On first opening this fascinating book you immediately notice how meticulous the handwriting is in the facsimiles of the captain’s logs. Be they explorers, pirates, scientists or convict guards, their uncorrected, sloping script tells you as much about the high standard of education two or three hundred years ago as it does about the characters of these varied captains themselves.
Add in the highly detailed hand-drawn maps, the exquisite water colours of exotic mammals, birds and snakes, the diagrams of the scrofulous leg rotting results of scurvy – and you have in your hands a book which is a visual feast, before you have even read a word of text.
When you do settle to read there are numerous surprises and delights. Cook and Nelson with their descriptions of monumental discoveries and famous victories at sea. Logs about pirates such as Blackbeard, a swashbuckler of terrifying repute, Bligh’s record of the mutiny or descriptions of the conditions under which convicts were kept on hulks in the Thames are all quite riveting.
In complete contrast are Captain Fitzroy’s accounts of Darwin’s findings while sailing on the Beagle’s five-year voyage of discovery. Interestingly, Darwin was not a natural sailor, was frequently seasick and longed to return home.
Each account is captivating because of the immediacy of the writing, written not in retrospect but on the very day of a battle, discovery or mutiny itself.
The book is divided into five sections covering Exploration and Discovery; Mutiny and Piracy; Science and Surgery; The Navy and lastly Emigration and Transportation. The whole portrays in the widest possible sense, life at sea in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Expertly written by a team of specialist archivists at the National Archives it is the ultimate bedside book. But I would not count on sweet dreams as you nod off.