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February 14 , 2008

The Real Jim Hawkins

Ships’ Boys in the Georgian Navy


Generations of readers have enjoyed the adventures of Jim Hawkins, the young protagonist and narrator in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, but little is known of the real Jim Hawkins and the thousands of poor boys who went to sea in the eighteenth century to man the ships of the Royal Navy.
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This groundbreaking new work is a study of the origins, life and culture of the boys of the Georgian navy, not of the upper-class children training to become officers, but of the orphaned, delinquent or just plain adventurous youths whose prospects on land were bleak and miserable. Many had no adult at all taking care of them; others were failed apprentices; many were troublesome youths for whom communities could not provide so that the Navy represented a form of ‘floating workhouse’. Some, with ‘restless and roving’ minds, like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, saw deep sea life as one of adventure, interspersed with raucous periods ashore drinking, singing and womanizing.

The author explains how they were recruited; describes the distinctive subculture of the young sailor – the dress, hair, tattoos and language – and their life and training as servants of captains and officers.

More than 5,000 boys were recruited during the Seven Years War alone and without them the Royal Navy could not have fought its wars. This is a fascinating tribute to a forgotten band of sailors.
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