Reviews: Books of General Interest

Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Eras

Grocott, Terence. Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Eras.  London: Caxton Editions, 2002. 446 pages. ISBN: 1-84067-264-5. £30.

In the Preface to Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Eras, the author states that for the years 1793 – 1815, “. . . it has been estimated that more than 2000 shipwrecks occurred world-wide during each of those years.”[1]  Between 1 January 1793 and 31 December 1799, “. . . 3639 [British] ships were lost to the enemy and 2967 lost through perils of the sea.”[2]  This is a staggering 6606 lost in a seven year period. . . almost 950 per year!  It is amazing that the British economy survived.

Shipwrecks is a compilation of articles from contemporary sources, such as the London Times, the Annual Register, and the Naval Chronicle, and examines the fate of 1500 British ships that were lost between 1793 and 1815.  The book is organized into three parts: the Revolutionary Era (1793 1801), the Era of the Peace of Amiens (1801 – 1803), and the Napoleonic Era (1803 – 1815).  It is then is subdivided chronologically.  Often Mr. Grocott will combine two or more articles to tell the fate of the ship.

Many entries are only a few sentences long, such as the one for 27 August 1793:

            “Westbury, merchantman News arrived in England that the Westbury, Captain Fisher, from Archangel to Bristol, was lost on Archangel Bar during a gale.  The crew and some cargo were saved.”[3]

While others, such as the lost of the 64-gun Nassau, which ran aground during a gale on the Haak Sandbank, near Texel, can be one or two pages long.  Regardless of length, the author provides the source or sources for each entry.

Shipwrecks can be quite bewildering to a reader who has limited knowledge on nautical matters. However, in the introduction to the book, Mr. Grocott does an excellent job explaining the different kinds of hazards faced by sailors and why sea travel could be so dangerous, even during times of peace. 

Shipwrecks closes with several appendices, a glossary, and a detailed index.  The first appendix is copied from the 1841 edition of the Nautical Magazine and lists the causes of the loss of ships at sea.  Some of the causes make sense, such as not enough crew, collision, fire, etc.  However some of them will make the reader smile, for example Cause #6 “Teetotality – coffee instead of rum, etc.,” and Cause #10 “Presence  of captains’ wives, and other women”.  Appendix H was particularly interesting, for it gave the London Times report on the loss of the transport Fowler which was carrying the British 26th Light Dragoons, when it floundered near Porthleven in Cornwall in January 1796 on its way back from the West Indies.  All aboard died – between five and six hundred men.  The glossary is very handy because it provides definitions of many obscure nautical terms.  The index is very helpful because it lists every ship mentioned in the text.

Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary & Napoleonic Eras is both a fascinating and sobering read.  The contemporary stories of the shipwrecks are filled with details that are often overlooked in many histories of the Napoleonic Wars.  It also brings home how hazardous sea travel was during the time.  Shipwrecks is anomaly among books. . . it is a reference book that will be very useful to anyone studying the Napoleonic Era, but it is entertaining enough to hold the interest of the casual reader.

Notes:

[1] Page viii

[2] Ibid

[3] Page 3

 

Reviewed by Robert Burnham
Placed on the Napoleon Series: August 2012

 

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