Reviews / Comptes rendus - Harry Morton, The Wind Commands: Sailors and Sailing Ships in the Pacific

Reviews / Comptes rendus

Harry Morton, The Wind Commands: Sailors and Sailing Ships in the Pacific

Robert D. Turner
British Columbia Provincial Museum

1 The Wind Commands is the second in the University of British Columbia Press series in Pacific maritime history. Like the first volume, Barry Gough's The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America 1810-1914, this is an excellent publication and will undoubtedly serve as a beginning point for many enquiries into the history and technology of sailing. Morton has gleaned from hundreds of works on Pacific voyages the broader picture of the age of sail on the Pacific Ocean.

2 This is a wide-ranging study both chronologically and topically; it has to be in order to fulfill the promise of its title for a story of the men and ships of the world's largest ocean is not easily told. Morton has handled the subject with grace, wit and thoroughness both refreshing and informative. There is a blend of humanity and scholarship in his writing that is not often achieved in history books. The title, chosen from the closing line of a dispatch by Sir Francis Drake — "the wind commands me away" — sets the pattern and it is not to be broken.

3 Perhaps the most striking impression one gains from this book is the hardship and suffering endured by the sailors of the Pacific. The beautiful ships to which we attach so much romance and nostalgia offered little to their crews beyond hard, endless work, poor food and long months at sea. Starvation drove the crews to eating anything available. "The gentlemen in the greenroom dined on a fricasee of rats, which they accounted a vension feast". Often there was scurvy and even after it was overcome the mortality rate for sailors was twice that of landsmen. The sea and the winds were tough masters, tough on both officers and men. Few ships' officers withstood the constant stress of command without their health breaking.

4 The book covers far more than the living conditions of the sailors. The vessels themselves, from native craft to the clippers and schooners of the late 1800s and early 1900s, are discussed in detail including methods of construction, rigging and the technological advances of each type. Other major sections of the text relate to ship maintenance and navigation trade routes, dangers of the elements and superstitions associated with sailing the Pacific. Morton also discussed the problems and approaches to command, mutinies and discipline, and devotes chapters to music, the influence of women on life at sea, and finally the clash of cultures in the Pacific.

5 To compete this excellent reference are one hundred pages of detailed notes, an extensive bibliography, which the author has obviously mastered, a glossary and a thorough index.

6 This is an invaluable study for any museum researchers interested in maritime history defined in its broadest sense. While the focus in on the Pacific there is a great deal of generally applicable information that goes far beyond the geographic limits of the study, as did the ships and the men who sailed them.

7 The book is nicely presented and is illustrated by a series of simple yet informative line drawings and 64 plates.

Robert D. Turner
Assistant Curator
Modern History Division
British Columbia Provincial Museum