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Books for Adults - Nonfiction

        Art: Children at Sea
Children at Sea: Lives Shaped by the Waves
By Vyvyen Brendon
Pen & Sword, 2020, ISBN 978-1-52677-244-2 US$29.95 / UK£21.65

Reviewed by Irwin Bryan


This book tells the stories of boys and girls who did something surprisingly commonplace in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They boarded ships and crossed oceans without a parent or guardian present. Some were sent by British parents, working for the East India Company, back to England for a proper schooling. Other children, whose parents were either dead or unable to raise them, were sent to Canada’s boarding schools or the youngest to foster families. During the wars against France and America, many boys also shipped out as midshipmen at an early age.

Our first young traveler was fourteen-year-old Mary Branham. She had the distinction of being found guilty of theft and sent to Botany Bay with the first fleet transporting convicts in 1787.

As mentioned in the Introduction, most of the subjects in this book did not leave a record of their experiences. Some of the particulars of these children’s voyages are provided through other passengers who wrote about their own journeys or corresponded regularly.

Many people in that first fleet described their experiences along the way. The overcrowding, the sickening stench, coarse foods, and the perception that returning to England would be almost impossible all served to increase their sorrows.

Next is the story of Joseph Emidy, a young lad captured in Africa and sent to Brazil. He was bought by a man looking to add house slaves. These individuals may have had better lives than field slaves, but living in the owner’s home meant they also lacked the camaraderie of other slaves and their community.

Incredibly, Joseph was musically talented and became a skilled violinist. At a time when many people could not read and teaching slaves to read was generally outlawed, Joseph learned to read books and music. He was able to work as a musician and music teacher outside of his master’s home and retained some of the money he earned to eventually buy his freedom.

He crossed the Atlantic a second time when he accompanied his master back to Portugal. Of course, this voyage held none of the fears he had felt as a captive on a slaver. In Lisbon, he became a sought-after musician and performed around the city and during church services.

For each child voyager the author claims their journeys left an impact that affected them in later life. So, each child’s life after the voyage and until they died is presented. If they had other siblings, the lives each led is compared to the subject child.

In most cases, I saw other factors that had more meaningful impacts on these young lives than the hardships of the voyages. Mary Branham knew the chances of returning to England were so slim that she suffered from intense homesickness more than anything else. Joseph’s life was happy and included his freedom and an interesting career, a far cry from the young African’s fears aboard the slaver.

Several boys went to sea as new midshipmen in the navy. One was small and frail, which had the most impact on his life, another was sullen and lacked drive or ambition. Overall, these sailors’ lives were not really impacted much by the voyages they undertook. They had volunteered for naval service, were taught sailing skills, as well as sword fighting and cannon-firing, and enjoyed the alcohol-fueled antics of the midshipmen’s berth. Most of these boys died from accidents, illness, or war. Only two served long enough to be commissioned as lieutenants; other survivors’ service ended when wars ended.

One of the more interesting chapters describes the naval life of Charles Dickens’ son, Sydney. This is told through the correspondences of the writer and sometimes compares Sydney’s life to the children Dickens wrote about in his novels.

The children sent from India to boarding schools and the children of destitute mothers sent to live in Canada experienced a sense of loss and separation. The severed connection to family was the worst memory of their journeys. I had no idea that (mostly single) mothers could simply give up their children or that the children who fostered with Canadian families were really indentured servants required to “work” when they got older. This practice continued well in to the twentieth century.

Children at Sea has many endnotes and includes a detailed bibliography and index. Black and white illustrations and photographs feature the people and places mentioned in the text.

Anyone with an interest in family life during the Georgian and Victorian eras will be happy they chose this book. Others may enjoy learning about the ways a child’s life in the past differs from what is normal now. All the different voyages make this a remarkably interesting sea story that will entertain and enlighten all readers.

Read author's guest post about 2 children at sea


Review Copyrighted ©2021 Irwin Bryan

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