Powder Monkey

Written by Paul Dowswell
Review by Elizabeth Hawksley

1800. Britain is at war with France and Spain. Young Sam Witchall is press-ganged and forced to join a Royal Navy frigate. He becomes a powder monkey – carrying the highly inflammable gunpowder to the waiting guns, one of a warship’s most dangerous jobs. There is more. He must ‘learn the ropes’ and be able to climb the rigging and take in or let out the sails, and one mistake can mean a fall of several hundred feet and certain death. He is also taught to fight with hand arms: pike, tomahawk and cutlass.

                Before long, Sam’s new skills are needed. There is a near miss with a French privateer looking for easy pickings, and a far more dangerous encounter with two Spanish ships off Gibraltar. As if this weren’t enough, Sam must keep on the right side of a sadistic officer who has it in for him, and cope with the malice of some fellow sailors who resent his ability to read and write.

                I enjoyed this. It’s very much a boys’ book, full of deeds of derring-do and lots of action: storms, battles, hair’s-breath escapes and so on, and none the worse for that (I’m sure some girls will enjoy it, too). Life in Nelson’s navy is dramatically conveyed and Dowswell’s impeccable research is never intrusive. 10 plus