Friday, 2 August 2013

Time-Life Seafarer Series

For much of the last two and a half thousand years, the history of western civilisation has been indelibly linked to the sea. From the time of the Persian navy's defeat to the Greeks at Salamis in 480 B.C., to the epic voyages of Vasco de Gama and Magellan, to the terror unleashed by Germany's U-boats in both world wars, the fortunes of Western European nations ebbed and flowed with their ability to open and maintain trade routes. Whoever controlled the sea, controlled the world.

My own history is also indelibly linked to the sea. My parents were both in the Royal Navy. It's where they met. My mother served in the Wrens (she left to raise me and my brother); my father was a submariner. It meant I saw little of him for the first decade of my life. My earliest memories are of being woken early mornings to drive dad through wintery Scottish mornings, back to Faslane Naval Base and away. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, it was his submarine, HMS Superb, that BBC News reported to be the first Royal Naval vessel sailing out to the South Atlantic. We were living in Plymouth by then, but he phoned from Faslane early next morning to tell my mum it was all rubbish. British propaganda. They were going nowhere.

Still, if his absence was keenly felt during those formative years, his presence was rarely far away. The walls were adorned with Naval plaques, rooms and hallways littered with bookcases. Books are a constant in my life. I have very different tastes, but a love of reading and collecting books are the greatest legacies my father left to me. My great passions are early 20th century literature, science fiction, graphic novels, comparative mythology, physics, philosophy and politics. Dad was obsessed with the Plantagenet kings, ship model building and naval history. His great hero was Horatio Nelson. Once, for my own teenage amusement, I told him I had to write an essay on Nelson for school and asked him if he had any books on the subject. Half an hour later, he'd made a tower of books, five foot high. Today I could do the same, only with books about James Joyce.

When dad died in 1996, mum donated most of his books to his ship modelling club, but a number remained. They sat, neglected, in a bookshelf under the stairs for years. And there they remained, until my own attempts at writing led me to invent a sailing ship that could navigate reality. I knew I wanted to use Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, as my model, and so I dug around the house for material.

What I found was a book called, 'Fighting Sail', part of Time-Life's Seafarer's series. I knew the series well. Released between 1979 and 1981, several volumes had been in the house for decades. The pre-pubescent me was fascinated with pirates and the Vikings and the Seafarers series had volumes dedicated to both. I didn't yet read to any great degree, but I poured over the copious pictures and diagrams. I still feel a wave of nostalgia whenever I pick up 'The Pirates' and flick to the double page spread on pirate flags.

'Fighting Sail' gave me exactly what I was looking for, a cutaway schematic of HMS Victory, as well as first sight of what has become my favourite JMW Turner painting: 'A First Rate Taking in Stores'. Everything I needed was in that one image, the sheer scale of the ships that defeated the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar, towering four stories above the waterline. Dwarfed by modern warships, but easily outmatching them for craftsmanship. Whatever the ethical conundra of warfare, the aesthetics of the warship begin and end circa 1800.

I ended up taking all ten volumes away and reading the set. Then I investigated whether there were any others in the series. There were. Another 12. I don't why our collection stopped at 10, whether we originally had further books that got lost, or whether, more likely, we moved (as we often did in those days) and didn't change address, but I resolved to hunt down the remaining volumes. Some were easy to find, and cheap too, mostly being ex-library books from Florida and Belfast and the like, that had been checked out twice in twenty years. Other were harder to find, but the other week, after conducting the search on and off for a year, I finally tracked down and read number 22, 'The Armada'. A cheap copy had eluded me for months, but finally I found one for a penny, plus postage and packaging. Bargain.

First Rate Taking On Stores - Turner
As I indicated in the introduction, the history of western civilisation is the history of seagoing expeditions and naval conquest. 'The Seafarers' provides the reader with a comprehensive overview of maritime history over the last four thousand years, from the Egyptians to Nazi Germany. Given they are now over thirty years old, the books stand up remarkably well. Indeed, the prevailing view on the Vikings at the time of publication was that of a band of violent brutes. Then attitudes changed and the Vikings came to be seen as more of a civilising and peaceable race. Today, attitudes have come full circle and we have returned to thinking of the Vikings as barbaric. Great traders and explorers, but with much of that trade dealing in slavery and human trafficking.

