The life of an ordinary sailor in the 18th and 19th centuries was no easy matter, as Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin and C. S. Forester's Hornblower novels depict so well. Quite apart from the dangers from howling storms and whistling cannonballs, seamen were paid and fed poorly and subject to all manner of inhumane discipline. Given all that, Bernard Ireland wonders, how could it have been that sailors under English--and French, Spanish, and American--flags could have performed with such heroic distinction at sea?
His answer arrives at many points throughout his encyclopedic study of the "age when the man counted, and not the technology." Profiling such figures as John Paul Jones and Lord Nelson, as well as many of those ordinary sailors, and such little-known events as the siege of Acre and the War of Jenkins's Ear, Ireland provides a highly readable survey of the great age of sail-driven combat, when mighty navies traversed the world to secure empires for the great powers of two continents. He turns up dozens of illuminating oddments from the historical record, such as the Duke of Wellington's refusal to command England's forces during the War of 1812 and Napoleon Bonaparte's failure to coordinate his navy with his land forces, which contributed to his ultimate defeat. (A similar failure, Ireland writes, led to England's defeat in the American Revolution.)
Along the way, too, Ireland provides terminology and copious illustrations that will be useful to readers of the aforementioned O'Brian and Forester novels, for which this book makes a fine companion volume. --Gregory McNamee [via]