Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Jack Tar: book launch

A post of local interest, via the Devon History Society:

Devon Libraries and Little, Brown are hosting the launch of Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy by Roy and Lesley Adkins. The event is on Wednesday, October 8th, 2008, 6.30-8pm, The Music Room, Exeter Central Library, Castle Street, Exeter, EX4 3PQ. RSVP to Carol Ackroyd, 01392 385919 ( See the official website Roy & Lesley Adkins for more information on the authors and Jack Tar.

It looks an interesting book on a topic that is often subject to stereotypical assessment due to a certain amount of mythology. As Phil Egginton of the Historical Maritime Society writes - What is the source of the myths about Nelson's Navy? - a deal of the picture of Napoleonic-era shipboard life comes from hostile commentators, particularly the ex-sailor William Robinson ("Jack Nastyface") in his 1836 memoirs Nautical Economy, or, Forecastle Reflections of Events during the Last War. While it accords with other accounts in many areas, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that it was in the stamp of reforming pamphlets of the era, and implies that Robinson's demotion from the lucrative post of purser's steward might have coloured his opinion. (see Henry Baynham, "Robinson, William", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, OUP, Sept 2004; online edn, Jan 2008).

Addendum, 28th August Example raised via comments: see Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (Janet Macdonald, Chatham Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1861762887) for a debunking of the stereotype of disgusting starvation diet aboard ships-of-the-line. By 1800 at least, scurvy had largely been deal with and, according to Macdonald, who did her PhD on the subject, most of the horror stories came from merchant sailors who didn't have the hedge of regulations that gave navy sailors some rights to complain. There are a couple of radio features online: see Feeding Nelson's Navy and, at The Food Programme site, Ship's food. which takes a broader look at shipboard victualling past and present.

- Ray


  1. I wonder, having read Egginton ... is he any more dispassionate?

    It's impossible to be very sure about anything that's now past, and I've not done any reading around the subect. Still ... I have to say that the usual stereotypical image of naval shipboard life seems very plausible in view of the physical constraints and what happens in similarly isolated communities under military and survival stresses in our own times.

  2. A specific, as I recall, on the kinds of areas that are questionable: the food, that's often portrayed as a starvation diet (in movies, you see them picking at a couple of weevily biscuits and a little cube of grotty cheese garnished with a maggot). This picture doesn't mesh with the documented heroic level of physical effort needed for a crew to operate a ship-of-the-line. That suggests - whatever the aesthetics and vitamin value - the food at least was adequately calorific. See Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era, Janet Macdonald, Chatham Publishing, 2006, ISBN 1861762887.

  3. Point taken.

    I was mistakenly and lazily fixating on physical and psychological behaviours.

  4. How accurate is the Aubrey-Maturin series by Patrick O'Brian?

  5. Very, judging by the reviews and O'Brian's Guardian obituary ("renowned for the historical accuracy of his books").