Taylor uses memoirs, diaries and letters to let seamen and officers speak, as far as possible, for themselves. Usually plain, though sometimes literary and poetic, their words conjure visions for us. Some are glimpses of all-too-frequent horror ... Such episodes — and Taylor’s book is full of them — are gripping to read and fascinating in their particulars. More importantly, however, they are convincing evidence that the power and wealth of 18th- and 19th-century Britain depended not only on its system of rule, its natural resources and its technology, but also, perhaps mainly, on the character, skills and virtues of its people —Jack Tar foremost among them.
...[a] rollicking narrative of life at sea in the age of sail ... Jack Tar as helpless victim. Jack Tar as profligate yob. Those clichés of those who served and suffered below deck held currency for a long time. In this absorbing and original book, Taylor seeks to reveal Jack Tar as an individual. The sailor that emerges in Sons of the Waves is spirited, assertive, articulate and independent ... Taylor’s achievement is to recreate the character of the men 'who established his country’s command of the oceans' during the period from 1740 to 1840 using the words of the sailors.
This is not a book for naval buffs interested in grand strategy, tactics or the majestic ships of the Royal Navy, much less their captains. Besides muster rolls, ships’ logs and court-martial proceedings, Mr. Taylor relies heavily upon seamen’s memoirs, of which some dozen afford full-length accounts, augmented by shorter written recollections. No other book resurrects the wooden world of Jack Tar in such captivating and voluminous detail ... Save for the odd cliché, Mr. Taylor excels in recounting the hardships endured by the typical seaman: unrelenting disease, punishing labor, natural catastrophes and fatal accidents, not to mention the hazards of battle.