Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Naval Sailors in Outlander

Last time, I wrote about the portrayal of merchant sailors in the Starz television series Outlander. Today I'll be looking at their portrayal of common naval sailors.

In the Wooden World there was a common pool of labor from which all vessels drew. Many sailors, like Ashley Bowen, William Spavens, and Samuel Kelly, sailed on merchantmen and naval vessels. Christopher Prince and Jacob Nagle served on both American and British warships during the Revolution, as well as merchantmen. Olauadah Equiano sailed on merchantmen, naval vessels, and slavers.

The costumes of Outlander create a false distinction between the lower decks of merchantmen and men of war. Their material worlds are arbitrarily divided, creating a sense of different cultures. There were distinctions between the culture of merchantmen and men of war, but there were more similarities than the series suggests.

This inaccurate dichotomy is why I split the review of Outlander into two parts. Interestingly, the naval seamen are portrayed more accurately than the merchant seamen.
That's not to say it is without problems. As I've written before, sailors wore their hair short for most of the eighteenth century. In this series we see a lot of long hair and pigtails, and not a bob wig or bob style haircut in sight.
I don't usually talk about marines, but there's basically nothing about this uniform that is even remotely right, except that he's wearing red.
This guy is at least ballpark. His leather cap is just a fantasy item, but his blue jacket is decent. His sleeved waistcoat is buttoned weirdly, but bonus points for it peeking out from the cuffs of his jacket. His petticoat trousers are striped, which is not common, but also not unheard of, and the broad fall fly is correct for the period. His shirt is open and a black handkerchief hangs around his neck. Generally speaking, sailors wore their handerkchiefs over the collars of their shirts. Overall, he looks way better than most depictions of sailors from the period.
The officers are also only kind of correct. This midshipman's clothes hang like a potato sack, and he wears bizarre white canvas gaiters for some reason. The officers coats are clearly based on the original uniform in the collection of the National Maritime Museum for the 1748-67 regulations for officers uniforms, so it did come from a primary source. The problem is that this is 1766, and those long loose skirts and giant cuffs are no longer in fashion.
Captain Sir Edward Vernon, Francis Hayman, 1753-1756,
National Maritime Museum
As a counterpoint, you can see that Vernon wears his breeches tightly fitted, the cuffs are significantly shorter, and this was still ten years before Outlander takes place. Naval uniform fashion did not freeze for a generation. At least they went to an original source.

There is a tendency in mass media to portray sailors as unchanging. Sailing traditions of the nineteenth century are projected far back through the age of sail. Such is the case with the stitch through the nose.
When sailors died and were sewn into their hammocks, the last stitch was supposedly passed through the nose of the dead tar just to be sure he actually was dead. I have never seen a reference to this practice in the eighteenth century.

There are bright spots. The actual burial scene was done pretty well. I really enjoy that they included a working class woman in the lower decks of the Porpoise. Not only was the presence of women aboard men of war a fact of the eighteenth century, but it undermines the tired notion that women were bad luck at sea, which does not appear to have been a belief at the time. Overall, the material world is much better than in the previous episode.
But seriously, does nobody own a pair of stockings on this ship? Sure, sometimes sailors went barefoot, but this is ridiculous.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Merchant Sailors in Outlander

It has been a while since I dug into portrayals of eighteenth century common sailors in mass media. This is largely because there hasn't been much recently in the way of mass media that includes common tars. That changed last year with the third season of the Starz time-travel-costume-drama-bodice-ripper Outlander.

Based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander follows a 1940's woman in an eighteenth century world. A few episodes are drawn from Gabaldon's novel Voyager, in which the protagonists go to sea in the year 1766, sailing from Scotland to the West Indies in a merchantman. The main character, Clare Frasier, is pressed into service as a surgeon on a man of war during the passage.

One reason this flew under my radar is that Outlander is written for female audiences. I've never read the books, but many (probably most) of my female friends have. The television series has stirred up quite a lot of controversy over their costuming decisions, much of which revolves around female dress. The writers over at Frock Flicks have spent quite a lot of time sifting through the debates.

Today I'm going to look at their portrayals of maritime material culture and life among merchant sailors.

The first we see of the Wooden World is at the end of episode eight, when a young boy is kidnapped by Portuguese sailors. The sailors themselves are only seen at a distance through a spyglass, but we do get a good look at the Portuguese ship. I gotta say, they did pretty well.
Vascello di Secondo Rango Portoghese Tenente Generale Salutando con Canone e alla Voce,
artist unknown, 1780, National Maritime Museum
I've seen far worse. The high stern with overly ornate cabin windows gives the vessel the feel of an earlier age of shipbuilding, and the rigging hangs too loose. The ship is also remarkably drab, with brown saturating everything. It is not clear to me whether they intended the ship to be unpainted, which would be even worse. But for a prop that is on screen for a total of fourteen seconds, it's not as bad as it could be.

