Monday, January 15, 2018

Homosexuality in the Royal Navy

Detail from The Guardian frigate, commanded by Lieutenant Riou, surrounded by
islands of ice in the South Seas, on which she struck 24th December 1789, in her
passage to Botany Bay, with the departure of the crew in the jolly boat
published by Carington Bowles, 1790, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library

Some time ago I posted a piece [link not safe for work] on the wildly popular eighteenth century erotic novel Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. In that novel, the author John Cleland wrote an explicit scene were Fanny and a common sailor do the deed. There is a brief moment of alarm on Fanny's part when he
was not going by the right door, and knocking desperately at the wrong one, I told him of it:—'Pooh!' says he, 'my dear, any port in a storm.'[1]
By referencing the nearly accidental act of 'sodomy,' Cleland taps into the popular impression that sailors engaged in homosexuality. This is one of the few primary sources that directly addresses this impression. Rictor Norton, at his website Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Englandhas collected an impressive number of primary sources, though few reference sailors. Something that becomes clear in Norton's work is that, despite Cleland's implication to the contrary, there was little or no legal distinction at the time between those who engaged in a single same-sex act, those who were exclusively homosexual, and anyone who fell in between.

The idea that one is either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual can be seen in the case of William Bailey. In his trial for 'sodomy' at the Old Bailey, William called numerous character witnesses to his defense who testified that he 'always behaved as one that had an affection to women,' was 'frequently in women's company,' and that 'he loves the company of women a thousand times more than men.' Today we would recognize these facts as irrelevant to the act itself, but in eighteenth century law, a single homosexual act was equated with being exclusively homosexual. The jury at Bailey's trial was not wholly convinced of his innocence, and he was sent to the pillory.[2]

N.A.M. Rodger argued in his book The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy that acts of homosexuality were not as common in the mid-eighteenth century Royal Navy as many assume:
There appear to have only been eleven courts martial for sodomy during the [Seven Years'] war, of which four led to acquittals, and seven convictions on lesser charges of indecency or 'uncleanliness'. This does not seem a remarkably large figure for a seagoing population which was for most of the war seventy or eighty thousand.[3]
Conviction meant death. The articles of war for the Royal Navy were very clear on this point, leaving no room for leniency, as is made clear in this printing from 1749:
Penalty of committing Buggery or Sodomy. XXIX. If any Person in the Fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable Sin of Buggery or Sodomy with Man or Beast, he shall be punished with Death by the Sentence of a Court-martial.[4]
Given this extreme punishment, Roger argues that men of war were not suitable places for men to embrace each other:
The crime was...very difficult to conceal aboard ship where there was so little privacy. A Ship at sea was about the most difficult possible place to commit sodomy.[5]
Though rare, convictions still occurred and so did homosexual acts. When they did occur, they were often overlooked, covered up, or treated as the lesser criminal charge of 'uncleanliness' to avoid the death penalty. Rodger argues that officers preferred to sweep possible incidents of 'buggery' under the rug.

In support of Roger's school of thought is this piece from Volume 31 of the Gentleman's Magazine, published in 1761 and forwarded to me by Casey Hill. It is the very same William Bailey whose trial I quoted above:
Wm Bailey stood on the pillory in Grace-church-street for sodomy; but by means of a press-gang, escaped without being pelted. A quarrel ensued between the press-gang and the butchers, in which the officer was terribly handled.[6]
This press gang showed no compunction about bringing a convicted 'sodomite' into the close confines of a man of war.

Arthur Gilbert, in his paper 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,' agreed that officers avoided accusing their comrades of engaging in homosexuality. This fact makes it 'impossible to judge the incidence of buggery in the military.' He makes a convincing argument that naval courts martial 'reveal a ferocity towards morals offenders far beyond that of civil society.'[7] Gilbert showed:
Buggery was as serious as murder and mutiny when we use capital convictions measured against total number of cases tried. While the conviction rate for buggery was less than for all other crimes except murder, those convicted of buggery were far more likely to receive death sentences than men charged with mutiny or murder. Further, only mariners charged with desertion to the enemy during wartime or striking an officer were as likely to be sentenced to death as men on trial for buggery.[8]
This meant that skilled sailors and good officers could and did hang. For what can be seen as a victim-less crime (at least in cases of consensual homosexual acts) officers would understandably be reluctant to prosecute seafarers.

