The lives of Nicol and Nagle should provide a compelling narrative thread, but the telling of their stories is disjointedly scattered through the book. Taylor ticks off the great naval episodes, Anson’s South Seas expedition, Cook’s voyages, Nelson’s famous battles and so on, but manages to drain the excitement out of them. It’s all very well to want to present the period through the eyes of the common seaman, but the common seaman often doesn’t have very much to say — so Cook’s three world-changing voyages are dealt with in seven pages.
Discipline wasn’t only strict, it was tyrannical. Captains, a law unto the themselves, ordered frequent floggings. Aboard one ship in 1797, during a voyage to the West Indies lasting 38 weeks, 1,392 lashes were handed out to a crew of 160. No wonder there were mutinies, though no one on The Bounty resembled Marlon Brando. The aggrieved sailors were ‘unkempt, snaggle-toothed and bow-legged,’ says Taylor. Nor did any Englishman find paradise if they deserted or were shipwrecked in the South Seas. ‘In the absence of food, they ate grass, drank their own urine and attempted cannibalising the bodies of dead shipmates.’
However, as Taylor says, the ‘wealth, strength, security and glory of Britain’ during our era of Imperial glory was down to the might of the Royal Navy.
Jack Tar as helpless victim. Jack Tar as profligate yob. Those clichés of those who served and suffered below deck held currency for a long time. In this absorbing and original book, Taylor seeks to reveal Jack Tar as an individual. The sailor that emerges in Sons of the Waves is spirited, assertive, articulate and independent. He is much like the Jack of folklore, familiar from the novels of Patrick O’Brian and others. Taylor’s achievement is to recreate the character of the men “who established his country’s command of the oceans” during the period from 1740 to 1840 using the words of the sailors.