In episode nine, the series really puts to sea. We are introduced to the brig Artemus, and here is where the production team starts running into problems. Filming at sea is very difficult and very expensive. Steven Spielberg stated he was 'na├»ve' to shoot the 1977 film Jaws at sea, even though he was happy with the results. Even the most historically accurate age of sail film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World only did a few shots at sea, and most of the shooting on sound stages and in water tanks. The crew of Outlander had to build ships with green screens to stay on schedule and in their budget.

The Artemus shows the compromises the crew made in constructing a vessel of the period.
She is boxy and looks a bit like the Lego pirate ships I had as a kid. She's pierced for guns along the weather deck, but is just sheer walls of wood along the aft cabin. Her bulwarks are high for a merchantman of the period. Probably this was so that the crew could film on-deck shots without having the worry as much about the background, reducing the cost and time involved in creating a CGI seascape.
The sailors on the merchantman are less than impressive. Some wear odd shawls, there's lots of brown and beige, and almost no blue in their slop clothes. Few of them wear trousers or petticoat trousers. Most wear loose fitting breeches. Boots abound, as do cocked hats made of straw, neither of which appear on sailors of the mid-eighteenth century in sources I have found. These merchantmen look more like a costumer's compromise between Hollywood pirate films and Peter Weir's Master and Commander. Also, what's up with that leather jerkin? And why does nobody button up their damned waistcoats?
Perhaps the strangest choice was to equip a sailor in these odd leather wraps around the forearms. They don't seem to have any purpose other than looking olde-timey.

Bigger issues come with the plot. The sailors are portrayed as superstitious because someone didn't touch a horseshoe that was hastily and sloppily nailed into one of the bitts by the mainmast. The crew are so convinced that they are cursed that a riot breaks when they attempt to murder the man they believe responsible. I'll be writing soon about sailors' superstitions and religious beliefs, but I've never read anything like this for the period. A relatively secular form of superstition did exist, but its power was negligible, and it was not nearly so widespread as Hollywood would have you believe.

The sailors are portrayed as ignorant and dirty. Their clothes hang loose, and when the common sailor gets to speak, he is usually shouting some poppycock about curses. I was entirely unimpressed by their portrayal of the lower decks.

Thankfully, as we will see next time, they do a bit better with naval seamen.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Executioners of Their Friends: Impressment and the Revolution

Detail from The Press Gang, John Collet, c.1760's,
from The Foundling Museum
Representatives of the thirteen rebellious British colonies in North America famously listed their grievances with the Crown in the Declaration of Independence. From the dissolving of assemblies to the use of German mercenaries, the Founders laid out every major offense to the liberty of Americans. The Declaration of Independence is known to every American school child. The assertion that 'all men are created equal' is arguably the cornerstone of American political philosophy.

What is little explored and little known is the argument that the King:
has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.[1]
Their argument was the culmination of decades of anger over the kidnapping of American sailors, and colonial resistance (both of the legal and violent varieties) to a controversial system.

I argue that the Revolution did not end the troubles of impressment, but exacerbated them. This was largely because the Americans themselves relied on the British tradition of impressment to man their ships. Such a clearly hypocritical action (and one that many Americans were clearly uncomfortable with) undermined and eroded their argument until it was no longer a viable point to stand on.

I'm not the first to make this argument. Tim McGrath mentioned American impressment in his 2014 book Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea. Mark Strecker mentions it in the introduction to his 2014 book Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849–1915 and makes the same argument that I do concerning the hypocrisy created by this act. William M. Fowler Jr. also addressed it as far back as 1974 in his paper "The Non-Volunteer Navy" published in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, and again in his 1976 book Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution.

Americans detested naval impressment. In the 1765 case of the the Rhode Island guineaman Ospray, whose sailors were pressed by the Royal Navy frigate Maidstone, the people of Newport were so angered that they rioted. As Timothy Abbott relates in his blog 'Another Pair Not Fellows,' when the Maidstone's tender Saint John sent a boat ashore to retrieve a deserter who may have been a pressed man:
Pelting the sailors with stones, the large crowd injured a number of the men in Saint John's boat and took a midshipman hostage. Then some of the mob took up muskets and pursued the retreating longboat back toward the Saint John in a sloop. Before the end of the affair, the colonial gunners at the Fort George on Goat Island even fired cannon (one shot allegedly piercing her Mainsail) at Saint John.
Five years before the Boston Massacre, a full decade before Lexington and Concord, Americans fired on a Royal Navy vessel over naval impressment.

One reason the British did not more aggressively pursue suppression of American resistance to impressment was the tricky legal situation it placed British commanders in.