Rodger and Gilbert agree that records are sparse, but differ in the official approach to homosexuality. Rodger argues that homosexuality and homosexual acts were almost entirely absent in the navy and treated with indifference, while Gilbert believed it to be uncommon but undeniably present and treated with draconian brutality.

Pointing to the remarkably few cases of 'buggery' brought to court during the Seven Years' War, Rodger believed that 'if senior officers were concerned about it, they gave no hint of the fact in their correspondence. Everything suggests it was an insignificant issue.'[9] 

Gilbert, meanwhile, argued that there was a general fear of perceiving the Navy as rife with homosexuality. He believed that fear of being painted as a homosexual institution motivated officers to be overzealous in punishments when they were forced to confront them in court. He argued that 'while it is difficult to determine whether or not the fear of sodomy was more acute in this period than in earlier times, there is certainly evidence to suggest that the phobic reaction to it reached a highwater mark during the eighteenth century' and that this is the cause of the harsh punishments meted out to all who were convicted.[10]

In short, Rodger believes that homosexuality was so inconsequential that it barely registered in the minds of officers. Gilbert, on the other hand, thought that officers feared a perception by the general public of the Royal Navy as an inherently homosexual institution.

Christopher Hawkins wrote that sailors could curse as much as they please, provided they did not use one particular word: 'bo-g-r.'[11] Hawkins' anecdote supports Gilbert's argument that homosexuality was widely feared in the Navy, but is the only reference I've come across yet that even implies homosexuality throughout the course of the Sailors' Memoirs Project. Such an obvious absence from even sensationalized works, like Hannah Snell's memoir, supports Roger's perspective.

Both Gilbert and Rodger agree that homosexual acts were treated as a crime that carried an unusually harsh punishment, and for this reason was sometimes overlooked. This makes the task of exhuming the prevalence of, and attitudes toward homosexuality exceedingly difficult and sometimes, in the words of Gilbert, 'impossible.'

What can be said based on our current understanding of period sources is sailors of the time did not speak much of it. Whether out of indifference or fear, homosexuality was largely an absent or taboo topic for eighteenth century sailors.

[1] Cleland, John, The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, London, 1749, via Project Gutenberg, accessed December 26, 2017, <>.
[2] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.2, 08 January 2018), October 1761, trial of William Bailey (t17611021-35).
[3] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 80.
[4] 'An Act for amending, explaining, and reducing into One Act of Parliament, the Laws relating to the Government of His Majesty's Ships, Vessels, and Forces by Sea,' 1749, Casey Hill collection.
[5] Roger, Wooden World, page 80. Of note, Roger's The Wooden World had a serious influence on Patrick O'Brian, the famous novelist. O'Brian's character Jack Aubrey expresses this sentiment in The Commodore, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 247-248.
[6] Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 31, 1761, page 532, via the HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed January 8, 2018, <;view=1up;seq=556>.[7] Gilbert, Arthur, 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,' in History of Homosexuality in Europe & America (Studies in Homosexuality), Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen Donaldson, ed., New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, page 132, via Google Books, accessed December 26, 2017, <>. Gilbert's piece, though criticized by Roger in The Wooden World, is immensely influential. It is cited in To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850 by Paul A. Gilje, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age by Marcus Rediker, and in Rodger's own Command of the Oceans: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, notably without comment.
[8] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 141.

[9] Rodger, The Wooden Worldpage 80.
[10] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 148.
[11] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 39.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Frying Watches

In the waning years of the American Revolutionary War, Samuel Kelly was witness to an odd revelry in British occupied Charleston, South Carolina:
The Peacock returned here from a cruise, and the seamen, having received some prize-money, purchased several watches, and in a drunken frolic, they determined to fry the woks on the fire, and were highly entertained to hear such a number of them ticking in the frying-pan.[1]
When I first read these words, I took them to be a singular, drunken extravagance not to be repeated. It's such a bizarre and silly thing to do that it was something I took note of, but did not expect to be something I'd find anywhere else.
Detail from Sailors Carousing and Frying Watches,
Julius Caesar Ibbetson, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art
Turns out I was wrong. Though it is likely that the above work of art (also featured in Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting) is later than my period of study, it clearly shows sailors doing precisely what Kelly described in 1782. This drawing was probably a study for the later painting now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.
Detail from Sailors Carousing, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1802,
National Maritime Museum
There is no fire beneath the pan, and they do not appear to be in a rush to light one. Perhaps this was a ceremonial celebration of prize money, a ritualized 'frying' of the watches.

