Monday, August 28, 2017

This Weekend: Before the Siege

If you're in the mid-Atlantic United States this weekend, come visit me at Before the Siege: The British Army in Yorktown. I'll be turning out as boatswain of the Charon's crew. We'll be constructing shore batteries and interpreting the dress, material culture, and daily life of sailors in the Royal Navy.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Going Off-Watch

Things will be a bit quiet around here for a short while.

Detail from The Sailor's Farewell, Charles Mosley, date unknown,
National Maritime Museum

In the first, I am working to better include the voice of the common sailor. In the more than three years I have been running this blog, the actual words of common sailors have been shamefully absent. If I intend to explore their lives, I must use their accounts. This means I must plow through all the eighteenth century memoirs of common sailors that I can get my hands on. If you would like to do the same, or have suggestions, visit the new page on this blog: Sailor's Memoirs.

In the second, I am also engaged in exploring slave voyages to a particular Chesapeake seaport. Slave ships, as with many transatlantic voyages, are hard to track. I will be buried in archives and databases for some time. If you are interested in exploring the slave trade for yourself, visit

You can still expect occasional updates, but not quite so frequent as they had been in the Spring and Summer. Be sure to follow me on Facebook, where I will post a little more frequently, though not nearly so in depth as I do here.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tile, 1757-1771

Tile, John Sadler, 1757-1761, Winterthur Collection.

I have featured a couple of Sadler's tiles on this blog before. This is different from those in that it is a fable. Based on Aesop's 'The One-Eyed Doe.'

The tale goes that a one eyed doe was grazing along the shore, with her one good eye turned inland. Her disability blinded her to the archer who shot her from a boat. The moral being that one cannot predict fate.

Sadler updated the story with sailors (presumably from the sloop or ship offshore) who shoot the doe with a  musket, rather than a bow.

The sailors wear single breasted jackets with drop down collars. The oarsman is wearing open mariner's cuffs. All three wear loose hair cropped to the shoulders and round hats with the brim turned up.

Sadler was clearly no sailor. The oarsman rows facing the bow, and the ship and sloop are rather crude.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Scenes from the American Revolution, Plate 12, 1784

Ende der Feindseeligkeiten. Die Engländer räumen den Americanern Neu-Yorck ein 1783, Daniel Chodowiecki, 1784, Library of Congress.

The final in a series of prints by Daniel Chodowiecki depicting scenes from the course of the American Revolution, this print depicts the evacuation of New York by the British army. Chodowiecki depicts a family of Native Americans looking on, or at least Native Americans as he imagines them. He clothes the woman and child in diaphanous robes as though they were in ancient Greece, and the man wears a waist cloth and a quiver of arrows over his shoulder.

To the left of the frame are another pair of onlookers: a woman in European dress, and a sailor.

The sailor wears a round hat with brim slightly upturned. His hair is well kept, and hands above the collar of his horizontally striped waistcoat, which is triple vented. Clean petticoat trousers end just about the knee, where dark stockings (or stockings that are just in shadow) run down to shoes that might be mules or slips.

It is worth noting that the artist is clearly drawing inspiration from Central Europe, rather than from America or Britain. His depictions of others in this print and the other eleven plates, along with the architecture shown there, are all derived from European inspiration. Chodowiecki's depiction of this sailor may be more accurate for a German Matrose than an American or English sailor.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Virtual Representation, 1775

Virtual Representation, artist unknown, 1775, British Museum.

Virtual Representation, artist unknown, 1775, Digital Commmonwealth.

Threatened by a Scot, a Jesuit, and others, an American wielding a cudgel is backed by a sailor who declares, 'I will be wounded with you.' Beside them, a blindfolded Britannia wanders dangerously close to 'The Pit Prepared for Others.'

Our tar wears a reversed cocked hat under which is a bob wig. His neckcloth is checkered or plaid, but the color has faded to where I can't be sure what color it was meant to be. There is little detail on his jacket and much of it is hidden from our view. His trousers are blue (though perhaps originally intended to be white, ending at about the middle of the calf, showing off white stockings, pointed toe shoes, and oval buckles.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Carte detaillée des possessions angloises dans l'Amerique Septentrionale, 1777

Carte detaillée des possessions angloises dans l'Amerique Septentrionale, engraved by Etienne Claude Voysard, 1777, Library of Congress.

