Sea Life In Nelson's Time
John Masefield's Sea Life in Nelson's Time is the brilliantly told story of the ships of Nelson's navy and, more especially, of their sailors and a naval glory 'built up by the blood and agony of thousands of barbarously maltreated men'. From beginning to end, from the floor of the mould-loft where the master shipwrights drew up the plans of their ships, through to the epilogue, a poetic eulogy for sailors long dead and gone, Masefield breathes life into the bare facts of life on board for the men and officers: the duties of each man, the unwholesome food, the cramped and filthy living quarters, the inhuman punishments, the 'floating hell' of a ship in action and the pitifully primitive hospital facilities. The life of the ordinary seaman in the British Navy in the late 18th century fascinated and appalled Masefield, who described it as 'brutalising, cruel and horrible', but it fired his imagination and his prose and this vividly realistic study, the first of its kind, remains the most comprehensive introduction to the subject.
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Alongside their contemporary publications, Pen and Sword Books have a series of reprints of naval and military books which allow historical voices and commentary to be heard, in many cases where the work has been hard to find for some time.
Masefield, best known for his poem Sea Fever which so memorably expresses the romance of seafaring life, wrote this book in the centenary year of Trafalgar and it represents fairly well that stage of contemporary academic research into naval life.
The earlier unqualified glorification of Britain’s naval success had changed, in particular by acknowledging the tough conditions and awful punishments that ordinary sailors experienced. Masefield’s research reflects this. It is interesting therefore to naval historians as a period piece, since current research has once again moved on and tends now to use personal letters and close analysis of naval administration records, to set the sailors’ lives in a wider social and historical context.
That being said, much of Masefield’s material, e.g. about ship design and armaments, is entirely valid still and his descriptions of the routines of shipboard life are at once convincing and eloquent he is above all a poet and the book should also appeal to readers with general enthusiasm for this important era in naval history.
The book is well illustrated with many paintings, charts and cartoons, often with several lines of explanatory comment, though unfortunately none of this text has been included in the very basic index. There is a bibliography, and limited references providing some insight into Masefield’s sources.
The writing is accessible and moving, with great respect for the life of the sailor. The book, given its reasonable price, would be a welcome gift for maritime historians and those with a more general love of the sea.
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