Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy by Roy & Lesley Adkins - review by Nigel Jones

Nigel Jones

Life on the Ocean Wave

Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy


Little, Brown 480pp £20

Hearts of oak sailors of Nelson's navy may have had, but as anyone reading this chronicle of disease, disaster and desolation would readily agree, they needed them. Life on the ocean wave within the wooden walls of the Royal Navy, as husband and wife authors Roy and Lesley Adkins demonstrate with a wealth of contemporary evidence, was positively Hobbesian in its nastiness, brutality and brevity – and that was before the ships of His Majesty's Navy had even encountered the enemy.

The constant danger, of course, was the sea itself, or rather its storms. Trafalgar, Nelson's great posthumous triumph, cost the lives of 450 British sailors. But a week-long storm that followed the battle killed many more. One of Nelson's last orders was to tell his Vice-Admiral, Cuthbert Collingwood, to anchor the fleet and ride out the storm that the dying man – a sailor to his fingertips – could feel was coming. Inexplicably, Collingwood ignored Nelson's final command, with catastrophic consequences.

In terms of mortality rates, disease accounted for more sailors' lives than shipwrecks and battle combined. Most deadly of all was the dreaded yellow fever, particularly prevalent in the West Indies, which as a consequence became one of the most unpopular postings for the Navy. 'Yellow jack' – so called

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