Helen Watt and Anne Hawkins, eds., Boydell Press, Woodbridge, VA (2014)
Reviewed by Lisa Vandenbossche
Recent trends in contemporary criticism to recapture and understand the experiences of those from below have left scholars searching for artifacts and narratives from outside the upper ranks of society and leadership. In Letters of Seamen in the Wars with France 1793-1815, Helen Watt and Anne Hawkins make a significant contribution to this effort by compiling and contextualizing 255 letters sent to and from men under the rank of commissioned officer in the Royal Navy and Marines from 1793-1815, which remained until now mostly unpublished. These personal letters – significantly addressed to family and friends on shore, rather than state officials or military leaders – offer valuable eyewitness accounts of life at sea in the British Navy and more in-depth understanding of the motivations and actions of those involved in the 1797 mutinies.
It is estimated that 1/48th of the British male population served as seamen during this period and most families would have had a direct connection to someone working at sea (pg. xi). Given these numbers, it is easy to see why Watt and Hawkins argue in their introduction, “the letters of seamen of this period are immensely valuable as they allow us a glimpse into the minds of this very large section of society at a crucial point in the history of the British Royal Navy and of Britain itself” (pg. 4). The letters, which are transcribed and annotated for easier reading, are organized in two categories with the first group of letters (letters A1-194) covering the entire period from 1793-1815 and the second group of letters (letters B1-61) relating specifically to the mutiny on ships of the North Sea Squadron at Yarmouth and Nore in 1797. The first batch of letters thus provides readers with a broader understanding of what life was like for common seamen in the British Navy during times of war and the second group uses this context to provide a more in-depth look at the 1797 mutinies from the perspective of the seamen involved. While Watt and Hawkins are surprised (as their readers might also be) by the lack of details about life on board ship in many of the letters, their significance is what these letters do tell us about seamen’s money worries, homesickness and concerns for those left at home, which seem to be the primary preoccupations of their writers. The letters taken as a whole also offer first-hand accounts of significant naval battles in the British wars with France, as well as the justifications and concerns of seamen taking part in mutiny at the Nore as related to loved ones on shore.
Just as importantly as the letters themselves, Watt and Hawkins create a critical apparatus surrounding the collection that effectively organizes and contextualizes for readers what could otherwise be an overwhelming quantity of information. Their introduction provides readers with background on the literacy rates of sailors, the postal system that enabled the letters to travel between sea and shore and the important role that letters played in connecting seamen to their family and friends at home. Each grouping of letters then receives its own introduction, which breaks down main themes of the letters within that group and connects individual letters with the historic events they describe. The appendices following the letters include biographical data on the letter writers (Appendix A) and an index of the ships on which the men sailed (Appendix B). This structure brings the letters and their writers to the center of critical focus, as readers are easily able to trace the careers of the letters’ authors and the history of the ships from which the letters are being sent. With this contextual information, readers get a fuller sense of the significance of the letters, even when the letter writers themselves might not understand the importance of the events they are narrating.
Letters of Seamen in the Wars with France 1793-1815 offers readers an invaluable look into life below deck by giving voice to men and women whose stories might otherwise remain untold. One drawback for interested readers will be the price tag that accompanies an exhaustive critical edition such as this one. I would encourage the editors to consider a future digital companion to this collection as a way of increasing usability and access to the incredibly compelling archive they have created.
Lisa Vandenbossche is a PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Rochester.