I turned the fragile, yellowed pages carefully, almost reverently.
The large thin book was a 1790 printing of the British Admiralty’s manual of operations, giving the pattern of life for every ship and post of their fleets. Nearly 230 years old.
In it, they set out descriptions for every job on their ships, from captain to ship’s carpenter. The British genius for detail was obvious: how many cannon to be fired for the salute of every level of captains’ rank, how many servants allowed for the officers’ quarters, the number of hammers and what kind of nails to be carried; all was carefully laid out. The processes were all there, with forms to fill out at the opening of every cask of beef, listing shipper, number and condition of pieces of beef, and the date and signature of the one opening it.
This was the order of life for Nelson when he signaled the fleet into action against the French at Trafalgar.
And this was the pattern of action for the fictional captains who were more real to me, growing up, than the real ones: Horatio Hornblower, Richard Bolitho, Jack Aubrey.
I held it in my hands, read the ancient directives and once again saw in my mind the big sails unfurled, and the broadsides fired. The old stories that transported me from a Pennsylvania Dutch farm to the sun-blasted Mediterranean, or the frozen Cape of Good Hope still are vivid and fresh.
I had one brand new insight as I read. The salary for the ship’s chaplain was listed, and there it was, in black and wh—er, yellow, down at the bottom. They were among the lowest paid of the ship’s company.
Lads, you didn’t go into the ministry for the money back then, either!
Cheapskates. I hope they got a lot of boring sermons.