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If you’re at all interested in history, you know that there’s a unique feeling that comes from seeing real, original documents. This is why thousands of people travel every year to see the original United States Constitution, after all.
A mere transcript can’t replace the original handwriting, the texture of the paper or even the mysterious stains along the edge that bring the past alive. It’s exactly this authenticity that elevates a recent read of mine, “Tales from the Captain’s Log: From Captain Cook to Charles Darwin, Blackbeard, and Nelson — Accounts of Great Events at Sea From Those Who Were There,” published by the National Archives.
The topic of this book is, of course, fascinating to anyone interested in maritime history, but there’s something here for even landlubber history buffs.
The book is broken into five sections. Section one, “Exploration and Discovery” covers far-flung voyages that mapped the world, from Botany Bay to the Northwest Passage.
“Mutiny and Piracy” focuses on the adventures of pirates and privateers, including our very own Blackbeard. I was especially fascinated by “Science and Surgery,” which highlights scientific discoveries and the struggles of early medicine aboard ship.
For those interested in battles at sea “The Navy” ranges from the experience of common seamen to the Battle of Trafalgar. And in “Emigration and Transportation” we visit the experiences of those who — willingly or not — made voyages to settle in far-off countries.
This wide-ranging choice of topics stands out in the variety of viewpoints presented. There were stories here I hadn’t read before or had my knowledge expanded in fascinating detail. For instance, I’ve heard the term “scurvy seadog” tossed around in historical movies, though seeing an original medical watercolor of its effects brings home what a horrifying and mystifying disease this must have been for the sufferers.
But how many of us knew about the “hulks” — a grim Victorian solution to prison overcrowding that used derelict ships as mass convict housing?
The topics are fascinating, but what really makes this beautiful book stand out is the lavish reproduction of original documents from the National Archives and other sources. On almost every page are gorgeous images of the original ship’s logs, in all their water-stained, spidery handwriting. Supplementing these are other original images — maps and sketches made on the voyages, paintings of the ships and portraits of the commanders.
This book is an absolute visual treat, and this lavish use of imagery really brings the text to life. A must-read for any armchair historian.
Genevieve Baillie is the extension services librarian at the Wilson County Public Library