The Age of Fighting Sail 1775 – 1815
Released by Nathan Miller way back in 2000, this book gives a general narrative history of one of the big eras in naval warfare – the kind of period populated by Horatio Nelson and Hornblower. I like to try to tie my reviews of different books together for a number of reasons – (selfishly) it might encourage people to read more of my posts, and (usefully) it provides a frame of reference for me to judge various aspects of the book. In this case, my reference point will be Pirates of Barbary by Adrian Tinniswood. That was a quick and exciting romp through some of the figures, places and events of the 17th century Barbary coast. This is a slightly more subdued (but still populist) trek through naval warfare at the turn of the 18th century.
Although they do deal in different periods, where this book really scores points over Tinniswood’s effort is in the technical aspects. Miller starts with the basics, but still manages to give a fairly comprehensive beginners guide to ship construction, naval tactics, life at sea, and pretty much anything else you ever cared to know about life in the navy. It doesn’t however manage to place these in a wider context quite as well, elements of politics, the economy and so on are only really considered from the naval perspective and, though they do help to show how these impacted upon naval warfare, I did feel like it was missing the larger story. What it does cover however is clear and concise, and comes across as reliable without getting bogged down in minutiae. It’s interspersed nicely around the more narrative parts and, while this layout might come across as a bit artificial, it provides a nice, fast pacing to the book.
As with our reference point, it also uses characters to bring the story along (and often because they’re simply a good story) and we do get good biographies of leading figures – Nelson (obviously), Lord Cochrane, Stephen Decateur (who also popped up in Pirates). As it’s a general history, these are brief but there’s more than enough to draw the reader in and allow them to get a sense of these personalities. Lord Cochrane is particularly compelling – if you’re unfamiliar with him, he’s definitely worth reading up on! Given the time period, it’s very focused on the British and to a much lesser extent the American Navies, and this is understandable – yet it would have been nice to get a bit more about the Dutch or French (who certainly weren’t insignificant in this period and occasionally appear as the enemy) or even something a bit further afield. Combined with the relatively brief time period and we’re left with a lop-sided tale of the American Independence and the Napoleonic Wars (it stays pretty even handed and critical, but the author is clearly favouring a particular side in each of them). It’s fun, but surely there was surely scope for something more ambitious?
As a whole, it’s a solid and efficient popular history of naval warfare in this period. It’s got a decent balance in terms of detail and never becomes a chore to read; more detail could certainly be found elsewhere but it functions very well as an introduction. It could really cast its net a little wider in terms of subjects, but it does still cover some relatively obscure characters and battles so again it’s probably just a matter of balance. I’m definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to a beginner who enjoys the historical fiction of the likes of Patrick O’Brian and is interested to find out more, but I’d be wary of recommending it too highly – there’s nothing major wrong with it, but a lot of small flaws mount up and I get the feeling there are better books out there.