The earliest reference I could find to frying watches comes from the British vessels Active and Favourite taking the Spanish Hermione in 1762. With such an abundance of prize money coming from the capture, the sailors spent lavishly. Lloyds Evening Post And British Chronicle reported that three sailors of the Active met at a tavern:
Lloyds Evening Post and British Chronicle, January 24-26, 1763, page 2.
Afterwards these two jolly Tars met with one of their Mess-mates at a publick-house, the Landlord of which not having any thing they liked for dinner, one of them ordered in a frying-pan and a large lump of butter, declaring he would stand Cook, when they came to a resolution, nem. con.[2] to fry their watches.
This story was widely reported in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, which must have spread the frying of watches as an image of the carefree sailor flush with cash.[3]

In 1794, the idea of frying watches was even used as a sort of celebratory rallying cry: 'Now loyal, fry their watches, for King George.'[4]

Digging deeper into this odd trend, I found that the idea of sailors frying watches extends well into the nineteenth century. In 'A Tale of a Tar,' published in The Rover in 1845, the fictional character Jack explains:
In Carlisle Bay they [his shipmates] broke up and fried two or three hundred watches in frying-pans that they bought in Bridge Town and a good many of them are [eating] bank-notes between soft tack.[3]
Several other nineteenth century sources mention sailors frying watches and eating bank-note sandwiches, some American and some British. I have seen no reference to eating bank notes in the eighteenth century. Whether frying watches was still in actual practice in the nineteenth century is beyond me, but it does prove that the idea of sailors frying watches was still in the Anglo-American mind.

Perhaps the seamen of the Active inspired sailors over the next century to demonstrate their prize money through either a real or ceremonial frying.

[1] 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 54.
[2] nem. con. - 'nemine contradicente' meaning 'no one contradicting'
[3] Boston Evening Post, October 10, 1763, page 1; Maryland Gazette, June 2, 1763, page 1; The Georgia Gazette, August 4, 1763, page 1; The Providence Gazette and Country Journal, page 1-2
[4] Pindar, Peter, Celebration: Or, the Academic Procession to St. James's; an Ode, London: John Walker, 1794, page 6, via Google Books, accessed January 4, 2018.
[5] 'A Tale of a Tar' in The Rover, edited by Lawrence Labree and Arthur Morrell, volume 4, New York: S.B. Dean & Co., 1845, page 294, via Google Books, accessed January 4, 2018.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Literacy Afloat

Sketch between Decks, May 75, Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.
The first thing we have to recognize in examining literacy among common sailors of the eighteenth century is that literacy is a spectrum. We should be careful not to conflate being literate at the time as translating to both reading and writing. As Tamara Plakins Thornton wrote in her excellent Handwriting in America: A Cultural History:
Because reading and writing were understood to serve entirely different ends, instruction in one was divorced from instruction in the other. Reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual necessity; writing was taught second, and then only to some.[8]
Thornton was writing about Americans, with a focus on New England, but the point still holds that the ability to read or write was not mutually inclusive or exclusive.

To teach reading as religious education was seen as a basic need. Olaudah Equiano, enslaved aboard a naval vessel, made friends with a captain's servant named Daniel Queen who 'taught me to shave and dress hair a little, and also to read in the Bible.'[9] There does not appear to have been any objection to enslaved Africans like Equiano learning to read, though he does state that some objected to his learning navigation as such a skill could be directly applied to escape.[10] This implies that reading was not seen as having the same value toward freedom as other skills. More to the point, other sailors on Equiano's ship were competent enough in reading that they could teach others.