Published the year before France joined America in a war against Britain, Voysard's map was intended to give a wide view of the seat of war. In the cartouche to the upper left are implements of artillery, including grape shot, solid shot, and chain shot. Leaning on the wheel of an old fashioned cannon is a sailor. In this context, before France is involved in the war, the sailor is almost certainly intended to be English or American, but his dress is rather like a French sailor.

Atop his head and over a bob wig is a battered round hat with a tapering conical crown. His jacket ends at about the natural waist and he wears a sash around his mid-section (an accessory distinctly French). His petticoat trousers run down to below the knee, where baggy stockings run to his pointed toe shoes with their oval buckles.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Seaman's Wages in the Revolution

The Human Passions, Thomas Sanders, 1773, Walpole Library

Timothy Boardman, a carpenter's mate on the Connecticut State Navy ship Oliver Cromwell, kept a journal of his travels that were later transcribed and published as the Log-Book of Timothy Boardman. It is a largely unexceptional and very short piece, but does have a few interesting gems. Among them is this dialogue recorded by Boardman when his term of service neared a close on July 6, 1778. The following is his account of the conversation between him and Captain Parker in Charlestown, South Carolina:
Pr. What are you Doing a Shore.
My Sf. I wanted to See you Sir.
Pr. Very well.
My Sf. The Term of my Inlistment is up & I would be glad of a Discharge Sir.
Pr. I cannot give you One, the Ship is in Distress Plumb has been trying to Get You away.
My Sf. No Sir, I can have Good Wages here & I think it Better than Privatiering I can't think of Going for a Single Share I had a hard task Last Cruise & they all Left me.
Pr. You have had a hard task of it & I will Consider you. & You Shall have as Much again as You Expect. Ranny & those that Leave me without a Discharge will Never Get anything you Better go aboard Boardman. I will Consider you & you'll Lose Nothing by it.
My Sf. I am Oblig'd to you Sir.[1]
As nearly all maritime and naval historians have argued (from N.A.M. Rodger in The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy tp Marcus Rediker in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), sailors did exercise some agency in their life and were not merely passive subjects to the whims of tyrannical captains at all times.

Boardman, despite being a common sailor, was able to go ashore without permission, directly confront his captain, and negotiate the terms of his continued employment.

This was normal in the eighteenth century. Sailors on merchantmen, privateers, and letters of marque negotiated their wages and had the conclusion of these negotiations codified in a contract. These 'Articles of Agreement' were so common that they could be set in type and printed as a pre-made form ready for the captain, owners, and crew to sign their names to.

Articles of Agreement signed by the crew of the Newport Packet
October 1765, Newport Historical Society
Articles of agreement signed by the crew of the Salley,
September 1764, Brown University.
Acticles of Agreement for the Revolution, printed by
John Dunlap, 1780, Winterthur Collection

What exactly sailors were paid was subject to the cargo of the vessel, the length of the voyage, the time of year, and the skills of the individual sailor. However, there was a certain base level expectation of pay regardless of the port one set off from in Britain as Adam Smith, in his famous book The Wealth of Nations, writes:
As they are continually going from port to port, the monthly pay of those who sail from all the different ports of Great Britain is more nearly upon a level than that of any other workmen in those different places; and the rate of the port to and from which the greatest number sail, that is the port of London, regulates that of all the rest. At London the wages of the greater part of the different classes of workmen are about double those of the same classes at Edinburgh. But the sailors who sail from the port of London seldom earn above three or four shillings a month more than those who sail from the port of Leith, and the difference is frequently not so great. In time of peace, and in the merchant service, the London price is from a guinea to about seven-and-twenty shillings the calendar month. A common labourer in London, at the rate of nine or ten shillings a week, may earn in the calendar month from forty to five-and-forty shillings. The sailor, indeed, over and above his pay, is supplied with provisions.[2]
The Royal Navy was not subject to articles of agreement, nor to the ebb and flow of the economy. Sailor's wages were remarkably low. The wages of Royal Navy seamen had been set in 1653 and hadn't be adjusted for inflation. It remained so throughout the eighteenth century, changing only after the Spithead Mutiny in 1797. The pay was so bad that it was the number one issue raised by the mutineers, even above corporal punishment and bad officers. This poor pay discouraged skilled sailors from enlisting, and contributed to 'The Evil Necessity' (as Denver Brunsman puts it) of press gangs.

