Every Man Will Do His Duty by Dean King, editor
Published by Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This book comes as a godsend to history instructors who will be teaching about the Napoleonic Wars, or military history in general. It gathers in a handy volume a collection of twenty-two primary source documents relating to the activities of the British Royal Navy in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812.
Primary source materials -- that is, accounts written by persons actually present at the events they are describing -- are an important tool of the historian. However, they can often be difficult to locate, particularly when one wishes to move beyond the memoirs of the rich and powerful and to see how the ordinary person of the time saw events. If they are publicly available at all, they are generally in archives which may not be conveniently located, so that the researcher has the choice between paying to travel there and paying to have materials photocopied (if photocopying service is available at all, which is not always a given). If the desired materials are in private hands, it is often necessary to find a chain of mutual acquaintences in order to obtain the necessary introductions and gain access.
If using primary-source materials is this difficult for the professional scholar, it is even more difficult for the student, who generally does not have the readily available budget for travel or photocopying. Yet by the college level the responsible history instructor will want to teach students to use primary sources instead of relying entirely upon secondary sources, which necessarily filter events through the perspective of a person who may be decades or centuries removed from the events.
Thus books such as this are a delight for the professional historian or history instructor. Every Man Will Do His Duty collects twenty-two original accounts, many of which have only appeared in obscure specialist publications, and puts them in an affordable book that is sold to the general reader rather than the specialist academic market.
What makes this book particularly valuable is its inclusion of voices that have often been ignored, namely those of the common sailors. It usually will be relatively easy to locate the memoirs of the leaders of a society, but those will only provide one take on the events, supporting the official view of things. By contrast, the ordinary person will often see the hollow backs of those pretty public fronts. Although illiteracy was still widespread by the time of the Napoleonic Wars, many sailors were able to record their feelings in journals and in letters home to loved ones, providing us with a window into a part of the Royal Navy that traditional histories have tended to ignore.
Anyone undertaking a serious study of the Napoleonic Wars will want to invest in a copy of this book. It is an indispensible introduction to the primary-source literature of the times, and the notes on the origins of the extracts will point the reader to more obscure sources which may be obtained through interlibrary loan.
However, this book is not only for the scholar, but for anyone with an interest in the Napoleonic Wars. The editors have carefully chosen materials that will make for fascinating reading, and one may simply read to immerse oneself in another time and way of life, rather than to study or take notes.
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Review posted June 28, 1999
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