Eric_W's Reviews > Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men, and Organization, 1793-1815

Nelson's Navy by Brian Lavery
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's review
Nov 14, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: nautical-non-fiction

Having become enamored of Patrick O'Brian - as must be obvious to everyone by now - I did a search on his name to locate all his other works, In doing so, I stumbled across Nelson's Navy, by Brian Lavery for which O'Brian wrote the foreword. Lavery has written an encyclopedic introduction (if that's not oxymoronic)to life in the British Navy during the time of the Napoleonic Wars. He begins with a summary of the European political context, an understanding of which is essential to grasp the nuances of the O'Brian novels.
Every detail of working a ship, from construction costs and methods to a seaman's necessities to fleet administration and pictures of authentic uniforms is carefully explained. One section I found to be of particular interest was a discussion of "pressing' sailors for the fleet. The press gang myth depicts them descending on a community and dragging off every able-bodied male in sight, sometimes from the loving arms of his wife suckling their latest child. The fact is that by law only seamen could be impressed. Captains
had no wish to populate their ships with unskilled landsmen who didn't know a staysail from the orlop.

Seamen hated the law, however, because it meant that those in the merchant service, where in time of war pay was higher because of the shortage of sailors, could be dragged off to serve his Majesty for less money and with little hope of shore leave. Unlike merchant sailors, who could leave the ship at the end of the voyage, naval sailors were stuck for the duration of the war, which lasted for many years. Naval sailors would be transferred from one ship to another, rarely allowed on shore for fear of desertion. Once pressed
they were quartered on hulks in the harbor until their ship became available.

Ironically, it was the strength of the British Navy that protected the landsman from impressment or draft
into the army, as the navy was so successful defending the shores against invasion. The problem was that impressment (and perhaps the modern draft) was the vestige of a feudal society incompatible with the concept of individual liberty that the American and French revolutions were bringing to the minds of the average individual, who began to look askance at the practice of impressment. Despite attempts to regulate the press gangs, e.g., creating a formal impress Service, abuses occurred frequently among the informal press
gangs sent out by individual ships to fill out their company (a first-rater ship-of-the-line might require 600 men).

For those wanting even more detail on the sociology of Napoleonic era British seamen, I can avidly recommend Michael Lewis's A Social History of the Navy 1793-1815 This is a very readable study of the behavior and conditions on British men-of-war during that time period.

As was typical of the class-conscious society of the time, there were those men of the "quarterdeck" who came from the more privileged class and as gentlemen could become officers; then there were those important workers who inhabited the "lower-deck." These consisted mostly of volunteers, impressed reluctants, and products of the Marine Society (an organization Newt would have been proud of) that took impoverished youth, provided them with food, clothing, and rudimentary naval training before sending them off to sea as servants on board ship. They eventually could work their way up through the ranks of seamen to the quarterdeck. It was possible for a lower deck inhabitant to become an officer (hence entering the upper class as well) by meritorious service in battle or at sea and high marks on the examinations, but it was rare.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
January 1, 1998 – Finished Reading
November 14, 2008 – Shelved
November 14, 2008 – Shelved as: nautical-non-fiction

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny My son is a Nelson fan - he'd probably like this. Thanks for a nice review!

Eric_W Check out my new GR friend Matt. He's a naval historian, lots of sea time, and a wealth of books related to naval history. Great stuff.

message 3: by Manny (new) - added it

Manny Thank you!

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