Jacob Nagle relates the case of 'a stout young sailor' named Luke Arvour volunteering to join his brig the St. Lucia, despite the fact that "we ware dreaded as a man of war and cruel usage.' That such a skilled seaman would voluntarily join the navy 'apeared strange to both men and officers.' In fact, Arvour was using the navy to secure pay by an indirect route. He had sailed with a merchantman and his captain had withheld pay. Whether volunteering or pressed, a sailor was legally entitled to back wages from previous voyages in civilian vessels, and the navy would secure it for him. Once he had 'received 70 odd guineas,' Arvour deserted.[3]

Sailors leveraged what weight they could to secure pay, but officers could also use pay as a tool for control. When Christopher Prince, mate on the American merchant schooner Polly, arrived in Nova Scotia in 1775, he was surprised to learn that a full blown war had broken out between the American colonists and the British. He negotiated his way out of a prison camp or hulk by vowing to help sail the vessel for equal pay to what he was promised prior to its seizure, that he would not declare himself a British subject, and that he would not help work the guns or arms. As the Americans swept up the St. Lawrence River toward Montreal, where Prince's brig Gaspee was stationed, he was sorely tempted to desert to the American lines. One of the reasons he chose not to was that he 'had very considerable money due to me which I was unwilling to lose.'[4]

The Royal Navy would use money for both carrot and stick. While the base pay of a sailor was dismal and far from competitive, there was always the possibility of prize money. Seizing enemy vessels and selling them along with their cargo entitled the officers and crew to a portion of the money raised by them.

Ha! Ha! hah! - I've got the Chink, Carington Bowles, 1770's, British Museum

Well within living memory was the Anson Expedition of 1740-1744, in which the Centurion seized a Spanish galleon filled with the unbelievable sum of £2,813,586.[5] Common sailors may have received about £300 in prize money, over and above their meager pay.[6] While American vessels offered nothing close to this astronomical prize, they did supplement the pay of the navy, and offered an excuse to put off a general pay raise until the sailors of Spithead forced the Admiralty's hand a generation later.

Sailors received their prize money from naval agents, set up ashore to distribute the cash to the deserving crew. Money being sparse as it was, this was an opportunity for unscrupulous or desperate men and women to defraud the naval agents by posing as sailors or their widows to claim money due to them. Doing so risked death.

The Sailor's Return, Francis Wheatley, 1786, National Maritime Museum
Once sailors had their money, they might spend it fast and free, or their might carefully manage it. If artistic depictions of the time are any indication, many carried their coins in a miser's purse or a more simple pouch acting as a purse. John Nicol writes that when he was paid off from the Surprise in 1783 he kept 'the money that was due me in my hat.'[7] As you can see above and below, this may not have been uncommon.

The Sailor's Pleasure, Bowles and Carver, c1793-1800, British Museum.

[1] Boardman, Timothy, The Log-Book of Timothy Boardman, edited by Rev. Samuel W. Boardman, Albany, New York; Joel Munsell's Sons, 1885, page 115. The nineteenth century editor of Boardman's book misidentifies the Oliver Cromwell as a privateer.
[2] Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume One, London: W. Strahan, 1776, page 135. Via Google Books.
[3] 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 60-61.
[4] Prince, Christopher, The Autobiography of a Yankee Mariner: Christopher Prince and the American Revolution, edited by Michael J. Crawford, Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2002, page 54.
[5] Heaps, Leo, Log of the Centurion, London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974, page 254.
[6] Williams, Glyn, The Prize of All the Oceans, New York: Viking, 1999, page 218.
[7] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 55.