The Classic Age of Sail

David Hayes

The sea has always fascinated man. Over the centuries is the medium that has brought the nations of the world together in trade and conflict.

This was particularly true in the period bounded by the American struggle for Independence and the War of 1812. This period saw great fleets of Ships-of-the-Line, the largest and most complex ‘machines’ of their day. As well as small individual cruisers sometimes in distant waters commanded by young men many months from authority.

It also sees the rise of American merchant shipping. As well as what many regard as legalised piracy. This was the time when privateers took on merchant shipping and large areas of the East controlled by a private company with its own navy, The East India Company.

These are the main ways that writers have tackled the subject:

  1. A Series of Naval Novels. Often following the career of a Royal Navy officer from Midshipman to Captain or Admiral. They are mostly set during the Napoleonic Wars, sometimes placing characters at major battles such as Trafalgar. Alternatively written from the American perspective and following a character or family through the War of Independence, the Quasi War and the War of 1812.
  2. Stand alone Naval Novels. Again from either the Royal Navy or American (and rarely the French) point of view and following a ship or officer during a specific mission.
  3. Privateer Novels. Privateers sailed from a nation at war under a Letter of Marque authorising them to capture enemy vessels. These are similar to naval novels but feature single smaller vessels attacking merchant ships rather than large scale armed conflict.
  4. Pirate Novels. Follow a band of men operating an armed vessel outside the law and taking merchant vessels from any nation.
  5. Merchant Ship Novels. Follow the trading exploits of a ship as it travels the world seeking to avoid enemy warships, privateers and pirates and the dangers of storms.
  6. Whaling Novels. Whaling was a major industry at the time. Many novels follow a ship on a whaling voyage. The most famous is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
  7. Smuggling Novels. Smuggling goods, particularly from France to England during the Napoleonic Wars, was a common practice. Many novels follow ships engaged in this activity.

About the author

This overview from David Hayes, owner of

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