Defiance - The Life and Choices of Lady Anne Barnard
Following publication of his biography of Lady Anne Barnard, Stephen is returning to a subject to which he has already devoted years of work.
“If there is a theme that runs through my writings, it is the outsider,” he says. “Even the two most recent characters, both prominent in themselves – one a sea hero, the other an aristocratic woman of Regency society – were actually outsiders.
“So was the man we might call Foremast Jack, the seaman who went aloft in the great age of sail. And I do mean seamen. This is not about officers. It is the working man at sea.”
His name proclaimed him a man of the people – Jack being a generic term for the common man. Yet among them he was an alien. At a time when others of his class might never stir beyond their native valley, he roamed the world like one of the exotic creatures he encountered on his travels, returning home bearing fabulous tales – some of them actually true – curious objects and even stranger beasts. Although while at sea he was as poor as any rustic labourer, he knew spells of brief wealth ashore. Then, fired up with back pay and prize money, he would eat, drink, cavort and fornicate like a lord. Habitually profligate and with a terrifying thirst for alcohol, he was loyal to his ship, his country and his king, roughly in that order. Most of all, though, he was loyal to his mates, and it was this kinship, as of a tribe, that made him capable of the endeavour and boldness that marked him in his golden age, under Nelson. His spirit earned him the respect, the admiration, and sometimes even, it may be said, the love, of his officers.
It was not only in action that he was tested. Voyages of exploration, of trade and of imperial expansion took him to the farthest corners of the globe. Jack was with Cook in charting the South Seas. He joined in the discovery of a Pacific idyll, and helped to cast Bligh adrift when the dream turned to nightmare. He went aloft in the East India Company's ships, venturing to places of outlandish peoples and mystifying customs. Among the cargoes he shipped were human – African slaves to the Caribbean and domestic convicts to the ends of the earth. In doing so he encountered perils every bit as dire as those he faced in battle; for if one thing about his existence is plain, it is that he was far more likely to be carried off by disease or shipwreck than a cannonball.
There is a common misconception that he lacked a voice. Jack’s story has been neglected, perhaps because of a belief that he had failed to tell it. The discovery and dusting off of many old texts has amply disproved that. In the century up to the steam age, the able seaman was a crucial figure in almost every aspect of the nation's endeavours. He was the essence of its defence – its guard against invasions as well as the key to its victories – and the means by which it acquired wealth and new possessions. Without him there could have been neither the trade nor the exploration that made Britain a mighty power. The fact that he stood out among his less worldly, less adventurous, compatriots – that he dressed differently, talked differently, even walked differently – conferred a further distinction on him. For his part, the simple truth is that he rather looked down on anyone who was not a seaman.
There is a further paradox to Jack, and it helps to explain his sense of self worth. He may have been part of a great and powerful tribe, yet he retained a degree of independence almost unknown to his class at the time. He was mobile. If he disliked his ship, he would find another. A press gang might cut short his liberty, but it could not stop him deserting at the next port and signing on with a new captain. A spirit bold enough to embark for the far side of the world, a man with the strength and skill to clamber aloft on a choppy sea and wrestle canvas while a wind blasted through the rigging – he was always a rare commodity. As long as ships went to sea, an able hand was never short of a place to stow his chest.