An example of the complicate legal scene can be found in the affair of the Pitt Packet. Sailing into Boston in 1769, she was stopped by the frigate Rose. The sailors, believing themselves to be protected from impressment by law, barricaded themselves in the Pitt Packet's forepeak and fought back against a press gang led by Lieutenant Henry Panton. John Adams later wrote that the sailor Michael Corbet drew a line with salt across the deck, and warned Lieutenant Panton
If you step over that line, I shall consider it as a proof that you are determined to impress me, and by the eternal God of Heaven, you are a dead man.” “Aye, my lad,” said the lieutenant, “I have seen many a brave fellow before now.” Taking his snuff-box out of his pocket, and taking a pinch of snuff, he very deliberately stepped over the line, and attempted to seize Corbet. The latter, drawing back his arm, and driving his harpoon with all his force, cut off the carotid artery and jugular vein, and laid the lieutenant dead at his feet.[2]
John Adams, future founding father, made the interesting argument that naval impressment was justifiable, but so too was violent resistance to impressment:
I think that Impresses may be allowed to be legal, and yet Corbit might have a Right to resist. To be more particular, when I say Impresses may be legal, I mean that the Lieutenant or other officer who Impresses, may not be liable to any Action of false Imprisonment at the suit of the Party, or to any Indictment at the suit of the Crown, for an Assault, or Riot. The Custom may be admitted to extend so far, and yet it will not follow, that the Seaman has not a Right to resist, and keep himself out of the officers Power, if he can.[3]
Adams hadn't even finished his closing argument before the court abruptly adjourned, and reconvened hours later with the hasty decision to release the accused as having committed a justifiable homicide.

In America, the face of resistance was common sailors and lawyers. In Britain, the face of resistance was female. This was made apparent by the Falkland Island crisis of 1770. As Denver Brunsman related in his The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World, to prepare for a possible war with Spain, King George III's 'navy impressed seamen on a massive scale.'[4]
Detail from The Press Gang, or English Liberty Display'd,
artist unknown, 1770, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
Detail from The Press Gang, artist unknown, 1770,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library
Satiric cartoons printed in Britain illustrated the injustice of impressment as men were hustled off by sailors, while their wives wept at the feet of uncaring naval officers.

Tugging at the heart strings was one way to resist, but women were also willing to directly confront press gangs and challenge their courage and manhood. Many newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported the appearance of 'the famous Hannah Snell' in confronting press gangs.

April 11, 1771, The Maryland Gazette, page 2
Hannah was not bluffing when she dared them to 'take Brown Bess on your Shoulder, and march through Germany, as I have done; Ye Dogs, I have more Wounds about me than ye have Fingers.' As a younger woman, she disguised herself as a man, served in the marines, and was wounded in battle.

Resistance to impressment was present throughout the British Atlantic World, and so when the Continental Congress included a condemnation of impressment after the outbreak of hostilities, they were likely to find a receptive audience among the British.

Sadly, this argument was almost immediately undermined. The Continental Navy, America's new and tiny maritime force, was chronically undermanned and undersupplied. To solve the former problem, sometimes press gangs were employed.

The impressment of sailors by American ships at first targeted British sailors and exempted Americans. A ship's carpenter recalled that when he and his mates were taken prisoner by the Americans in 1776, they were well treated 'and had Passes given us to protect us from being impressed by the American Sea Officers.'[5] Another British prisoner in 1776 recalled the use of impressment against British sailors: 'About the 20th of October, the Boston, a 30 gun frigate, came round from Newbury to Boston, to fit out under the command of Capt. M'Neil; she was navigated by thirty English sailors, whom they impressed for that service only.'[6]

Still, the Americans tried to practice what they preached about naval impressment. Writing to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Continental Army general Horatio Gates mentioned a seaman named William Beard among prisoners (soldiers and sailors) taken by his command. Beard, wrote Gates, 'appears to be an Impress'd Man, on board of a Man of War, at Hampton in Virginia; he may also have his Liberty at Worcester.'[7] The Americans were fighting a war of liberation, and if they could free British subjects from the oppression perpetrated by their own government, it would underline the moral justice of their cause.

Their moral fortitude was not to last. As the Americans became desperate, principles gave way and captains began pressing American sailors. The most notorious incident involved Captain James Nicholson, commanding the frigate Virginia in Baltimore, Maryland. Nicholson was ordered by the Marine Committee in 1777 to 'be particularly attentive to collect as many Seamen as possible, not only what may be necessary for the Virginia, but as many as you can bring to assist in manning the rest of our Navy.'[8] Given that Baltimore was a vibrant privateer port, there were few sailors willing to take on the low pay of a Continental Navy vessel. Nicholson ran a press in Baltimore and infuriated the Marylanders.

Governor Thomas Johnson scolded Nicholson in a letter demanding he cease impressment and discharge all men forced into his service. Johnson adopted the rebels rhetoric in reminding Nicholson of the responsibility that came with authority:
It is the Office of Government to protect every Subject in his Liberty and his Property, nor shall we, who are honored by our Country with the highest Department, be idle Spectators of the Oppression of any Man in it.[9]
When Nicholson persisted, Johnson wrote to the Continental Congress and implied that the captain was becoming something of a tyrant with unchecked powers:
I am sorry the Congress did not at once say what Capt Nicholson should do by way of Concession and appoint some Body to discharge the Men there's an indelicacy in saying what any shall do by a Man to himself.[10]
Nicholson was not the only Continental Navy officer to practice impressment. The legendary John Paul Jones was accused of pressing privateersmen, provoking a protest that was sent directly to Congress:
The Owners of the Privateer Schooner Eagle request that you will present to Congress, and support with your good Influence, the inclosed Memorial and Protest, relative to the Conduct of Capt. Jones, Commander of the Ship Alfred, in impressing a Number of Hands from the Said Schooner, maltreating the Officers, and breaking up her Cruize.[11]

