Using the full range of available sources, Taylor has brought out the authentic, rarely heard, voice of Jack Tar. In contrast to the denizens of a floating hell that Masefield portrayed, Taylor finds that Jack was not the involuntary sufferer of intolerable conditions. Typically a hard drinker, he had strong opinions as well as being an impulsive and headstrong man, but he was proud of his trade, his skills and achievements. By Jack Tar’s “own account”, Taylor writes, “he was no put-upon sufferer but a proud soul with robust opinions, and learned in his own fashion, even when his phonetic way with words needs some deciphering”.
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 ordinary seamen. Chaplains routinely despaired at their indifference to the Christian God of dry land. Yet the rules that governed their lives were so far removed from what pertained on shore, wholly subject to the whims of their commanders and the vast, unfathomable caprice of the sea, that they might have been on another planet.
Taylor uses memoirs, diaries and letters to let seamen and officers speak, as far as possible, for themselves. Usually plain, though sometimes literary and poetic, their words conjure visions for us. Some are glimpses of all-too-frequent horror. A captain on Commodore George Anson’s gruelling circumnavigation carefully logged the effects of scurvy on his crew: ‘Some lost their senses, some had their sinews contracted in such a manner as to draw their limbs close up to their thighs, and some rotted away…’ Others offer intimations of the sublime: in a high wind, wrote seaman (and later actor) Charles Pemberton, ‘the whole sea was alive — as one vast spirit… tossing its mighty arms aloft and sweeping its hands across the verge of the horizon as if to crush the feeble intruder’.