Yet for all the star quality of such titles as 'The Vikings', 'The Pirates', 'The Whalers' and 'The U-Boats', it is the seeming lesser volumes that I find most interesting. For instance, 'The Men-Of-War' deals with a period of British history that is often ignored. It covers the period during and immediately after the English Civil War. For well over a century, the seafaring powerhouses of Europe had been Portugal and Spain. By the seventeenth century, the Iberian nations were on the wane and Britain, along with the Netherlands, emerged as the next great dominant seafaring nation. Tensions between Britain and the Netherlands had been strained for some time, but it was Oliver Cromwell who took the fight to the Dutch, scoring a number of significant victories.

Following Cromwell's death and the restoration of King Charles II to the English throne, parliament desired to continue the aggression against the Dutch, but they were faced with a dilemma. Charles II had spent some of his time in exile in the Netherlands. Moreover, the Dutch had been instrumental in petitioning for Charles's return to the English throne. To then attack the Dutch might seem somewhat ungrateful.

So the British formulated a plan to trick the Dutch into declaring war on Britain. Charles II sent two fleets of ships, one to West Africa, where trade was then dominated by the Dutch, the other to New Amsterdam. The plan eventually succeeded in West Africa, but in far less clandestine circumstances than the king would have liked. Indeed, when the expedition's leader, Captain Robert Holmes, returned home to London, he was clamped in irons and thrown in the Tower of London for exceeding his orders (he was released following the Dutch declaration of war).

In North America, things were far more comical. The British fleet arrived off the island of Manhattan to find the colonists in disarray from continuous incursions by local Native American tribes. The Dutch surrendered to the British without a shot being fired. Which is how New Amsterdam came to be renamed New York.

Nieuw Amsterdam
The Dutch left their mark all over the Americas, reflected in such names as Haarlem and Staten Island, short for Staten-Generaal, the name of the Dutch parliament. There is also a Staten Island off the coast of Tierra del Fuego (Isla de los Estados), named by the Dutch sailors who were the first to successfully navigate Cape Horn from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans. Indeed, the correct spelling of Cape Horn is Cape Hoorn, named in honour of the Dutch port from which the expedition set sail.

The Dutch suffered early defeats under the British, because the Netherlands was split into seven provinces (now twelve), all suspicious and in direct competition with each other. Rather than the Dutch Navy being under the command of a single Admiral, each province had its own Admiral in direct command and a council of war had to be convened between the seven before any naval engagement could be committed to.

The Dutch declared war in the winter 1665, but it was to end in humiliating defeat for Britain. When the Great Fire of London broke out in September of the following year, the City of London was essentially bankrupt and money that was earmarked for increasing the size and might of the Royal Navy was instead needed to rebuild the smouldering capital. Final humiliation came in June 1667, when the Dutch fleet sailed, virtually unopposed, into the Thames estuary and all the way up the Medway, laying waste to the royal dockyards at Chatham. Peace between the two countries followed hard upon.

It's interesting to ponder what might have been. As anyone who's played Assassins' Creed 3 will know, the principal force behind the American victory over the British in the War of Independence was the French Navy. Without the French getting supplies through to the thirteen colonies, the rebellion could easily have been crushed. Historical revisionism leaves us with the impression of the American War of Independence as a solely internal conflict between Britain and its American colonists, but by 1783 it was as much a world war as anything else, with the French, Spanish and Dutch all supporting the Americans.

In 'The Frigates', we learn about the birth of the United States navy. The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, war went on with the British for eight years between 1775 and 1783, yet the first American naval warship (the imaginatively titled, 'United States') was not launched until 1797. As is usual with wartime alliances, victory quickly led to a souring of relations between America and its allies and the United States soon found itself in a conflagration with the French. It went on for three years.

