‘So you study Nelson?’ Over the past several years, I cannot count the times that I have been asked that question, immediately after telling someone that I study the eighteenth-century British Navy. There was a time when this question frustrated me greatly, and I longed to explain how much larger the Royal Navy was than just one man, no matter how successful or heroic. However recently I have come to appreciate Nelson more and more, not only for his feats at sea, but for the attention his legend has brought to the subject of naval history. Nelson's legend has captured the interest of countless individuals and inspired many professional historians, myself included, to commit a career to examining naval history. From that has stemmed an enormous historiography that examines all facets of history, including dockyards, technology, administration, victualling, officers and admirals, and finally the men they commanded. For me, it was these men of the lower deck that captured my interest most. Having enlisted for four years as a US Marine before becoming a historian, and having spent just over twenty-two months at sea, I felt that I could identify with their experiences in ways that many other historians could not.
As this book clearly illustrates, I am certainly not the first to research and write about the seamen of the British Royal Navy. In fact, many of my predecessors have done fantastic jobs shedding light on the world between the wooden decks of the Royal Navy, and I have relied heavily on their work here. However, I am the first to tell their story using statistics, and although the historians that came before me performed admirably, the lack of statistical analysis meant that their work had to rely on educated speculation rather than hard fact. The problem with not using statistics, is that when discussing something as big as the manpower of the Royal Navy, it is difficult to put into perspective the qualitative research used to produce their publications.