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Friday, April 8, 2011

Three new must-read maritime histories

Voices from the lower deck of the navy, sumptuous ship pictures, a slave captain's memoir

News of three new maritime books impels me to add names to my shopping list.

First is a new offering from renowned naval historian Brian Lavery, who made his mark as a curator at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  Called Royal Tars, The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875-1850, it covers nearly a millenium of ordinary seamen's experiences. Giving the lower deck a voice is an enormous achievement, but Lavery has already, with his fine earlier books, proved he is up to the challenge.

First Rate: The Greatest Warships of the Age of Sail by Rif Winfield is a richly illustrated book recently released by Seaforth Publishing in the UK and the Naval Institute Press in North America. Buy it for the illustrations, keep it for the text – the quality of Rif Winfield’s work is well known.

Particularly fascinating is the diary of a long-dead raconteur, John Newton, whose memoir is issued as Slaver Captain, by Seaforth Press.

John Newton is now best remembered as the Anglican minister who wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.  For the first 30 years of his life, however, he was deeply involved in the slave trade.  His father arranged a job for him as a slave master on a West Indies plantation, but on the way he was pressed into the Royal Navy.  After trying to desert, he was flogged about the fleet, an appalling punishment where the total number of lashes (usually 1,000) was divided between the ships in the fleet, and the victim carried in a boat from one ship to another, tied to a flogging frame. A boatswain's mate waited with the infamous cat-of-nine-tails at the gangway of each one, and delivered his share of the punishment.  Death was the usual outcome, but Newton survived, to be sent to serve on a slave ship bound to Sierra Leone.  Landed there, he was further reduced, to becoming the servant of a local merchant's wife, an African Duchess called Princess Peye, who treated him as a slave.  In 1748, he was rescued from this strange existence, and on the voyage home experienced a spiritual awakening.  This conversion to religion did not deter him from becoming a slaver captain, however.  Three voyages later, he suffered a severe stroke, a message from heaven that sent him into the priesthood.

True or false?  Read it for yourself.

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