Racers of the Deep: The Yankee Clippers and Bluenose Clippers on the Australian Run 1852 - 1869
ASP, $44 pb, 396 pp
In the years before steamships gained supremacy of the oceans, sailing ships became faster and were able, for two decades, to outrun the primitive new technology. This book concentrates on the clippers built in North America and used on the run from Liverpool to Melbourne during this period.
Unlike previous works on the subject, Ralph P. Neale’s book is proudly ‘written from an Australian viewpoint’. Melbourne newspapers have been fruitfully mined for advertisements and reports on the activities of the captains and crews while in port. Neale has also included accounts of the ships’ American builders and Liverpool owners, reckless men who overreached themselves to take advantage of the Victorian gold rush and the Crimean War, and who suffered bankruptcy when business fell off afterwards.
Neale is enthusiastic and makes liberal use of exclamation marks. He is not shy about ascribing similar excitement to contemporary witnesses: ‘When the pilots of the Port Phillip Pilot Service … first saw the Sovereign of the Seas, they must have gasped in admiration,’ he writes. More troubling is the frequent (and unattributed) use of phrases like ‘it has been suggested’ and ‘it is said’. There are some continuity problems with the narrative, often caused by the multiple strands of events that Neale is dealing with. The sentence construction is sometimes clumsy to the point of exasperation.
Neale is clearly a competent artist: his paintings of the ships, as well as useful maps and diagrams, illustrate the book. The glossary is helpful, but omits several terms unfamiliar to landlubbers. Appendices give information about the ships and the major characters. But, despite the huge amount of research involved, one might expect a more careful approach to sources and editing, and some explanation of the author’s credentials, from Australian Scholarly Publications.