As N.A.M. Rodger stated in his The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy:
How many men would or could read is difficult to say. Many were undoubtedly illiterate, probably more than the average of their class, but there are chance references to men off watch reading in their hammocks, and very likely it was common.[1]
Historians agree that some degree of literacy was present in a majority of sailors. There is no foolproof system for examining this, but the most commonly used framework for getting a ballpark estimate of  literacy is through examining documents that sailors had to sign. If a sailor made his mark, rather than a signature, it is taken as a possible sign of illiteracy. N.A.M. Rodger does this in The Wooden World. Marcus Rediker, in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, argues for a high literacy rate among sailors:
As many as three-quarters of the sailors employed in the merchant shipping industry between 1700 and 1750 were literate if judged by the standard of the ability to sign one's own name...All captains, mates, and surgeons were literate, but, at best, only two of three common seamen could even sign their name.[2]
There are many documents with signatures that one can use to measure potential literacy. For example, I've been examining the wills left behind by sailors killed on the Braddock Expedition, or those who died shortly thereafter. Midshipman Thomas Gill, and able seamen Nathaniel Gee and Alexander Frazier all signed their name by their own hands, but carpenter Jonathan Hill and boatswain's mate John Cain only left a mark.[3] Rodger and Rediker both work with far larger sample sizes than this, but merely for the sake of example this would indicate that 60% of the detachment was literate.

Rodger acknowledged this rough system in measuring literacy is of limited use:
How many of those who could sign their names were functionally literate for everyday purposes one cannot say, but a proportion must certainly have been.[4]
Rediker similarly cautions:
There is reason to suspect that the actual proportion of the literate may have been considerably smaller, because not all who could sign their names could read and write.[5]
Ira Dye, in his paper 'Early American Merchant Seamen' in The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, looked at later generations of sailors, but used the same method for examining literacy. Dye worked under the assumption that being able to sign one's name was 'midway between the capacity to read and the capacity to write.'[6]

The assumption that signing one's name was an indication of a broader literacy was one that existed at the time. Jacob Nagle was called by the captain on a naval vessel to answer for a cup he had written on:
I trimbled, though I new I got the cup onestly. I went aft, where the capt was sitting by a small table, and the purser giving him the cup, "Is this your cup?" "Yes, Sr." "Is this your righting?" "Yes, Sire." He calld his steward and desired him to bring up pen, ink, and paper. When it was brought, he desired me to right. I asked hime what I should right. He made the answer, "What was on the cup." I rought, "Jacob Nagle, Born in the Town of Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania State, N. Amrice." With my fright and trimbeling I did not right it half so well, but he saw it was the same hand. "You must act as ships steward under the purser," the capt replyed. I made answer that I did not now my own allowance. He replied, "What is the pusser for, but to give you instructions and books."[7]
Given that Nagle wrote more than just his name, we might even assume that the captain made a broader judgment than he would for sailors who could only sign their names. This assumption was not misplaced, despite Nagle's creative phonetic spelling.

Mary Lacy, who disguised herself as a man and went to sea as a carpenter's apprentice, felt guilty for leaving her family. She related this telling anecdote of trying to seal a letter to her parents:
I observed the people now on board were employing themselves in writings letters to their friends; which put a thought into my head to write to my mother, to inform her where I was; which I knew would be a great satisfaction to my parents; I could write but very indifferently; and to entrust any person with my thoughts on this occasion I imagined would be very improper. At last; I resolved to write myself; but, after having wrote my letter, I had nothing to seal it with; and thinking a bit of pitch would do, I went to the pitch-tub for some, which, when I thought I had got, it proved to be tar; so that with using it I soiled the letter very much. I was now greatly perplexed to contrive a method to seal it up. At length, one of the men, who observed I had been writing, gave me a wafer, which did completely.[11]
Not only were multiple common sailors ('the people') engaged in writing, they possessed material culture specific to the act of writing letters: sealing wafers.

Focusing on those sailors who could read and write should not distract us from the fact that illiteracy was undeniably present. Both John Nicol and Hannah Snell, sailors whose recollections were compiled and sold as memoirs, were incapable of writing and relied on others to pen their stories.[12]

In short, I don't have a good answer as to how present the ability to read or write was among common sailors of the eighteenth century. Literacy rates are quite probably much higher than is commonly assumed, while illiteracy was still a common condition.