Impressment was also practiced by Captain Webb of the Pennsylvania State Navy, Captain Isaiah Robinson of the Continental brig Andrew Doria, and Captain John Burroughs Hopkins of the Continental ship Warren.[12]

With the entry of France into the war, Britain's already strained resources were pressed even further. Impressment was used, as it had been throughout the century, to man the Royal Navy, and certainly on a much broader scale than the Americans were. In a telling political cartoon published in 1779, James Gillray used the language of the American rebels to protest impressment.
The Liberty of the Subject, by James Gillray, 1779, National Portrait Gallery (UK)
Gillray shows women violently resisting the gang, pulling their hair and swinging sticks. The term 'Liberty' is front and center. Gillray was using the Americans' vocabulary of Revolution to call out unjust practices in the mother country.

Yet the Americans still failed to live up to their rhetoric. In 1781 Jacob Nagle, an American citizen, was targeted for impressment by a Continental Navy warship.
The Confederacy frigate sent her boat on board and took 4 men out, and expecting more to be stowed away below, but could not find us. They left three midshipmen on board with a brace of pistols and cutlashes each.[13]
The Declaration of Independence bore a strong argument against naval impressment that would have resounded with British sympathizers. In failing to follow the high ideals of the new nation, the Continental Navy drained that argument of its effectiveness. Despite the role of press gangs in provoking colonials toward rebellion, it failed to find a place among the American pantheon of British injustice, like quartering troops, dissolving legislatures, taxation without representation, and hiring German armies to fight in America.

A generation later, naval impressment reemerged as a wedge in American-British relations, and led directly to the War of 1812.

[1] 'Engrossed Declaration of Independence,' The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 360: Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1765 - 1821, accessed January 25, 2018, <>.
[2] John Adams, 'The Indamissable Principles of the King of England's Proclamation of October 26, 1807,' The Works of John Adams, Volume 9, Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1854, page 312.
[3] 'Adams' Argument and Report, Special Court of Admiralty, Boston, June 1769' in Legal Papers of John Adams Volume 2, Massachussetts Historical Society, accessed January 25, 2018, <>.
[4] Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013, page 244.
[5] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William Bell Clark, ed., volume 4, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1969, page 1115.
[6] Naval Documents, volume 7, page 299.
[7] Naval Documents, Volume 3, page 601-602.
[8] Naval Documents, volume 8, page 297.
[9] Maryland State Archives, Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777, Maryland Archives Online, Volume 16, page 277, accessed January 26, 2018, <>.
[10] Naval Documents, volume 8, page 966.
[11] Naval Documents, volume 7, page 357.
[12] Naval Documents, volume 8, pages 459, 381, and 1044.

[13] Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, page 25.

Monday, February 5, 2018

More Than Rum

Detail from The Scourge of India Captains Taking His Usual Regale,
W. Wells, 1781, Wellcome Library.
Continuing my occasional theme of 'rum, sodomy, and the lash,' today I'm taking a quick look at rum. It's an easy assumption to make: sailors loved their rum. They did, but they loved a lot more than rum, and rum was not the sole staple of the sailors' diet of alcoholic beverages.

Sailors could lay in their own stores of alcohol. John Fray, a sailor on the Maryland merchantman Rumney & Long in 1747/8 bought twelve gallons of wine, two gallons of brandy, fifteen gallons of cider, and twelve and a half gallons of rum. All told, alcohol cost him four pounds and seventeen shillings, nearly a quarter of all his expenses for the voyage.
Maryland State Archives, SC 1065, Rumney & Long ledger book, f.14
Vessels carried their own stores of alcoholic beverages as well. In the return from the 60 gun Centurion in early 1755, about the time that she sailed in convoy to North America with the 50 gun Norwich, we see how many tons of beer and water each vessel carried for the voyage across the Atlantic.
The National Archives (UK), ADM 4/180, f.499
In these two examples alone we see wine, brandy, cider, and beer, as well as rum. Beer was the primary alcoholic ration of the Royal Navy, but given regional availability, it was often substituted. N.A.M. Rodger, in The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, transcribed a table of equivalences for substituting rations. A gallon of beer could be substituted by a pint of wine, or a half pint arrack, rum, or brandy.
On long passages and on foreign stations men drank watered wine (in the proportion of 8 to 1) or watered spirits (in the proportion of 16 to 1), but in home water they drank beer alone, and the length of time a ship could stay at sea was effectively measured by how long her beer would last.[1]
Beer was so important, the the ability to brew it made sailors valuable. The cooper John Nicol spent much of his time at sea as a brewer of spruce beer. At least once he was recruited into a profitable voyage for that very skill:
At once I made myself clean and waited upon Captain Portlock. He was happy to see me, as I was an excellent brewer of spruce-beer, and the very man he wished, but knew not where to have sent for me. I was at once engaged on the most liberal terms as cooper, and went away rejoicing in my good fortune.[2]
Samuel Kelly related the drinks of choice for the upper and lower decks of an American vessel:
The American officers appeared sober men, as they generally drank water mixed with the bottled porter, though some of the crew had broached a pipe of Madeira wine in the between decks, and cut up the cheese which they fried in the pan to eat.[3]
Mixing drinks, as we have seen, was common. Generally this was watering down, which includes the famous sailors' rum drink grog. Grog was a very simple drink, as Francis Grose defines it in the 1785 edition of his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
Grog was certainly present on eighteenth century vessels. William Spavens, Jacob Nagle, and Samuel Kelly all write of receiving an allowance of grog.[5] Notably, many sailors don't mention grog at all.

