In the late 18th century, it was widely thought that to be a sailor was little better than to be a slave. "No man will be a sailor," wrote Samuel Johnson, "who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail. A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company."
If that were true, historian Nathan Miller suggests, then the record of sailing in the age of tall ships would likely be distinguished by few heroes and fewer grand narratives. He counters that in the regular navies of England, the fledgling United States, and most other nations, brutal captains and thuggish crewmen were rare, and professionalism was the order of the day. It was their high standard of service that made those naval forces such powerful, even indispensable arms of the land-based military. Miller's great hero throughout this fine history is Horatio Nelson, whose valor was exemplary throughout countless battles around the world. But he writes with equal admiration of lesser-known figures, such as Lambert Wickes, Pierre de Villeneuve, Juan de Cordova, and "Foul Weather Jack" Byron, who served their nations and fellow sailors well, and often heroically.
©2000 Nathan Miller (P)2014 Audible, Inc.
"Pace the pitching black deck with a sleepless Admiral Nelson the night before battle bestows eternal rest and peerless immortality upon him; envision with Mahan the storm-tossed and ever-watchful ships-of-the-line that kept England secure from invasion; wonder in awe at Collingwood's dedication in working himself to death after Trafalgar elevated him to primary responsibility for England's imperial safety in the Mediterranean. All of this and more awaits the reader who will sail through these pages, every one of which is etched with the indelible expertise and boundless enthusiasm of Nathan Miller, master of naval history." (Kenneth J. Hagan, Professor of History and Museum Director Emeritus, U.S. Naval Academy, Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College)
"This is not just inspired naval history--the personal lives of the seafarers themselves, from cabin boy to admiral, are given generous treatment." (The Times (London)
"A wealth of detail...Descriptions of dreadful living conditions aboard cramped wooden vessels give way to bloody decks after close combat....A solid introduction to a turbulent era at sea." (Publishers Weekly)
"[As] a companion to the popular nautical novels of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian--it succeeds brilliantly." (Daily Telegraph [London])
"The descriptions of the great sea commanders and their battles display all the craft of the gifted writer....Read Broadsides for enjoyment as a well-informed, action-packed naval narrative." (The Christ Church Press
The Audible description focuses on the supposed overturning of the stereotype of brutal treatment of sailors, and I bought it on that basis expecting to get a different perspective. But that is a miniscule part of the book, covered almost just in passing, as the author concentrates on delivering a summary of the history of war at sea in the period encompassing the War of Independence and the Napoleonic wars. Since much of this is ground I'm already familiar with in greater detail than provided here, I was disappointed.
I'll also note I'm constantly surprised at the lack of quality control on these works; this one at least has none of the frequent changes in mixing levels that appear in many others, but the narrator introduces many inappropriately long pauses in the middle of sentences.
That said the book is a solid history, and worth getting on those grounds as long as one isn't expecting something different.
"Really good yarn but with an American slant"
I think it is fair to say that this is not the most scholarly historical work but none the worse for that. It is a really good account of a swashbuckling era of naval history covering the key campaigns and battles of the period well. The focus on Nelson is not very original but it does anchor the story well and the build up to Trafalgar is particularly well related.
My only quibbles would be a minor irritation with some of David Rapkin's pronunciations of British place and ship names (eg. Blenheim) and with a the American slant of the narrative. The book was presumably written primarily for an American audience so one can forgive the slightly excessive focus on American events but they felt to have been given too much prominence by this European listener.
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