[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 45.
[2] Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, page 158.
[3] PROB 11/826/161, 11/821/148, 11/821/151, 11/820/386, 11/823/229.
[4] Rodger, Wooden World, page 45.
[5] Rediker, Between the Devil, page 158.
[6] Dye, Ira, 'Early American Merchant Seafarers,' The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 120, No. 5, October 15, 1976, page 340.
[7] 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 60.
[8] Thornton, Tamara Plakins, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, page 5.
[9] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 92.
[10] Equiano, Interesting Narrative, pages 122-123.
[11] Slade (Lacy), Mary, The History of the Female Shipwright, London: M. Lewis, 1773. in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008, pages 72-73.
[12] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997; Snell, Hannah, The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of  Hannah Snell, London: R. Walker, 1750, in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Death of Cook, 1784, 1787-1788

The Death of Cook, John Cleveley the Younger, 1784, collection unknown.

Detail from The Death of Cook, John Cleveley the Younger, 1784, Wikimedia Commons.

Detail from The Death of Cook, John Cleveley the Younger, c.1784, Honolulu Academy of Arts via Wikimedia Commons.

View of Owhyhee, one of the Sandwich Islands (Known as The Death of Cook), John Cleveley the Younger, published posthumously by Frances Jukes, 1788, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.

John Cleveley the Younger, a prolific marine artist, followed in the footsteps of his father. Unlike other marine artists, the Cleveley family maintained connections to the world of common sailors. John Cleveley the Elder and his son James were both ship's carpenters.

James was lucky enough to join Captain Cook's fateful third voyage aboard the Resolution. It is quite possible that he personally witnessed the death of Captain Cook, and so could inform his brother John's work on the subject.

For centuries, copies of Cleveley the Younger's depiction of Captain Cook's death could be found in collections around the world, including some of those shown above. In 2004, the original painting turned up for auction at Christies, where it caught more than three times the expected price. Much of this was due to the difference between the original and the copies.

As reported at the time, Cleveley showed Cook clubbing his musket and fighting with the natives of Hawaii, rather than fleeing as in the subsequent, sanitized versions.

The sailors themselves are clad in red, brown, and blue jackets, with white trousers, and one or two trousers with narrow vertical red or blue stripes. One oarsman even appears to be wearing a striped jacket. Round hats make up the headwear of the common sailors in Cleveley's piece.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Swear Like a Sailor

Detail from Voyage to Margate, published by W. Hinton, 1786, from
'Margate Prints: A History,' by Anthony Lee, via Margate in Maps and Pictures.

Johann Döhla, a Hessian soldier sailing off to fight in the American Revolutionary War was shocked at the immorality of British sailors:
The seamen are a thieving, happy, whoring, drunken lot and much inclined to swearing and cursing people. They can hardly say three words without their curses 'God damn my soul, God damn me.'[1]
There is a mythology that prevails surrounding American and British sailors that they are timeless: All traditions at sea have always been the way they are, their clothing and material culture changes little and only begrudgingly over centuries, and sailors have always been a suspicious and irreligious lot. These beliefs, rarely argued aloud but often held close, are generally untrue.

The exception to this myth appears to be swearing like a sailor, at least from my period of study. In pursuing the Sailors' Memoirs Project, I was impressed at the frequent mention of curses and oaths.

What I found fascinating about these is how often the sailors themselves warned against cursing. Christopher Prince, a New England seafarer hailing from a culture that evolved out of Puritanism, was especially vociferous in his denunciation of cursing. It was quite a shock for him to go on his first voyage, a short fishing expedition, and be surrounded by the oaths of his fellow seamen. As merely a boy, he had a lot of trouble coming to terms with his sin when he finally joined them:
After experiencing many of these trials, which I bore for some time with Christian patience, I at last gave way and for the first time in all my life I uttered a profane word. As soon as it had proceeded out of my lips, it filled my heart with anguish. I could not refrain from weeping aloud. All on board heard and saw me crying, and supposed it was because I had not caught but few fish, when they all had caught many. For many days I wept in private for what I had said. But not long after that I was several times placed in the same situation and repeated the same words without any remorse of conscience; and thus I continued again and again until it was done without a thought I had done wrong. I soon neglected prayer entirely and reading the Bible.[2]
By the time he wrote these words, Christopher Prince was a Christian reformer with an eye on converting sailors to a more proper religious observance. He believed that cursing was a path to damnation, a gateway to falling away from Christianity.

