We often encounter references to the high esteem the British navy had for French men o’ war. In novels they are reputed to be faster and handier than their British counterparts and highly valued by the British navy and coveted commands.
Like most other stories, this can be traced with some certainty to John Masefield’s notoriously uninformed “Sea Life in Nelson’s Time.”
The French treated shipbuilding as an imaginative art. The very finest brains in the kingdom were exercised in the planning and creation of ships of beautiful model. Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships. Our own men-of-war were so badly designed and proportioned that they were said to have been built by the mile, and cut off as required. They were very cramped between-decks, yet they were nearly always pierced for more guns than they could conveniently fight. They were very crank ships, and so “weak“ that they could not fight their lower-deck guns in anything like weather. They were slow at all points of sailing, and slack in stays. In heavy weather they sometimes rolled their masts out, or sprung them by violent pitching.
As we have to ask ourselves with any other statement made by Masefield, is this true?
Whatever meat it may have been, the salt beef was certainly abomin- able. It could, perhaps, have been made eatable by long soaking in the steep tub, but no meat for the messes was ever soaked for more than twenty-four hours. The salt pork was generally rather better than the beef, but the sailors could carve fancy articles, such as boxes, out of either meat. The flesh is said to have taken a good polish, like some close-grained wood.
Sea Life in Nelson’s Time
Before I’m thought to be making a case that I’m most assuredly not making let me stipulate that the diet provided to British sailors was grimly monotonous and in some cases provisions were spoiled. As I was taught some time ago while attempting to become competent in operations research, “the plural of anecdote is not data.”
By the standards of the time, the British sailor had a much more wholesome diet than he would have expected in most trades earning the same wage and the food was not necessarily the stuff of which horror stories are told, despite the quote from our old friend John Masefield above.
Novelists are generally just that. Novelists. That’s not a criticism but an observation. With the rare exception of a writer like Dudley Pope who had developed some chops as a writer of nonfiction, most novelists rely on a handful of works for any historical period. It is impossible to read Bernard without hearing the echoes of The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, The Letters of Private Wheeler, and, of course, Elizabeth Pakenham’s indispensable biography of Wellington. For the novels set during the Age of Sail it is obvious that Sea Life in Nelson’s Time by John Masefield (1905) is the Q document.
What sets Masefield apart from other sources is that 1) he didn’t actually experience the events, 2) his sourcing is opaque, to say the least, 3) he’s not a historian, and 4) his later fame, a Britain’s Poet Laureate, gives credibility to the work.
I say this because much of Masefield’s description of life at sea during the Age of Sail permeates fiction set during that era. And a great deal of what he describes is simply wrong when weighed against contemporaneous accounts. Be that as it may, his influence is there and must be addressed.
The real story follows.
Two weevils crept from the crumbs. “You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.
“Which would you choose?”
“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”
“But suppose you had to choose?”
“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”
“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit — you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”
For those unfamiliar with “the Canon” as Patrick O’Brian fans are prone to call the Jack Aubrey novels, the above exchange comes from The Fortune of War.
What were these weevils, lesser or greater?