Eighteenth century sailors were figuratively awash in liquor. Alcohol formed an important part of maritime culture. That drinking culture was host to a diverse range of drinks, and not defined solely by rum.

[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 90-92
[2] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 77.
[3] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, page 49.
[4] Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London: S. Hooper, 1785, via Google Books, accessed January 26, 2018 <>.
[5] Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000, page 35; Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, pages 20 and 66; Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, pages 101-102.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Braddock's Tars: Common Sailors and the Braddock Expedition

On behalf of Carlyle House Historic Park I'll be speaking at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia Monday, March 26 regarding a little known party of thirty-three Royal Navy sailors that marched with Braddock's 1755 expedition to attack Fort Duquesne. In Braddock's Tars: Common Sailors and the Braddock Expedition, I will use their story as a lens to look at the larger picture of common sailors in the British Atlantic World. The talk begins at 7 PM, and you can RSVP right here.

Detail from A View of the Taking of Quebec September 13th: 1759,
published by Laurie & Whittle, 1797, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images

If Virginia to too far for you, I'll be speaking on the broader topic of sailors in combined operations in the French and Indian War in my talk From Braddock to Wolfe: Royal Navy Seamen Ashore in North America as part of Fort Ticonderoga's twenty-third annual War College of the Seven Years War from May 18-20.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Staved Tankards and Coopers

Gregory Theberge, at his 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center, put together an excellent slideshow of naval foodways in material culture. Through his research, with some backing from the American Revolution: Portraying the Sailor group on Facebook, Gregory found a surprising constant in British naval messes of the eighteenth century: staved tankards.
The example above was excavated from the 74 gun man of war Invincible, wrecked in 1758 in the English Channel.[1] Another was found on the other side of the Atlantic, from the wreck of the 14 gun sloop Swift which sank off Patagonia in 1770.[2] Archaeologists also turned up a staved tankard from the 1779 wreck of the American privateer brigantine Defense off the coast of Maine.[3]

Stave tankards also appear in period artwork.
Detail from The Wapping Landlady, Francis Hayman, c.1743,
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail from The Sailor's Farewell, Charles Mosley, date unknown,
National Maritime Museum. The colorist may have given it a metallic look.
Staved tankards in a maritime context pre-date my era of study by centuries. From wrecks as early as the 1545 Mary Rose archaeologists have recovered staved tankards. They continued to be used after my period of study, as you can see in Thomas Rowlandson's study for the 1799 print A Ship's Cook, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.

Curious as to why the staved tankard was so present in the maritime world, I turned to Marshall Scheetz, owner and operator of Jamestown Cooperage, LLC. As a sort of modern John Nicol, Marshall Scheetz makes staved tankards by hand in the same fashion as eighteenth century coopers at sea:
While a shipwright creates the vessel in which men sail, the cooper creates the vessels that hold the provisions that men need to survive at sea for extended periods of time. To me, the supply lines of the 18th and 19th century British Navy were wonders of the contemporary world. The Victualling yards of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Deptford, and Harwich were marvels of food processing in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  Most of these provisions, victuals, etc were stored and shipped in casks made by armies of coopers. The coopers were often specialized in making standardized casks for specific types of products; salt beef or pork, butter, beer, liquor, peas, bread, flour, etc. And, there were always coopers aboard official Naval vessels, in promoted positions, to maintain stores and to see that casks were stowed properly.
So why staved tankards?
Wooden drinking vessel make sense for sailors.  A wooden vessel won't shatter when knocked over during high seas and the flared shape offers a lower center of gravity making it difficult to tip over. Many metals will corrode when exposed to salt water, but wood thrives in the environment. Many tankards were bound with wooden hoops, sapling or split. The importance of coopers to ocean going vessels can not be overstated. This puts coopers in every port and on most vessels.  Because of coopers proximity to sailors and the enormous government contracts and elevated status given them it's natural that coopered bowls and drinking vessels would be ubiquitous at sea along side "scuttle butts," water tuns, butter firkins, and wine hogsheads. 
Staved tankard by Marshall Scheetz, available on

[1] Tankard, INV.112, Invincible collection, The Historic Dockyards Chatham, accessed December 25, 2017, <>.
[2] Dolores Elkin, et al., “Archaeological research on HMS Swift: a British Sloop-of-War lost off Patagonia, Southern Argentina, in 1770,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 36, Issue 1, March 2007, pages 49.
[3] Shelley Owen Smith, The Defence: Life at Sea as Reflected in an Archaeological Assemblage from an Eighteenth Century Privateer, doctorate dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1986, figure 39, page 79.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Flogging and the Cat

This post is part of my series Race, Revolt, and Piracy, examining racial violence at sea in the eighteenth century.