Perhaps more typical of the foremast hands' perspective was Olauadah Equiano. He, like many of his fellow sailors, viewed God as directly intervening in sailors' lives on a regular basis. Cursing, as an affront to God, risked His immediate wrath:
While I was in this ship an incident happened, which though trifling, I beg leave to relate, as I could not help taking particular notice of it, and considering it then as a judgment of God. One morning a young man was looking up to the fore-top, and in a wicked tone, common on shipboard, d----d his eyes about something. Just at the moment some small particles of dirt fell into his left eye, and by the evening it was very much inflamed. The next day it grew worse; and within six or seven days he lost it.[3]
Sailors like Equiano often mention in their memoirs that God (or providence, or some permutation thereof) intervened to punish or to save them. Samuel Kelly's perspective on sailors' predilection for both a fear of God's intervention and a perfect willingness to curse is worth repeating here:
I have read somewhere that seamen are neither reckoned among the living nor the dead, their whole lives being spent in jeopardy. No sooner is one peril over, but another comes rolling on, like waves of a full grown sea. In the Atlantic one fright after another undermines the most robust constitution and brings on apparent old age in the prime of life. No trouble softens their hard obdurate hearts, but as soon as the danger is past they return in the greatest avidity to practice wickedness and blaspheme their Maker and preserver.[4]
Sea captains generally permitted their sailors to curse as much as they liked, and only rarely prevented them from doing so. Christopher Hawkins, an American privateer captured and serving aboard a British man of war, did mention the one word that sailors were not permitted to utter. Hearing of General Burgoyne's surrender in 1777, Hawkins unwisely announced his patriotic thrill at the defeat of his shipmates' comrades ashore:
I went immediately to the main deck, with joy beaming in my countenance, exclaiming, what do you think now of your great Burgoyne? Damn you be off you damn'd saucy bo-g-r cried a number of voices at the same time. What, said I, looking at them earnestly-this sort of question put them in silence for I had seen many of them take a dozen for useing these words, "damn'd saucy bo-g-r," when all other profanity would be winked at.[5]
Another notable exception can be found in the letters of John Newton. After a series of misadventures that left him stranded on the coast of Sierra Leone, Newton was rescued in 1748 by a merchant captain sent by his father to retrieve him. The voyage back to England was a long one, and Newton's mouth was so foul his captain was forced to take notice:
I had no busines to employ my thoughts, but sometimes amused myself with mathematics: excepting this, my whole life, when awake, was a course of most horrid impiety and profaness. I know not that I have ever met so daring a blasphemer. Not content with common oaths and imprecations, I daily invented new ones; so that I was often seriously reproved by the captain, who was himself a very passionate man, and not at all circumspect in his expressions.[6]

[1] Döhla, Johann Conrad, A Hessian Diary of the American Revolution, edited by Bruce E. Burgoyne, Norman, OK: University of Oaklahoma Press: 1993, page 15.
[2] Prince, Christopher, Autobiography of a Yankee Mariner: Christopher Prince and the American Revolution, edited by Michael J. Crawford, Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2002, pages 16-18.
[3] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings: Revised Edition (Penguin Classics), edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 72.
[4] 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 138.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sailors' Knives

Today's guest post comes courtesy Matthew Brenckle. He is specialist in maritime material culture, and former historian for the USS Constitution Museum in Boston. Matt is now the proprietor of his own historic hat making business.

This detail of a 1775 watercolor by Lt. Gabriel Bray depicts a sailor of
Pallas with an open clasp knife.  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Visiting Nantucket in the years before the American Revolution, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur explained the importance of the humble knife to the seafarer, and the high esteem in which it was held.  Of the island whalers he said,
I must confess, that I have never seen more ingenuity in the use of the knife; thus the most idle moments of their lives become usefully employed.  In the many hours of leisure which their long cruises afford them, they cut and carve a variety of boxes and pretty toys, in wood, adapted to different uses….  You will be pleased to remember that they are all brought up to the trade of coopers, be their future intentions or fortunes what they may; therefore almost every man in this island has always two knives in his pocket, one much larger than the other; and though they hold everything that is called fashion in the utmost contempt, yet they are as difficult to please, and as extravagant in the choice and price of their knives, as any young buck in Boston would be about his hat, buckles, or coat.  As soon as a knife is injured, or superceded by a more convenient one, it is carefully laid up in some corner of their desk. I once saw upwards of fifty thus preserved at Mr. …..’s, one of the worthiest men on this island; and among the whole, there was not one that perfectly resembled another.[1]
Here is the seaman’s knife in all its guises.  It was a tool for carving useful things, or crafting decorative trinkets.  It served as a fashionable accessory, something to be admired and envied.
Crèvecoeur saw his Nantucket mariners on shore.  Had he witnessed them working at sea he could have enumerated a score of other uses.  In a world of wood and rope, the knife was the sailor’s indispensable companion.  In the 18th century, the folding clasp knife seems to have been the blade of choice.  Inexpensive and easy to slip in a pocket, their very ubiquity means few bothered to mention their existence.[2]

