The Wooden World by N A M Rodger is a book on the subject of the British navy of the 18th century, specifically during the Seven Years War. To be honest, it is not a subject I would have normally raced to acquire more knowledge on, but it was given as a gift, so I read it. It’s actually very, very good.
This is the era of the sailing ship and the press gang, of pirates and privateers, and sets the scene for the naval battles of the American and Napoleonic Wars. What Mr Rodger has done is trawl through many old official records to produce the basis of his account, supporting the hard evidence from musters, ship’s logs and admiralty papers with letters and other more personal documents. It makes for surprisingly lively reading, and what’s nice is that he can back up his assertions with facts. He explains concepts like mutiny and discipline in particularly clever ways, pointing out that the words meant different things in the 18th century, and understanding that navy in the light of our 21st century language and customs doesn’t work. He then gives you the necessary mental filters to make more sense out of it.
He doesn’t deal with ship handling (other than in passing), so you won’t be able to sail a ship from this, but you should come away with a good idea of the skills that are required to command one.
I felt I was left with a real understanding of the strange and somewhat alien world the seamen and officers of the navy lived in, and how the various peculiarities of it actually make sense within their own context. It’s a strange world, and an intriguing one.
He also deals with explanations for things like why the navy used press gangs and how they really worked, and why British ships won many more than their share of duels when all the ships’ “stats” would suggest they should lose.
All this is great for gamers. If you are at all interested in understanding the fighting navies of this era then this book has an abundance of intriguing discussion points and things to consider. In terms of gaming it offers a neat breakdown of what was important and what was not, which could easily be translated into rules for the tabletop or board. Having read this, I then went and watched Master & Commander again, and even though it is Hollywood, I found it even more entertaining when I had a better understanding of the life they were portraying.
If you like naval warfare, are thinking of gaming in this period or just want to understand how people lived in this turbulent age, then it’s well worth a read.