Yet, the main reason for America forming a navy at all was to protect its commercial vessels from being attacked by Barbary corsairs off the coast of North Africa. By that time, attacks against commercial shipping were commonplace, with cargo pirated and crew and passengers held for ransom or sold into slavery and prostitution. The United States ended up paying $20,000 a year in protection money to the Fey of Algiers to allow safe passage to its ships. The Pasha of Tripoli in Libya desired the same kind of deal with the Americans and in 1801 he declared war on the United States. 

Big mistake. It was to be the making of the United States Navy (indeed, the making of the United States, period). Three frigates and a schooner left for North Africa in June of that year. It would be four long years before the war finally ended, and even then the United States would have to pay $60,000 in ransom to release over three hundred captured American sailors, but it was as much a face saving exercise for the Pasha. The American victory in Tripoli was absolute. 

Battle of Tripoli Harbor, 3 August 1804
Only Admiral Nelson seems to have appreciated the significance of the American victory. Yet by 1812, when the next war broke out between the United States and Great Britain, the American Navy was sufficiently feared for the Admiralty to order no Royal Naval fleet to engage the United States Navy without a numerical advantage of 2:1 or greater. The Americans' time had come.

There are many surprises within the Seafarers series. For example, I had always just presumed that it was the British that had scuttled the German fleet in Scapa Flow, following the end of the First World War. Yet from reading 'The Dreadnaughts', we discover that it was a coordinated effort by the German officers and ratings who were assisting in the handover. The British did not cover themselves in glory with their response. Smaller German vessels, flying under white flags, were fired upon, killing 10, while one German sailor on board a British vessel was executed on the spot.

Then there's Sir Francis Drake. As I mentioned earlier, I spent some of my childhood in Plymouth, from where Drake hailed (his famous game of bowls, as the Spanish Armada
approached, took place on Plymouth Hoe). Understandably, he is honoured as a great hero in the town, and my two years of primary school education there largely focussed on Drake and the other great men of Plymouth, like Sir Walter Rayleigh and Sir Robert Falcon Scott (he of the doomed expedition to the South Pole).

Yet when we were being taught all about the Armada and Drake's circumnavigation of the globe in the Golden Hind, they failed to mention his less than glorious involvement in the slave trade. The Spanish had first starting shipping slaves to the Americas to work their silver mine in Peru, most of the indigenous population having died of disease or been worked to death. African slaves were hardier workers, with greater immunity to disease than either the indigenous population or the Europeans, and the transatlantic slave trade was soon shipping in slaves by their hundreds of thousands (perhaps as many as a million between the 16th and 17th centuries). 

Sir Francis Drake: hero, villain, both?
The Spanish Main (as the area around the Gulf of Mexico was known) funded the Spanish empire for decades, yet the Spanish and Portuguese traders who came to make their fortune on the continent were subject to heavy taxes by the Spanish Government on everything they imported from the Old World. The British, desiring a slice of the pie (as well as general mischief making), set out to undercut the Spanish Government, by bringing in contraband goods that they could sell to the traders for bargain prices and break up Spain's monopoly.

Contraband goods meant slaves. Four hundred to be exact, in the first instance, captured in Guinea and shipped to the Spanish Main in 1565. Drake was second in command of the fleet, under his cousin, John Hawkins. When they got into a battle with the Spanish Navy, Drake left Hawkins to it and fled back across the Atlantic. History does not record what Hawkins said to Drake when he eventually made it back to England.

Still, the expedition was a success and the British were soon providing the Spanish Main with cheap labour. It is said that as many as 20% of slaves captured in Africa did not survive the Atlantic crossing, and the ones who did make it were so malnourished by the end that gun powder was used to cover up their sores. Worse still, slaves would often arrive so riddled with dysentery that oakum was stuck up their bums to conceal their true condition.

The Seafarer series seems generally accurate, but you do notice some concealment of uncomfortable historical truths. Time-Life are an American company, and while the volume on the Spanish Main will happily tell the reader that the Spanish wiped out 80% of the indigenous population between modern day Guadeloupe and New Mexico, where we touch upon the cornerstones of American history, the waters are murkier. 'The Explorers' deals, in part, with Christopher Columbus, but little is said about the estimated 8 million people that he and his men are estimated to have killed in the Caribbean. These atrocities aren't exactly glossed over, but neither are they dwelled upon (see Howard Zinn's 'A People's History of the United States for a comprehensive account of Columbus and so much more). Nor does 'The Explorers' at any point make it clear that despite being credited with the discovery of America, Columbus at no point ever set foot on the continent of North America. The closest he ever got was the North East coast of South America (present day French Guyana), and was quickly chased off by the natives.

