Taylor, Stephen. Sons of the Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail, 1740-1840. Yale University Press, 2020. Hardcover $30USD. 416 pages. ISBN-13: 9780300245714.
By Ryan E. Mewett
In the eighteenth century, dozens of popular portrayals—in song, in print, on the stage, and in material culture—presented Jack Tar as a paragon of manliness, bravery, honesty, and simple nobility.1 But the author of 1769’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine, poet and erstwhile warrant officer William Falconer, decried the public’s “mistaken prejudices” and cautioned readers about taking a rosy view of the foremast jack. The lower deck was in fact teeming with “abandoned miscreants, ripe for any mischief or villainy … equally destitute of gratitude, shame, or justice, and only to be deterred from the commission of any crimes by the terror of severe punishment.”2 Stephen Taylor’s unique accomplishment in Sons of the Waves is to offer a depiction of the British common sailor fashioned neither from popular media nor the observations of officers, but almost exclusively from Jack’s own words.
The book opens with a preface that briefly discusses the historiography of the lower deck and particularly emphasizes Taylor’s interest in writing Jack’s history “from below,” challenging the common assertion of an insufficiency of sources to do so. Twenty-six chronologically ordered chapters primarily stitch together the autobiographical narratives of six sailors—Robert Hay, Samuel Leech, Jacob Nagle, John Nicol, and William Richardson—thoroughly supplemented with material drawn from the writings of more than a dozen other men who feature less prominently. Taylor also taps official documents, drawing from ships’ muster rolls and logs to provide context and to validate or correct his subjects’ claims. Many of the liveliest and most colorful passages in the book emerge from his clever use of court-martial testimonies that recorded sailors’ verbatim speech; these episodes strip away the polish typically applied to later writings.
Readers will have encountered some of these autobiographical accounts in works of social history, in which they supplement other sources.3 But Sons of the Waves is distinctive in that Taylor’s focus never wavers from the sailors’ own accounts, not merely as a source of anecdotes or color but as the superstructure of the book. Taylor’s experience as a writer of maritime history is evident in his adroit crafting of the narrative, vivid portrayal of his characters, and clear familiarity with his archival sources. What emerges is a wide-ranging, deeply researched survey of lower deck lives and attitudes carried on the back of an engaging, entertaining, and informative mesh of stories.
As such, the book’s focus is on narrative and not argument. It cannot be truly said to have a thesis, but the preface highlights a cluster of recurring themes. In Taylor’s telling, the common sailor was a skilled, necessary man who formed backbone of Britain’s maritime prosperity. Jack’s awareness of his vital role—and of the fundamental difference between his life and the landsman’s—instilled pride and a sense of self-worth. Accordingly, he jealously guarded both his liberty and his dignity—as manifested in his cunning avoidance of the press and seemingly limitless propensity to desert. Taylor’s Jack Tar is neither the tyrannized victim of an oppressive state nor yet an obstreperous proletarian, but simply a valuable man who knew his own worth and prized his independence: “a proud soul with robust opinions” (p. xvii).
The main drawback of this emphasis is that it verges on the idealism that Falconer worked to combat: Taylor admits that “[t]he man who emerges bears a surprisingly strong resemblance to the Jack of folklore” (p. xvii) and it seems no coincidence that the subtitle references the “Heroic Age of Sail.” The source material might make such an impression inescapable; by definition, these accounts’ thoughtful, literate authors were exceptional. But Taylor’s authorial choices also contribute. Little is said of violence and brutality. Though several sailors described the indelible impression left by floggings, Taylor’s coverage of the subject is brief and fairly bloodless. Occasional inapt phrases suggest a strangely sanguine view of the violence of corporal punishment: one man is “lucky to escape with fifty lashes” (p. 33), another receives a “relatively mild fifty lashes” (p. 144-5), a deserter “escaped with 100 lashes” (p. 107), and “the relatively moderate punishment of 500 lashes” (p. 45) is used to describe an effective death sentence.
Perhaps inadvertently, the book’s strange chronological framing adds to its romantic tint. Though the bulk of his subject matter concerns the period between the Seven Years War and the Great Wars with France (1755-1815), Taylor closes with four post-1815 chapters. The book might more naturally have concluded in 1815 and compressed admittedly valuable pieces of three of these chapters—which wind up main characters’ stories, discuss post-service life, and describe the circumstances of the various accounts’ publications—into an epilogue. The final chapter is a puzzling inclusion that involves none of the previously introduced characters and focuses on the Royal Navy’s patrols against the trans-Atlantic slave trade between 1819 and 1840. Despite Taylor’s acknowledgement that the men who participated did not do so out of anti-slavery principle, he concludes by noting that between 1825 and 1840, nearly one thousand British sailors died to free 65,720 enslaved people (p. 435)—leaving the reader with a final impression of tragic heroism.
This unfortunate conclusion aligns with a pernicious thread of popular historiography that frames the Preventative Squadron as a blood sacrifice that redeemed the national sin of slavery. But this undoubted good deed should not and cannot expiate that sin. For if, as Andrew Lambert’s blurb states, the British sailor was part of “the collective body that sustained national prosperity, security, and power,” no less was he part of the collective body that made Britain the eighteenth century world’s most prolific slave trader and consigned more than three million Africans to death on the Middle Passage or a life of slavery.
Ryan E. Mewett (@REMewett) is a PhD candidate in history at Johns Hopkins University and an active-duty officer in the United States Navy. He specializes in early modern Britain and the Atlantic world in the long eighteenth century, with particular interests in the relationships between British merchants, the state, and the Royal Navy, and the navy’s involvement with the trans-Atlantic slave trade before 1807.
- Isaac Land, War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); Margarette Lincoln, Representing the Royal Navy: British Sea Power, 1750-1815 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).
- William Falconer, Universal Dictionary of the Marine (London, 1769), s.v. “Midshipman.”
- For example, Michael Lewis, A Social History of the Navy, 1793-1815 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1960); N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986); N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Penguin, 2006); Brian Lavery, Royal Tars: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875-1850 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010).