordinary seaman and more skilled landsmen who trimmed the after yard and the sails. Above them were the forecastlemen, able seamen who handled the lower ropes and saw to the weighing and anchoring. Princes over all of them were the topmen, the Foremast Jacks, who went aloft to bend or reef the sails even in the highest of seas.

As Stephen Taylor argues in this enthralling new book, it is men like these who, in the great age of sail, made the British Empire possible. He gives us Britain’s rise to maritime supremacy – roughly the century from 1750 to 1850 – told using first-hand accounts from the lower decks, woven through with official records – ships’ logs, muster rolls, court martials, and so on – and other contemporary sources.

Because of the immediacy of these sources – and Taylor’s deft, incisive use of them – it is the men, not the nation, to whom Sons of the Waves belongs. Which is how they would have want it, one feels. “Out of the King’s service they are in general citizens of the world,” one officer wrote of them. But that was only partly true. Jacks might have made the empire possible, but they were only circumstantially loyal to it.

When their personal discontent became intolerable they deserted in their tens of thousands. Nelson himself reckoned that 42,000 deserted between 1793 and 1802 alone – a figure Taylor believes to be on the low side. Their skills made them their own, highly prized commodity, and they were happy to sail under any flag, towards any compass point.

The people who valued that commodity least were the Navy.

Perhaps the most resented practice was impressment, the seizure of experienced seamen (and, after 1798, almost any suitable man) for service. Those pressed on land often left behind them wives and children condemned to destitution. Taylor highlights Mary Jones, a mother of two, one new-born, who was evicted after her merchant-seaman husband was taken. She was hanged for stealing a length of cloth in October 1771 – suckling her baby on the gallows, it was said. Those pressed at sea might have spent two years sailing to India and back and be seized in sight of English shores – and two-years back-pay – for another year or more of service.

The “obnoxious discipline of the British Navy”, in the words of one 18th-century seaman, was shameful too. It wasn’t just the floggings – anything from 12 strokes, the typical beating for drunkenness, to 300, even 500, for desertion or mutiny. There were also practices such as ‘starting’, which saw officers beating men to their stations. How much violence a crew might experience was solely down to the character of the captain.

Then there was pay. By 1797, it had been stagnant for an eye-watering 150 years. It was this, more than anything, that led to the greatest mutiny in British maritime history, when 11 ships from the Channel Fleet – in the middle of a war with France – revolted at Spithead. (The men also sent ashore ten captains and 103 junior officers they regarded as too malignant to serve under.) It was industrial action avant la lettre – audacious and astonishingly brave – and it was successful. The House of Commons voted through the funds – fully £372,000 – to meet their demands within weeks.

It is Taylor’s handling of accounts like this – alongside sea battles and shipwrecks and such – that make Sons of the Waves so compelling. This is maritime history, but it is also social history of the highest order.

He gives us too an authentic sense of the emotional hinterland of such men. Chaplains routinely despaired at seamen’s indifference to the Christian god of dry land. Yet their rules of life were so far removed from what pertained on shore that they might have been on another planet, wholly subject to the whims of their commanders and the vast, unfathomable caprice of the sea.

In a sense, they endured extraordinary physical constraints in pursuit of a kind of psychological, almost metaphysical liberty. Taylor reaches for the old Norse term aefintyr – meaning a certain kind of spiritual restlessness, the itch of every horizon – to explain it. But one of his sources, Edinburgh-born seaman John Nicol, sums it up well enough when he writes: “no matter whither, only let me wander”.

If most of these men’s names have seeped into oblivion like so much sea froth, Taylor has brought the men themselves back to vivid and exhilirating life: his book eloquently stitches together the vertiginous brutality and wonder of their lives with intelligence, judgement and compassion. In whatever afterworld they now find themselves, tens of thousands of long-forgotten souls will surely be giving ferocious roar to their approval.

This review first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Literary Review.

To buy a copy of Sons of the Waves from my Bookshop.org book store, please click here. Profits from sales through the website go to support independent bookshops across the UK. I also receive a 10% commission on any purchases through my store.

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