Moreover, 'The Atlantic Crossing' deals with the European migration to North America from the Pilgrims to the present day. It describes America as a virtually empty continent, but doesn't seek to explain why the continent was empty. The Vikings tried to colonise North America in the 11th century, but the continent was at that time populated by maybe one hundred million people (maybe a hundred and twenty million, when taking the Caribbean into account) and they quickly gave up. The same density of population prevented Columbus from making any headway in French Guyana.

Modern historians point out that just a handful of years before the pilgrims arrived a plague swept through the Americas, wiping out 96% of the population, but even then the reasons for this plague are glossed over. Europeans brought diseases that the Native American population had no immunity against (and vice versa). Shipping in a million African slaves can hardly have helped either. We think about the effect of malaria on non-Africans visiting the continent to this day and we can only imagine what such virulent diseases did to the Native Americans.

Indeed, such was the devastation that was unleashed across the continent, that when the Pilgrims arrived, they ended up settling where they did because they found a village ready built for them, devoid of its original inhabitants, who had all but died out only months before. Even then the Pilgrim colony lasted barely a decade, most of the brethren either dying of starvation or disease or returning back to England or joining more successful colonies, like the lawless slavers colony of Jamestown (but not before the Pilgrims had joined forces with one Native American tribe to wipe out another, the Pequot, commemorated in the name of Captain Ahab's Whaling Ship in Moby Dick).

I set out to read the Seafarers series for a complicated set reasons. Partly it is the deep reverence in which I hold the written word. For me, an unread or forgotten book is a tragedy. Until humanity perfects mind reading or the kind of data transference seen in the Matrix films, books will remain the most effective way for the brain to assimilate information. Twenty two volumes later and I feel like something of a minor expert on maritime history and keen to learn more.

Beyond that though lies the relationship to the father who died seventeen years ago. There was always a gulf between us and yet the great tragedy is that in the here and now, I probably have more in common with him than ever. He loved Sherlock Holmes and so do I. There are four books on submarines on my to-read shelf. I go sailing, and I've recently been watching Terry Jones's series on the Crusades, which were broadcast the year before he died and which he took great delight in telling me all about, whilst I stifled a yawn and tried to look interested.

I'm sure we'd have had some barnstorming arguments, after all he did love the glamour of naval history, whereas I witness it with more dispassionate feelings, free of any kind of patriotic sentiment. The history of the world is the history of the sea and yet it is a history awash with blood, slaughter and deceit. The past is a different country, they do things differently there, and yet if you want to know how the world ended up at this point, you have to know what led us here, glorious or otherwise.

My father rarely finished anything. In my memory, he is always working on a model of a paddle steamer and always getting halfway through, before taking it apart and starting over. I have a fear of ending up the same and so I took it upon myself to finish what he started, complete the set, and lay that ghost to rest.

Which is ridiculous, if not a little insulting. After all, you only have to browse the archive of this blog to see that I am perfectly capable of finishing things, even if it sometimes takes me a little while. Call it more a reconciliation from across the decades. A journey begun and ended in his honour: his memory.

Rest, rest perturbed spirit!

Dad, on far left

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  1. Great post! My parents bought me this set, well, 20 of them, when I was in grade school. I only looked at the pictures, but began reading them recently. (I also tracked down the last 2 to complete the set).

  2. I was talking recently to a rare book dealer who specializes in sea related material. "The Seafarers" came up. He said, and I quote, "That's a lame series." "Lame" -- this is such a powerful word. I asked him to elaborate. He refused to do so. I have been puzzling about this. I wonder what the basis is? You point out, in your excellent article, a few omissions in the series. I myself am amazed that the series doesn't touch on World War II (but then, Time Life had another series devoted to that). I find several of the volumes to be not very interesting. But "lame." Hmmm.