Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy by Roy and Lesley Adkins was published by Little, Brown. The book tells of the ruthless conscription drives leading to the victories of Nelson's navy in the Napoleonic Wars. Getting men on board and describing the shocking living conditions there, it also unveils the startling truth about women on board.
Life on board ship at the times of Nelson's navy was a miserable business. Seamen were housed below decks in confines so small they would be forbidden to house pets in under modern laws. Add a measly pay, undisputed order and strict discipline with punishing consequences when broken, and you will arrive at a low eagerness level to join of your own free will. And food on board wasn't premium class either.
The typical food for seamen at the time is not recommended for your Christmas dinner. Breakfast would have consisted of burgoo made of boiled oatmeal seasoned with salt, sugar, and fat. Available with it was Scots' coffee; ships biscuits were burnt to charcoal, crushed, and mixed with water. Lunch was soup or stew containing whatever was handy or available. In the evening there were biscuits with fat and cheese. The biscuits were infested with weevils which had to be knocked out first; but nobody would trouble over the weevils when burning the biscuits for coffee. All these delicacies were washed down with many pints of probably stale beer.
To fill the many job offers, press gangs roamed the port towns for likely willing and useful candidates. By law they were constrained to seafaring men. But as they had to fill a quota, they didn't bother with such niceties and just took anybody able to walk. The seamen were thereafter held like prisoners on board to keep them from defecting as soon as the henchmen's backs were turned.
For the families at home it meant that men wouldn't come back for at least months or even years and they faced a future without any income and certain poverty. Over this plight, many women chose to be smuggled on board instead and became helpers there. The scope of work they did on ships was astounding. From the obvious task as tending the sick or wounded, they often were assistants to the surgeons amputating during battles and made use of their stitching skills, too.
Many women became active during battle, too, doubling up as powder monkeys, carrying powder to the cannons, and quite a few took part in battles like any of the men. These were not the dramatic and cross dressing women hailed in many historically inaccurate films, just the ordinary heroine on board ship.
The book takes its many tales from letters written at the time. The authors thoroughly investigated the archives while working on the book. It’s an interesting work, full of surprises and rich in much detail. I liked it a lot for being informative and spellbinding at the same time. There is a lot of history, but also a lot of atmosphere bound into its pages. As an added plus, it gives explanations on many expressions we still use today, such as getting a square meal, getting scuppered, pipe down, or starting on a clean slate.
After the Battle at Trafalgar, many ships were decommissioned and their cannons placed as bollards in the streets, upturned and with a cannonball in the mouth, a design we all know. And like the cannons, the crew ended up in the streets without work, money, or future. Resorting to crime, they usually were caught and sentenced. Their sentences meant serving their time in prisons made out of the decommissioned ships they had served on during the war.