Detail from Monsieur Sneaking Gallantly into Brest's Skulking Hole after receiving 
preliminary Salutation of British Jack Tar the 27 of July 1778, W. Richardson, 
1778, John Carter Brown Library.  
Edward Ward was no seaman, but he was witty. His satirical outline of the men who used the sea The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War stayed in print for decades. One of the more memorable lines concerns the dread cat of nine tails:
Cerberus is not more dreadful to the dead, than this cat is to the living; but indeed she's never let loose, but by order of the commander, who many a times lashes a man out of the same itch of fancy that he cats a woman.[1]
In his book, Ward both reflected popular ideas of the Wooden World and informed them. Essentially, Ward amplified caricatures of sailors. When it comes to popular perceptions of sailors in the past (and to some degree, in the present), it is easy to fall into the idea of the Wooden World as 'rum, sodomy, and the lash.' I've addressed the difficulty of examining 'sodomy' afloat, and today I'll be exploring 'the lash.' Was it really so common as we assume, how was it administered, and what does the cat of nine tails say about the sailors of the British Atlantic world?

Sources from the time are clear: flogging was a constant and seamen feared flogging. What it says about the Wooden World is that despite the shared culture of common sailors aboard merchantmen, men of war, and guineamen (slavers), there were differences between them. The use of violence aboard these vessels can be explored using the cat of nine tails as a lens. Merchantmen disdained the cat, men of war allowed its limited use in a ritualized context, and guineamen embraced the cat.

Aboard Royal Navy vessels, the boatswain was responsible for discipline of the ship's company. Informally, and really at any moment, he could administer corporal punishment by way of his rattan or maybe a rope's end. When naval sailors were convicted of a court martial offence or had transgressed to a degree that earned the attention of the captain, they could and often were sentenced or ordered to be flogged by the more severe cat of nine tails.

Ashley Bowen, then an apprentice to a merchant sea captain, wrote in 1744 of a 'cat with 9 part of log line.'[2]

In 1751, Nathan Bailey may have been the first to academically define the cat of nine tails, and his dictionary was vague:
CAT o' nine Tails, is a Whip with nine Lashes.[3]
Francis Grose defined the cat as thus in his famous Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

CAT OF NINE TAILS, a scourge, composed of nine strings of whipcord, each string having nine knots.[4]
Dr. Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon turned abolitionist, described the cats he observed on guineamen in his 1787 An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa:
 An instrument of correction, which consists of a handle or stem, made of a rope three inches and a half in circumference, and about eighteen inches in length, at one of which are fastened nine branches, or tails, composed of log line, with three or more knots upon each branch.[5]
Detail from The Court Cotillion or the Premiers New Parl*****t Jig,
Terry, 1774, American Antiquarian Society.
The use of the cat was constant enough to become associated with British sailors, and with the Royal Navy, among the many cultures they encountered. When John Nicol sailed to China, he wrote that:
They are much alarmed at the appearance of a man-of-war ship, and they often say, 'Englishman too much cruel, too much fight.' There were some English seamen flogged for mutiny while we lay in the river. The Chinese wept like children for the men, saying, 'Hey, yaw, Englishman too much cruel, too much flog, too much flog.'[6]
Olauadah Equiano, after being kidnapped from modern day Ghana and sold into slavery, was terrified by the way English sailors treated each other on the Middle Passage:
One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner.[7]
Equiano's introduction to the brutality of slavery, an institution even more defined by flogging, was accompanied by a sailor suffering the same abuse the enslaved could expect.

Hogarth also played to these fears in his print The Idle Prentice Turn'd Away and Sent to Sea.
Detail from The Idle Prentice Turn'd Away and Sent to Sea,
William Hogarth, 1747, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
The Idle is being ridiculed by a pair of sailors. One points to a gallows at water's edge, the other dangles a cat of nine tails. They warn of a harsh and short life at sea for this profligate. Though prone to exaggeration and parody, Ward and Hogarth were right about the fear of flogging that sailors held. Many wrote of their experiences witnessing and being subjected to the lash. This was true on both merchant and naval vessels.

To be clear, when I say that flogging was a constant, I mean that it was ever present in maritime society and nearly every sailor experienced or witnessed abuse. I do not assert that every vessel was commanded by a vile masochist. Nearly every sailor's memoir includes a story of a brutal officer and some, like Robert Barker's The Unfortunate Shipwright, or Cruel Captain, are explicitly about unfair punishment at sea, but the majority of most sailor's memoirs relate events aboard ships where sailors were not beaten mercilessly and at the drop of a hat.

