The Wooden World
Review by Niall Kelly
N. A. M. Rodger's book is, as the subtitle suggests, a study or description rather than a history of the Royal Navy during the period of the Seven Years War - 1755 to 1763, whilst also drawing evidence from the whole period from 1740 to 1775. Indeed, he pays very little attention to the actual events of the period. Rodger's purpose in writing the book was to test and compare the traditional view of the eighteenth century Navy (vicious discipline, tyrannical officers, and ill-treated, poorly fed ratings) against the reality as revealed in the documents of the period - of which there is a vast amount. Rodger has drawn from the papers of the Navy Board, Sick & Hurt Board, Ordnance Board, Colonial Office, etc., etc., as well as from private letters and papers to give the reader a picture of an organisation very different to the traditional one.
Rodger's book breaks the subject down into a number of different areas, and covers each in some detail. The result gives the reader a revealing insight into one of the most complex organisations then in existence. He begins by describing the Navy both afloat and ashore before going on to describe shipboard life, both at sea and in port (Admiralty returns reveal that the average ship spent only 43% of its time in commission at sea - although this figure does conceal large variations). He describes both work and recreation on board ship during this period, and a point to note here is the fairly high level of literacy shown by some crews. Children of all ages were common onboard men of war, as well as women (especially in port), and livestock was carried as a source of fresh meat. Rodger concludes that “The eighteenth century Navy combined the disciplined efficiency of the man-of-war with large elements of the playground, the farmyard, and the travelling circus.”
The section covering discipline is, in particular, a revelation. Rodger reveals that, to modern eyes, the discipline of the mid-eighteenth century would appear lax to the point of anarchy, and that where a modern officer might expect to command, officers of that time hoped to persuade. It was not uncommon for men to sue their officers for assault, and indeed unpopular officers could run some risks when ashore. There are records of officers being assaulted, even stabbed, by disgruntled crewmen when ashore. In port it could be a foolish officer who ventured below decks. Most of this took place whilst the ship was in port. At sea, it was a different matter, and the men generally followed their officers without hesitation. It was well understood that good order and discipline was required to work a ship at sea, and discipline was maintained. Violence was used, but it was generally within the standards acceptable then. It should be remembered that flogging was a generally accepted punishment both ashore and afloat, but it was not used indiscriminately. Whilst there were brutal, unpopular officers, they were rare, and generally not tolerated; during the war three commanders were dismissed for cruelty or oppression.
Turning to the subject of victualling the diet as supplied by the establishment is described as plain, and restricted in its range, but it was more than sufficient for the hard physical work of the seaman, and generally of good quality. All casks found with decayed contents had to be surveyed by a panel of ship's officers in order that they should be condemned as unfit to eat. As the officers had nothing to gain by concealing any deficiency, and the Purser had some interest in exaggerating it, Rodger accepts the quantities condemned as a fair measure, and the figures are surprising. He states that in the period 1750-1757, 0.3% of bread was condemned, and 0.06% of beef, 0.03% of pork, 0.3% of flour, etc., etc.. That is not to say that there were not difficulties, but by and large the seamen ate well, by the standards of the time, and food was not often a subject of complaint. It is true that Captain Cook had difficulty persuading his men to eat fresh food and sauerkraut (as a remedy to scurvy), but as Rodger observes “an aversion to pickled cabbage is not necessarily the mark of unreasoning conservatism.”
The general health of the men of the Royal Navy is examined, and whilst there were cases of fevers decimating fleets - the Caribbean expedition of 1726 reportedly lost 4000 men in two years- this was not generally the case, and the men-of-war in those water were losing approximately 6% of their complements a year from all causes, and by 18th Century standards this was, apparantly, not an exceptionally high death rate. Scurvy was, however, a problem. Whilst few died from scurvy, it limited the length of time a ship or squadron could stay at sea. This made it difficult to mount blockades, or otherwise keep ships at sea for any length of time. The problem was to find a cure. There were many suggested remedies, both good and bad, but it was generally understood to be a dietary disease, and curable by fresh victuals. In 1756 the Victualling Board began issuing fresh meat and vegetables to ships in port, and the effects were immediate, with Admiral Boscawen amazed at being able to keep the Western Squadron at sea for twelve weeks. Generally, it appears that the authorities were much concerned about the health of the seamen, and went to great lengths to keep them healthy, and it is during this period that the Naval Hospital at Haslar was built.
Thus, it transpires that men in the Royal Navy were generally better treated, better fed, and less harshly worked than much popular fiction would have us believe. It is true that the Navy had difficulty in manning the ships and that the press, which was universally condemned, was considered necessary - but not because the Navy could not attract volunteers, although some at the time did think this. It simply could not attract enough volunteers. During the war demand for seaman exceeded supply by a factor of 2 to 1. The press was simply viewed as an evil necessity, and better than the alternative of conscription, which would have also failed to solve the manning problem. It should be noted that the peace time Navy never had a problem in recruiting enough seamen.
In contrast to the problem of recruiting ratings, the recruitment of officers was never a problem, as there were always young men willing to train as officers. It was, apparently, one of the few “honourable” professions available to the sons of gentlemen which did not require the expenditure of large amounts of money. A commission in the Navy could not, as in the Army, be purchased, nor was an expensive education, as in the Church or Law, required. The Navy provided the necessary training and also paid the Officer a salary once commissioned. The salary was not great, but it was enough. An ideal solution for a younger son - and in general it was the younger sons who went into the Navy.
Also, during this period it was quite possible for a promising rating to be promoted to commissioned rank, something almost unheard of in the Victorian Navy. The only actual qualifications required were the minimum specified sea time (six years including two in the Navy as midshipman or master's mate) and to have passed the oral examination. There was nothing to stop a man, even a pressed man, rising as far as his ability and inclination would take him. The most striking example of this is the case of John Perkins. He first entered the Navy in 1775 as a pilot, and was commissioned in 1782 as lieutenant in command of a brig. In 1800 he was made post, and retired in 1805. Most unusually he served all his career in the West Indies, but what marks him out is that he was coloured, and may well have been born a slave.
This book, whilst trying to change the general view of life and conditions in the Navy, does not try and hide the reality of the Georgian Navy. Life in the Royal Navy could be brutally harsh, the work was hard and dangerous, the press gang was used, ships could be floating death traps, men were flogged, and officers could be brutal. But it was not, in general, the floating hell as depicted in much popular fiction. The Wooden World does not specifically cover the time of Nelson, and it would be dangerous to draw too many assumptions. However, it can be heartily recommended to all those interested in the Royal Navy of the 18th. Century.
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