From Publishers Weekly
Though officially ignored by the Admiralty, women on the vessels of the British Royal Navy, according to this myth-puncturing study, exerted a surprisingly strong presence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, during both peace and war. Stark, an editor at American Neptune magazine, distinguishes three primary sorts of women aboard ship: prostitutes; the wives of warrant officers; and women in male disguise serving as members of the crew. When ships were in port, women in skirts contributed to the atmosphere of pandemonium aboard ship, where the decks were filled with people "drinking, dancing and fornicating." At sea, women endured considerable hardship. Pregnancy was common, with childbirth often taking place in the heat of battle, just as surgical crews were preoccupied with tending the wounded. The "women seamen" who impersonated their male counterparts, meanwhile, lived in constant fear of being discovered, although unmasking rarely resulted in anything worse than being booted off the crew. Stark explores women's reasons for going to sea, and provides evidence that women have served ably in warfare?but that mingling of the sexes on board ship can bring chaos. This admirable study will garner attention both for its groundbreaking social history and for its contributions to both sides of the women-in-combat debate. Illustrations.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The presence of women on board the ships of the British Royal Navy in the "Age of Sail" has been disregarded by historians and ignored and even hidden by the navy. Suzanne Stark is the first to seriously address the issue of female "tars", and here she presents an in-depth study of the women who lived and worked on British warships of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Stark thoroughly investigates the custom of allowing prostitutes to live with the crews of warships in port. She provides some judicious answers to questions bout what led so many women to such an appalling fate, and why the Royal Navy unofficially condoned the practice. She also offers some revealing firsthand accounts of the wives of warrant officers and seamen who spent years at sea living (and fighting) beside their men without pay or even food rations, and of the women in male disguise who actually served as seamen or marines. These women's stories have long intrigued the public as the popularity of the often richly embellished accounts of their exploits has proved. Stark disentangles fact from myth and offers some well-founded explanations for such perplexing phenomena as the willingness of women to join the navy when most of the men had to be forced on board by press gangs. Female Tars is a lively history draws on primary sources and so gives an authentic view of life on board the ships of Britain's old sailing navy and the social context of the period that served to limit roles open to lower-class women. The final chapter is devoted to the autobiography of one redoubtable sea-going woman: Mary Lacy, who served as a seaman and shipwright in the Royal Navy for twelve years. Female Tars is absolutely fascinating reading, an original, absorbing, informative, exceptionally well researched and superlatively written book! -- Midwest Book Review