Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy by Roy and Lesley Atkins was published by Little, Brown. The book tells of the ruthless conscriptions leading to the victories of Nelson’s. Describing the shocking living conditions on board, it unveils the startling truth about women on board.
Life on board the ships at the times of Nelson was miserable. Seamen were housed below decks in confines so small, they would be forbidden to house animals today. Add a measly pay and strict orders with punishing consequences when broken, and you arrive at a low eagerness level to join of your own free will. 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 oatmeal boiled and seasoned salt, sugar, and fat. Available with it was Scots’ coffee, ships biscuits 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 it for the 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. As they had to fill a quota, they didn’t bother and just took anybody able to walk. The seamen were thereafter held like prisoners on board to keep them from defecting as soon as possible.
For the families at home it meant that men wouldn’t come home for months or years, and they faced a future without any income and certain poverty. Over this, many women chose to be smuggled on board instead and become helpers there. The scope of work they did on ships was astounding. From the obvious tasks as tending the sick or wounded they often progressed becoming assistants to surgeons amputating during battles.
Many women became active during battle as powder monkeys, carrying gun powder to the cannons, and quite a few took part in battles like any of the men. These were not dramatic and cross dressing women hailed in films, just ordinary heroines so easily forgotten.
The book takes its tales from letters writen at the time which the authors investigated thoroughly. It’s an interesting book, full of surprises and 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 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 in the streets without work, money, or future. Resorting to crime, they usually were caught and sentenced, serving their time in prisons made out of the decommissioned ships they had served on.