Review: Archie Henderson
Sons of Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail, by Stephen Taylor (Yale)
Stephen Taylor is hardly known in South African literary circles, yet he was born here, trained here as a journalist and worked on the Rand Daily Mail in its glory days. Three of his eight books are about South Africa: Shaka’s Children, the Caliban Shore (about the wreck of the Grosvenor off Pondoland and its castaways) and Defiance (the first full history of Lady Anne Barnard).
More recently he has become, as The Times of London reported this year, “an acclaimed naval historian”. Following his researches on Britain’s naval history, this is the book he has long wanted to write. It’s about a time when Britain began to rule the waves and about the men who enabled that rule: the Jack Tars of the Royal Navy who did the heavy lifting while heroes like Nelson took much of the credit.
The title is from Heart of Oak, the official marching song of the Royal Navy. It was written by William Boyce in 1759, about the time the Royal Navy was beginning to assert itself worldwide:
Come cheer up, my lads! ’tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?
Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men.
Boyce, who wrote symphonies, anthems and odes, meant the song for the stage. It ended up on deck.
Taylor’s latest book is a tribute to the ordinary seamen who climbed the rigging, manned the cannon, repelled any boarders, scrubbed decks and did all the dirty work while the officers swanned around, peering through telescopes and muttering stuff like “Kiss me, Hardy”. Those sons of the waves were as much the backbone of empire as any colonial toff who ruled India. The Royal Navy also amounted to much more than Churchill’s derogatory description that it amounted only to “rum, sodomy and the lash”.
Aside from debunking some myths about those men, Taylor points out that they were far from subservient. His book covers the era of Napoleonic Wars when Britain fought wars virtually continuously from 1739 (before Napoleon) to 1815, when the little emperor was defeated on land at Waterloo by Wellington’s soldiers, and those of some foreigners, notably Blucher’s Prussians. But it was the Royal Navy, by securing their island and blockading their enemies, that enabled Wellington’s troops to play in the final, and win, against the Frenchies in Belgium.
The seamen were able to negotiate pay, for example. When Napoleon’s armies stood at Calais, looking across the English Channel at possible invasion routes, Britain had to call on her sailors once more. They responded, but with a strong caveat: pay us well, or stew in your own juice. The Admiralty had no option. Perhaps those seamen from Taylor’s book were forerunners to the trade unionists of later years.
Taylor’s story is not dry history; it’s the story about men who endured the miseries of long voyages away from home to distant lands, some never before discovered by Europeans. It wasn’t always about fighting the Spanish, the French, the Americans or any other enemy, it was also about trade, discovery and the developing science navigation. You could say they were the astronauts of their time – with Tahiti and its women a lot more appealing than the landscapes of the Moon, or Mars.