A clasp knife belonging to sailor John Frazer, recovered from the 1785 wreck
 of the British collier General Carleton.  From The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785,
Waldemar Ossowski, ed. (Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk, 2008).

A sailor’s knife made quick work of salt meat, and could slice through seizings or other lines with ease.  It could also slice a shipmate. The oft-repeated story that upon entering a ship a sailor was forced to snap the point off his knife is probably apocryphal.  At least, no eighteenth-century evidence of the practice has yet been found.  With or without a point, sailors frequently used their knives as weapons of interpersonal violence, both afloat and ashore.  Unless a fight ended with the untimely demise of one of the participants, however, the records are silent.  Murder was a serious offence, however, and both civil and naval courts are full of cases involving knife play.

English sailors supposedly were scornful of using knives to settle disputes, preferring fists to blades.  Said one sailor when faced with a clasp-knife wielding Portuguese opponent, “I’ll not use that thing [the knife], but I’ll box you in the English way.”[3]  Yet, as a nationalistic early-twentieth-century law commentator bluntly put it, “stabbing was nearly as common in the British Navy as it can have been among [the Spanish] to whom it is supposed to be appropriate.”[4]  The records certainly support this supposition.

Among court proceedings appear a large number of crimes of passion, or stabbings committed in the heat of the moment.  For example, in 1743 two seafaring men who had perhaps spent too much time in the White Bear public house got into an argument over who was more esteemed aboard ship.  Lewis Legier, who had been Commodore Anson’s cook, naturally argued that a cook, especially a commodore’s cook, enjoyed far more respect than a mere sailor.  His companion, Gabriel Beaugrand disagreed, called Legier a “lying Rascal,” and commenced striking him on the head with the pewter pint pot from which he had been drinking.  Not one to be abused, Legier grabbed Beaugrand, threw him onto the table, and wrested the pot from his hand.  A general scuffle ensued.  At length, Legier cried “I am dead,” and collapsed lifeless on the floor.  Beaugrand made a speedy exit, and an examination of Legier’s body revealed he had been stabbed three times.  The next day a “Knife with a sharp pointed Blade, about eight or nine Inches long” was discovered in the yard next door.[5]

Between 1755 and 1778, British naval courts martial were held on fifty men accused of murder; a large portion of these cases involved seamen’s personal knives.[6]  A particularly ugly case was tried in December 1778. Two seamen from Worcester, David Caynes and Edmond Butler, were accused of killing shipmate Matthew Cavanagh over a matter of four pounds.  By all accounts, the two defendants were pretty rough customers.  Caynes, a boatswain’s mate “carried a knife which he was very ready to produce in terrorem.  He was in the habit of sticking it in the deck, and looking significantly at such of his messmates as he wished to cow.”[7] At length Caynes stuck his knife in Cavanagh and pitched his body overboard from the head, a crime for which he hanged.  We know what this knife looked like thanks to the testimony of one witness: “[Caynes] put his hand in his pocket, and drew his knife out, and said, putting his thumb on the open blade of the knife, ‘If I hear any more of that this shall be your portion.’”[8] We learn that Caynes’ knife was a clasp knife kept in a pocket, but also that there could be some unpleasant dealings in the darkness of the middle watch.

