by Roland Pietsch
Barnesley: Seaforth Publishing/Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2010. Pp. xv, 240.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 1848320361
Although cabin boys are a commonplace of maritime fiction and film, such as Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island
the story of the young boys who often served at sea as trainees, “powder monkeys”, or servants until well into the twentieth century has not been told. Until now, with The Real Jim Hawkins, the first-ever study of these seagoing children during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and of London’s Marine Society, which for some two centuries recruited destitute boys for maritime service, primarily in the Royal Navy.
Pietsch (Queen Mary College, London), a rather eclectic historian who has also studied Nazi film making and mental health in the Royal Navy during the age of sail, opens with a comparison of the life of the ship’s boy in fiction and in reality, the latter being much less glamorous. He then discusses the origins, funding, and workings of the Marine Society. There follows a look at the “typical” ship’s boy (and occasional girl-in-boy’s clothing), the factors making life at sea attractive for these boys (mostly the often utter hopelessness of alternative prospects), life aboard ship, the test of battle, the numbers involved (5,000 just between 1756 and 1763, and perhaps 50,000 overall), the longer-term effects of such service on the maritime community, and the fate of those who went to sea.
The Real Jim Hawkins is an essential read for anyone interested in the Age of Sail.