Reviewed by: Margarette Lincoln Author: Roland Pietsch Publisher: Seaforth Publishing Price (RRP): £25
Eighteenth-century Britain notoriously amassed a fortune on the backs of slaves; but there were other victims of imperial ambition. In this book Roland Pietsch, a history lecturer at the University of London, tells the story of thousands of poor boys swept from the gutter and sent to sea to help man the navy.
The London Marine Society, founded by philanthropists and merchants in 1756, addressed the navy’s manning problem by rescuing boys from poverty – conveniently removing the threat that many posed to public safety. It recruited over 5,000 during the Seven Years’ War alone, 20 per cent of whom were not just orphans but lacked any adult responsible for them.
In the Georgian navy, boys averaged nearly 10 per cent of a warship’s crew, serving as officers’ servants or as ‘powder monkeys’ who brought up gunpowder to the gun crews in battle. Officially boys could join the navy at 13 as ‘servants’, though officers’ sons might be taken from 11.
Aged 13, Marine Society boys averaged 4ft 5in, smaller than their wealthier contemporaries and about a foot shorter than boys today, many stunted in their growth “as if born of parents, who had received no other nourishment than Gin”. Yet due to charity schools, they had surprisingly high literacy levels: at least 60 per cent could read and 40 per cent write.
Pietsch takes fiction as his starting point, tracing the character of the ship’s boy in Treasure Island and other novels before examining what their lives might actually have been like.
Imaginatively, he examines their behaviour through the lens of youth culture, outlining their options on land, exploring what tempted or forced them to sea and suggesting parallels with the impulses of young people today, whether manifest in anti-social behaviour, naïve romanticism or a thirst for adventure.
In this sensitive yet balanced account, Pietsch admits it is sometimes difficult to judge whether a boy went voluntarily to sea or was pushed by social circumstances and the authorities.
Poor boys apprenticed by their parish were bound until they were 24. Marriage was unaffordable and often forbidden by their indentures. Long working hours, corporal punishment and bad masters on shore made the colourful counter-culture of sailors attractive to youths whose aggression might be fuelled by neglect.
The navy also made them wage earners at a younger age and offered their only chance to see the world.
Based on Marine Society records and enhanced by copious illustrations, this book is extremely readable and offers us the closest glimpse yet of “the real Jim Hawkins”.
Margarette Lincoln is deputy director of the National Maritime Museum