Sons of the Waves by Stephen Taylor

Sons of the Waves by Stephen Taylor


The subtitle of this weighty tome is ‘The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail’, which charts the history of Jack Tar from when Francis Drake circumnavigated the Globe on the Golden Hind in 1577, with 166 seamen on board, until the age of steam, when Britain literally ruled the waves. Right from the start of the book Mr Taylor dismisses the received truism, ‘most notably that glib old chestnut about rum, sodomy and the lash.’ Well, that put me in my place. Those words, misattributed to Winston Churchill, were roughly the sum total of my knowledge of the common seaman. Certainly, George Melly’s second volume of autobiography about his time in the navy in the 1940s was entitled Rum, Bum and Concertina. Taylor sees the ordinary seaman variously as a heroic figure, a press-ganged hostage, an enthusiastic volunteer, a noble simpleton, a cunning devil or a drunken dolt. Taylor’s research is impressive, and he has used some remarkably detailed memoirs written at the time, one by William Spavens, who had signed on nearly fifty years before Trafalgar ‘as an unlettered orphan.’ Other accounts were by a romantic traveller John Nicols, whose exploits take us up to the Napoleonic Wars, and another by an extraordinary figure Jacob Nagle, an American who took up arms for his country’s independence, then crossed over and joined the Royal Navy. He kept a free-wheeling diary for about forty years, having survived an appalling shipwreck, being castaway, press-ganged, imprisoned and then working for the East India Company.

A number of statistics jump off the page. In 1812, the number of tars exceeded 147,000 men, but after Napoleon’s defeat, the number dropped to 23,000. 103,660 naval personnel died in the wars against France, including six defining sea battles that established Britain as the world’s supreme naval power, and of those, 1,483 fell in battle.The remaining 84,440 died from disease or through accident. Typically, an Indiaman employed by the East India Company, the size of a frigate, took some 740 mature oaks to build and needed seventy hands to sail. Other ships were much larger, likened to floating castles, such as the 100-gun Royal George, and the 90-gun Namur, with a complement of 780 men. The Vengeance was a 28-gun frigate that had been commissioned as a seaborne press-gang, which, according to Spavens, prowled the west coast of the British Isles intercepting vessels homeward bound to ‘procure men for the service.’ The writing is sprinkled with colourful descriptive patches, inspired by the memoirs. ‘The Vengeance weighed anchor in Plymouth Sound, a hazy day with a fresh wind blowing down the Channel. On the foremast lift, he and his mates shrugged their way along the yards and cast off the gasket ropes while enfolding the furled topsail in their arms until the order came to let it fall. As they did so it flapped briefly before snapping taut and, in slow motion, billowed with the breeze as the forecastlemen below sheeted it home. At first imperceptibly, then with a slow hastening of the air the men aloft could feel on their faces, she started to slide forward; and, in a vision that one old topman recalled with a leap of the heart many years after his seafaring days were over, “in a few minutes the ship from appearance as naked as a tree, would be a cloud.”’

Taylor describes life aboard these ship, sometimes for many months cooped up together, with disease, floggings, mutinies, shipwrecks and hostile natives in far-off lands, as well as savouring the sexual favours of nubile and naked young women on such islands as Tahiti. James Cook was given the task of leading an expedition aboard Endeavour with the botanist Joseph Banks across the Pacific to explore the existence of the Great Southern Continent. Thanks to Cook’s discoveries, Edmund Burke could declare ‘The great map of mankind is unrolled at once.’ Cook made three voyages, his last in the Resolution to explore the North-West passage, only to get into a skirmish with some native Hawaiins over pilfering from their stores, during which he was clubbed and stabbed in the surf. Among Cook’s officers on his fatal voyage was William Bligh, ‘whose return to these waters eight years later ‘would precipitate events more turbulent still.’


It is curious that Endeavour‘s story is not fully told in this book. After landing on New Zealand, whose coastline he charted, Cook then sailed to New South Wales and famously landed in Botany Bay, spending the next four months mapping the coastline. Then, on 11 June 1770, disaster struck when the ship went aground on the Great Barrier Reef, holing the vessel and resisting all attempts to re-float her, in spite of lightening the ship by throwing canons, the supply of drinking water, and other weighty objects overboard. After numerous attempts, they managed to refloat her on a high tide, but a large hole had opened up in the hull, letting in water. The midshipman proposed fothering the ship, a technique that involved sewing bits of oakum and wool into an old sail, which was then drawn under the ship to allow water pressure to force it into the hole in the hull. The effort succeeded and soon very little water was entering, allowing the crew to stop two of the three pumps. They managed to beach her and effect repairs, enough to set sail for Java, with the crew being sworn to secrecy about their discoveries. After a number of months in Batavia, repairs were made and the ship was declared sea-worthy. The crew, however, was not, and many died of malaria and dysentery even before they set sail for Cape Town and then home. Endeavour‘s story does not end there. After acting as a supply ship to the Falklands, she was in a fleet that sailed to Rhode Island in the American War of Independence, having had her name changed to Lord Sandwich 2, where she was scuttled at the entrance to Newport. Surely that is a tale worth re-telling?

The accounts of the Battle of Trafalgar, as told by the men who fought on board HMS Victory, Royal Sovereign, Revenge, Temeraire and others, a combined fleet of twenty-seven ships of the Royal Navy, make vivid, almost breathless, reading. It is no wonder that Turner’s evocative seascape The Fighting Temeraire, which signals the passing of the age of sail, was voted Britain’s favourite painting in 2005, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Sons of the Waves

Stephen Taylor

Yale University Press

490pp. Illustrated. $20

ISBN 978-0-300-24571-4

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