The knife was only useful against unarmed (or similarly armed) opponents.  Most other ship-board edged weapons such as cutlasses, swords, pikes, and even boarding axes had a greater reach than the average knife.  John Carden demonstrated this in 1798, when as a young lieutenant he led a boarding party to subdue a mutiny aboard a merchant vessel:
I soon reach’d her Deck, & found her in a high state of Mutiny.  I rush’d with a dozen Men arm’d to the Cabin, where the Mutinous part of the crew outside its Door were assembled. – The Captain was just coming out, & a Seaman having a large knife was rushing forward, as he explained, to have blood for blood.  At this moment I prick’d him with my Sword under the right Arm, he turned short round, when I plac’d my Sword [at] his Brest. - My Crew seiz’d him, bound him hand & foot, & plac’d him in the bottom of our Boat, & thus this wrong headed kickup or Mutiny was totally subdued.[9]
Carden relates this tale with no small amount of pride, but a man armed with a knife had no chance against one armed with a sword.  No sailor used a knife in battle, except as a weapon of last resort.

A workaday tool or an instrument of terror, the clasp knife could be found in every sailor’s jacket pocket, easily concealed and easily drawn when the occasion required.

A detail of a mezzotint portrait of Capt Andrew Wilkinson, before 1761. He’s using a clasp 
knife with a clipped point to cut the tails of a splice.  National Portrait Gallery, London.

[1] J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (Westvaco, 1976), 176-177.
[2] Transcripts of court cases involving theft are some of the best sources for determining the price of knives in the eighteenth-century.  In October 1799 Mary Clarke and Clarissa Parker of Shadwell, London, two women of questionable morality, were dragged before a justice at the Old Bailey.  They were accused of stealing, among other sundry articles, a knife valued at 12 pence from one John-Christian Wolfe, a seaman from HMS Bellona.  Apart from a canvas bag, the knife was the least expensive item lifted from the hapless sailor, and though hardly trivial, the value of the knife was but 4 percent of a Royal Navy seaman’s monthly wage (24 s. per lunar month). In February of the same year George Barry, a merchant seaman, was assaulted on the highway in East Smithfield by two men, John Tate and John Connoway, alias Irish Jack.  Accosting Barry and throwing him against the side of a shed, the two malefactors riffled the victim’s pockets, relieving him of six shillings and a clasp knife valued at 2 pence.  Both thieves were found guilty, and despite the small value of the stolen goods, they were sentenced to death.
[3] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 2 November 2005), 6 May 1761, trial of Antonio de Silva (t17610506-24).
[4] David Hannay, Naval Courts Martial (Cambridge, 1914), 157. 
[5] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 2 November 2005), 19 May 1743, trial of Gabriel Beaugrand and Lewis Brunet (t17430519-9).
[6] Hannay, Naval Courts Martial, 142.
[7] Ibid., 149.
[8] Ibid., 150.
[9] John Carden, quoted in William Gilkerson, Boarders Away: With Steel (Lincoln, R.I., 1991), 129-130.

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Female Bruisers, 1768

The Female Bruisers, John Collet, 1768, Museum of London.

The Female Bruisers, engraved by J. Goldar after John Collet, 1770, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.

Once again I am indebted to Adam Hodges-LeClaire for pointing me to this piece.

John Collet pops up here and there on this website. His A Rescue, or the Tars Triumphant is one of my absolute favorite pieces.  I had glanced at this piece in the past, but didn't put much thought into it, as it did not have an apparent maritime connection.

That is, until Adam pointed me to the right of the frame.

Two sailors, happy to take in the free entertainment of a pair of 'Female Bruisers,' restrain a madam from interfering. These mariners are the opposite for the righteous defenders of prostitutes Collet extolled in The Tars Triumphant.

The Museum of London Version is the original, but is also low resolution, so I'm pairing it with a high resolution print from the Yale University Lewis Walpole Library to tease out the details.

The sailor in the foreground wears a cocked hat bound in gold or white tape over a loose white bob wig. His blue jacket with white metal buttons is double breasted, and the mariners' cuffs are open. A closely knotted handkerchief of indeterminate pattern hangs from his neck.  It rests over a single breasted waistcoat with narrow horizontal stripes. His check shirt is peeking out from under the jacket. Red breeches are tied at the knee. His shoes bear rectangular buckles.

His mate wears a single breasted jacket over a plain single breasted waistcoat. Our mariner's shirt is open, and he is notably without a handkerchief.