Source Spotlight: “Man-of-War Life,” by Charles Nordhoff

As I write the draft for this week’s Friday Night History, I feel like from now on I ought to introduce some of the sources that factor into each week’s finished product. The one that particularly has my attention this week is Charles Nordhoff’s Man-of-War Life. A German-born American writer, Nordhoff (1830-1901) served in the US Navy from 1845-1848, all aboard the 90-gun ship of the line USS Columbus. While his reputation is as a writer and journalist, he spent 9 years at sea, in the Navy, the merchant service, and on whaling and fishing ships.

What’s particularly surprising to me about Man-of-War Life is that Nordhoff was aboard Columbus when, serving as Commodore Biddle’s flagship, it visited Japan in 1846. Nordhoff wouldn’t have known, but this brought him in close proximity with a number of Japanese leaders who would go on to become influential voices in the late-Edo period conversation on opening up to foreign relations and military modernization– one of them being Nakajima Saburōsuke, a political and military leader who went on to involvement in building Japan’s first modern warships.

The section in his book that covers Japan is ultimately short (all of 18 pages) but this, too, is a primary source on late Edo history that I’m excited to put to work in Friday Night History.

You can read Man-of-War Life online in its entirety! Check it out here.


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