By way of example, A.G. Jamieson, in his paper 'Tyranny of the Lash? Punishment in the Royal Navy during the American War, 1776-1783,' examined the sloop Wolf 's punishment record:
There were only eighteen floggings in five and one-third years, giving a total of 276 lashes and an average of fifteen lashes per flogging. Thirteen of the floggings were of twelve lashes and five of twenty-four lashes each. Only fifteen individuals were subject to flogging. The fourteen men flogged in the period 1776-1780 amounted to 4.9% of all the seamen and marines who served with the ship in that period.[8]
Jamieson found that, in his admittedly small case study, only about 5.4% of ship's companies were subjected to corporal punishment during the American Revolutionary War.[9]

In a broader study, John D. Byrn Jr. examined seventy three Royal Navy vessels stationed in the Leeward Islands between 1784 and 1812 and found only nine percent of ship's companies suffered the lash. Put another way, 'If nine percent of the inhabitants of the lower decks of king's ships were flogged, ninety-one percent were not.'[10]

It is also worth remembering that corporal punishment and physical violence were common means of discipline throughout the British Atlantic world, and not particular to sailors. N.A.M. Roger reminds us:
The eighteenth century was an age in which personal violence was more common than it is now. Flogging was a frequent punishment for both children and adults, and even in the highest levels of society fights, brawls or duels were not unusual. People were more accustomed to settle affairs with a blow than now seems proper.[11]
When flogging did occur, the cat does not appear to have been used much on merchant vessels. Sailing aboard the Bonita in 1785, Samuel Kelly recalled that:
The master was well acquainted with our want of provisions, and as I had once received a good flogging with the bit of a large rope for asking for more meat for the crew, I was not very fond of risking a repetition.[12]
The rope's end was a popular form of punishment for both merchant and naval seafarers. Ashley Bowen suffered the rope's end many times from the cruel master of the merchantman Hawke:
We sailed about the first of May and before we got Halfway Rock astern I had a smart rope's ending from my master. O Dear my Mother![13]
What precisely the rope's end was composed of is hard to say; probably whatever was at hand. When merchant captain James Lowry was brought to trial for beating the sailor Kenneth Hossick to death, chief mate James Gadderar testified in 1752:
the Captain took a small rope of an inch or inch and quarter round, and began to beat him with the bite of it.[14]
The artist Samuel Wale later depicted Lowry raising a small segment of rope doubled over in his hand, creating a bend that would strike the unfortunate victim.
Detail from The Murder of Kenith Hossack by Captain Lowry,
Samuel Wale, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art.
Whether the difference between flogging with a rope's end and a cat of nine tails was known to the general public is unclear. R. Bennett's 1752 cartoon Captain James Lowry shows a cat of nine tails at his feet.
Detail from Captain James Lowry, R. Bennett, 1752, British Museum.
The cat of nine tails is mentioned at the Lowry trial in the testimony of sailor John Hunt. Tellingly, Hunt mentions the cat to say it is a man of war's instrument, and does not claim that it was present at the crime. This was Hunt's answer to the prosecutor's question of whether he had seen men whipped at sea in the past:
I have, but in a different manner : with a cat of nine tails in a man of war, and let loose directly; they are whipped between their shoulders, but this was almost likely to break a man's bones. I never saw a man flogged on board a merchantman in my life.[15]
Hunt viewed abuse on merchantmen as unexpected. This also appears to have been the case on the Hawke, where Ashley Bowen was beaten regularly by his captain. At least once, despite being a merchant ship, Bowen was beaten with a cat of nine tails. The crew were aggrieved by this treatment, and 'the Mate..said if I should die on the passage out he would be a witness against' the captain.[16]

Guineamen were more likely to use the cat against their sailors. James Field Stanfield sailed on a slave ship in the 1770's, and recounted the abuse the crew suffered in verse. His cruel captain applied salt to the wounds of sailors given the lash:
Now writhes his tortur'd frame! The scourges ply- / And from the lash  the quiv'ring mosels fly. / Invention next, from her exhaustless stores, / O'er the bare bones the venom lotion pours, / Whose acrid salts in searching conflict dart, / With pungent anguish barbing ev'ry smart.[17]
As quoted above, Equiano saw a white sailor flogged to death with a rope's end, and Dr. Falconbridge saw a sailor flogged with the cat 'and sometimes he was beat with a bamboo.'[18]

Perhaps it was the constant use of the cat against the enslaved men and women, packed and crowded into the Guineamen that broke down the ritualized naval barrier that usually prevented the use of the cat on merchant vessels. This, however, is a topic that deserves far more attention than I can give in this short post.

