The History Press 2009-12-23 ISBN 978 0 7524 4820 6
Many readers of Traditional Boats and Tall Ships will know and love the extensive literature in the subject from the pen of Richard Woodman (see image below). ‘Masters Under God’ is the third of his new five-volume history of the British Merchant Navy. For an island nation still very dependent on trade by sea this has been a surprisingly neglected subject. Backed by a seafarer’s passion for his subject, Woodman wades into this ocean of neglect with his always meticulous and carefully evaluated research. Indeed thorough drawing out of information from little known sources is a distinguishing feature of all his writing. For those who do not know Woodman’s massive contribution to literature of the sea this volume and its predecessors will be an eye opener to a rich mine of wonderful reading both with his fiction such as the Nathaniel Drinkwater novels and also with his learned approach to the history that made British sea power great.
How does one begin to review an epic book like this? It opens when the mercantile marine had risen to some 24,000 vessels (and Britain really did rule the waves) and covers the eventful years during which Britain lost much of her trade to American competition. The clipper hull was adapted for the Yankee packets and our maritime superiority was severely challenged. Famous American lines such as the Black Ball and Tapscott, criss-crossed the Atlantic with time tabled departures**. European emigration to America reached huge proportions and transatlantic adult fares could be as low as £2.18s.* At the same time old established trading monopolies such as that of the East India Company went into decline. Woodman takes us through these traumatic times and the emergence of steam as a significant component of coastal shipping. This heralded the great transatlantic liner services that restored Britain to mastery of ocean- going trade. The laying of submarine telegraph cables brought an era of rapid communications. In 1882 British ship-owners carried 71% of the world’s ocean carrying capacity. Sadly, many of these trading lines are now consigned to history.
Masters Under God is beautifully written and the illustrations - mostly from contemporary paintings - are complementary to the text. There can be little doubt that when completed this five-volume set will be the standard reference work for many years time to come. Unusually extensive and helpful notes enhance the individual chapters: they also illustrate the author’s diligent research and his ability to interweave information from many disparate sources. Additionally, the 6-page bibliography is of major importance and will provide invaluable leads for future researchers.
I have only one real criticism. A five pages index for 378 pages of learned text is totally inadequate. In my own literature searches I find the index to be the most frequently visited section of a reference work. Here, I initially failed to locate special interest information but later found them after time consuming searching through the text. Yes, this index lets down what is probably the most authoritative work in its subject. I can only hope that the publisher will eventually produce a master index to the whole five volumes.
I eagerly await the completion of Richard Woodsman’s massive contribution to the history of Britain’s Merchant Navy. There is nothing to match it and the History Press deserves special praise for the courage that is bringing it to reality.
Words by Eric Cowell
* See Tapscott ad below