REVIEW: Off the Deep End, A History of Madness at Sea, Nic Compton

Monday, 13 November 2017


In the eighteenth century, the Royal Navy's own physician found that sailors were seven times more likely to suffer from severe mental illness than the general population.
On the high seas, beyond the rule of law, away from any sight of land for weeks at a time--often living in overcrowded and confined spaces, where anything that goes wrong could be fatal--the incredible pressures on sailors were immense. The ever-present fear drove some men to faith in God and superstition--and drove others mad.


In Off the Deep End: A History of Madness at Sea, Nic Compton poses a myriad of question about what exactly it is about the environment of the sea, that leads to such a high level of mental illness amongst the people who have traversed it. The study travels time and location to bring together the stories of perhaps millions of people who have been negatively affected by the waves since the time records began, moving almost like the waves in a way that makes all the experiences join together to create one deafening, tragic roar. In this way, despite it being an academic text, it manages to jump from country to country and century to century without it coming off as jarring, and instead being addictive and compelling.
But that does not mean it is an easy read, for it tells an horrendous history of how the world has treated people with mental illnesses, and how they have been viewed by society - bringing attention to toxic attitude of the navy and its desire to bury its overwhelmingly high number of poor mental health. As well as the conditions of people travelling on ships in recent centuries, with a truly horrific example being the treatment of slaves on the boats traversing the Middle Passage: 1.8 million of them are thought to have died during the journey from Africa to the ’New World'. Which is a fact that makes my stomach turn.
In Off the Deep: A History of Madness at Sea, readers will find a shocking and sickening tale; one that needs to be written, and needs to be read, if only to understand more about the human mind and to learn from the horrific lengths people went to, in order to make it out alive. It is also incredibly important in the conversation about PTSD, both to understand its sometimes-devastating consequences and to get more people talking about it and break the taboo that many people still feel in contemporary society. 
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book in exchange of an honest review

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