The line between naval and merchant flogging may appear arbitrary, but it seems to have been firm. This is illustrated in the case of the aforementioned Ashley Bowen. When the vile master of the Hawke boarded the warship Dorsetshire, he attempted to use naval discipline against his own merchant apprentice:
When on board, he asked Mr. Griffith to let the Boatswain's Mate bring me to a capstan bar in order to frighten me, which was done, and Captain Burrish, walking his quarterdeck, the people called out "flogging on board." Some left their stations and others, making uproars, Captain Burrish wished to know the meaning sent for Mr. Page, the First Leftenant, which said that Mr. Griffith was the author of it. Then Mr. Griffith was sent for and had a smart repremand for his conduct, and so I was released and sent out of the Dorsetshire. And as we came to Mahon, he said he would send me to school and he would never strike me more.[19]
Fear of flogging was powerful among seamen. While Bowen's cruel master failed to utilize that fear, there were many others who did not. Christopher Hawkins' shipmate, taking a disliking to Hawkins' American sympathies during the Revolutionary War, stabbed him with a fork:
He was immediately sentenced to receive two dozen lashes from the boatswain's mate for this outrage, and tied to a gun. He now began to beg my forgiveness. I interposed in his behalf with great anxiety, but to not purpose except saving one of the dozen. The dozen that he received was most horribly inflicted-the blood ran down to his heels. The boatswain's mate who administered his punishment was a hard hearted wretch and appeared destitute of human feelings-his names James Richardson. The witnessing of this punishment and the shrieks of the sufferer made me sick at the stomach.[20]
Even before being lashed (or, as he was tied to a gun, perhaps struck with a rattan across the backside), Hawkins' attacker immediately broke down. Terror was the point. Fear of flogging kept crews in line and motivated them. In an unusually cynical exploitation of that fear, Captain Cummings of the Blandford used flogging quicken his crew's pace. Decades later William Spavens still remembered:
I have known him call all hands to sway up the main top gallant yard, which ten men would have effected with ease; and if we were not all upon deck in five minutes, he would place a petty officer at every hatchway to stop those who remained below, and would order each man a dozen lashes at the gangway for his tardiness.[21]
Perhaps the most terrifying use of the cat was a flogging around the fleet. John Nicol, who personally witnessed this cruel punishment, shared a vivid memory:
One of our men was shipped through the fleet for stealing some dollars from a merchant ship he was assisting to bring into port. It was a dreadful sight: the unfortunate sufferer tied down on the boar and rowed from ship to ship, getting an equal number of lashes at the side of each vessel from a fresh man. The poor wretch, to deaden his sufferings, had drunk a whole bottle of rum a little before the time of punishment. When he had only two portions to get of his punishment, the captain of the ship perceived he was tipsy and immediately ordered the rest of the punishment to be delayed until he was sober. He was rowed back to the Surprise, his back swelled like a pillow, black and blue. Some sheets of thick paper were steeped in vinegar and laid to his back. Before he seemed insensible. Now his shrieks rent the air. When better he was sent to the ship, where his tortures were stopped and again renewed.[22]
Violence beget violence. Sailors subjected to the lash did their best to escape. If caught in their attempt to desert, they were again punished with a flogging. Samuel Kelly told of a flogging around the fleet brought on by this very dynamic:
I saw two seamen flogged through this fleet for desertion, a most cruel punishment, especially as the desertion is sometimes occasioned by severe and cruel treatment. These men were fixed to a kind of gallows in a boat, and exposed to the tropical sun whilst going through their punishment, and I was informed one of the men expired on the same day.[23]
Based on the evidence I have gathered above, the use of the cat of nine tails is best expressed as a spectrum of violence. Merchantmen were far from exempt from floggings, though the cat itself rarely appear. Naval vessels saw the constant use of the cat, sometimes for very minor infractions indeed, but only after a direct command from the commanding officer, and then administered in a ritual that justified that violence. On slavers the cat was used indiscriminately, perhaps a result of the breakdown of civilization among a tightly confined crew encouraged to use violence of all sorts without consequence.

This spectrum is only a theory, and one that certainly must have exceptions, but it is a framework I hope to test in the future when examining violence at sea.

[1] Ward, Edward, The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War, seventh edition, London, 1760, page 46.
[2] Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 45.
[3] Bailey, Nathan, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1751, R. Ware, Google Books, accessed January 18, 2018.
[4] Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London: S. Hooper, 1785, page 28, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[5] Falconbridge, Alexander, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of AfricaLondon: J. Phillips, 1788, page 40, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[6] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 108-109.
[7] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 57.
[8] Jamieson, A.G., 'Tyranny of the Lash? Punishment in the Royal Navy during the American War, 1776-1783,' in The Northern Mariner, The Canadian Nautical Research Society, Volume 9, No. 1, 1999, page 55, accessed January 17, 2018, <>.
[9] Jamieson, 'Tyranny,' page 64.
[10] Byrn Jr., John D., Crime and Punishment in the Royal Navy: Discipline on the Leeward Islands Station, 1784-1812 (England), Louisiana State University Historical Dissertations and Theses, 1987, page 172, accessed January 18, 2018, <>.
[11]  Roger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 212.
[12] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, page 123.
[13] Bowen, Autobiography, page 38.
[14] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 03 January 2018), February 1752, trial of James Lowrey (t17520218-1).
[15] Bowen, Autobiography, page 45.
[16] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 03 January 2018), February 1752, trial of James Lowrey (t17520218-1).
[17] Falconbridge, Account of the Slave Tradepage 40, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[18] Stanfield, James Field, The Guinea Voyage. A Poem in Three Books, London: James Phillips, 1789, page 20. 
[19] Bowen, Autobiography, page 50-51.
[20] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 36.
[21] Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000, page 35.
[22] Nicol, Life and Adventures, page 50.
[23] Kelly, An Eighteenth Century Seamanpage 27.