Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The British Tar at Omoa, 1780


The British Tar at Omoa, William Humphrey, 1780, British Museum.

It has been 238 years since the Battle of San Fernando de Omoa. After Spain's entry into the American Revolutionary War, a British expedition was dispatched to what is today Honduras, and stormed the works with sailors and soldiers. 

The strategic effect was completely neutralized when the Spanish returned and retook the fort shortly thereafter. For this war, the numbers involved were small and the casualties light. The only real legacy of the battle is the surviving fortifications which stand as a tourist attraction to this day

For the British public, the seizing of Omoa was welcome news, but not particularly celebrated. That is, until the dispatches came back from the minor victory. Captain William Dalrymple, who commanded the small group of Irish Volunteers fighting alongside the sailors, included this in his letter describing the battle to Lord George Germain:

The Political Magazine and Parliamentary, Naval, Military,
and Literary Journal,
 Volume 1, August 1780, page 42
Here's a transcription of the above clipping:
Your lordship will pardon my mentioning an instance of an elevated mind in a British tar, which amazed the Spaniards, and gave them a very high idea of English valour: not content with one cutlass, he scrambled up the walls with two; and meeting a Spanish officer without arms, who had been roused out of his sleep, had the generosity not to take any advantage; but presenting him with one of his cutlasses, told him, "You are now on a footing with me."
Dalrymple's full letter, including the above anecdote, was included in the December 18, 1779 edition of the London Gazette. The following year, modified versions of the story started circulating in British papers.

Adams Weekly Courant, April 4, 1780, page 2

Both the Adams Weekly Courant (published in Chester) of April 4, 1780, and the Edinborough Advertiser of the same day included the same, modified version of Darlymple's original tale. It was not a sailor, but an Irish volunteer soldier named Concannen who 'flung' his dead companion's sword at the feet of a 'petrified' Spaniard. This story appears to be a (perhaps deliberate) misreading of Darlrymple's original dispatch. Mr. Concannen does appear in the dispatch as one of the first up the ladder to storm the fort, but he is a naval midshipman, not an Irish volunteer.

The Political Magazine and Parliamentary, Naval, Military,
and Literary Journal,
 Volume 1, August 1780, page 42

The elevation of the main character from a common and nameless sailor to a relative gentleman did not take hold. Conforming to the trend of depicting Britannia as a manful, violent, and strong British sailor, artists took up the image of the British tar at Omoa, offering his sword to a powerless Spanish officer.

Over the next two weeks, I will be examining different prints depicting this scene, stretching from 1780-1790.

Today I begin with William Humphrey's print. This is the earliest print depicting the British tar at Omoa that I am aware of. Humprey's sailor strides forward to offer a sword to an embarrassingly unprepared Spaniard. In the background a phalanx of bayonets drives away Spanish grenadiers, to the sound of a ship's broadside at the left.

The cowering Spaniard declares 'Ah Misericordia Segnor Inglese! me beg to be excused,' while wiping tears from his eyes.


Our hero may be gallant in his offering defense to the Spanish officer, but he insults their flag by stepping across it in his pointed toe shoes with oval buckles. His response to the Spaniard's plea is not the egalitarian 'You are now on a footing with me,' but the coarse 'Damn my Eyes, Don, take your Choice!'

The British tar's trousers are white, and end above the ankle, cinching close at the waist. His jacket is single breasted, ending at the waist, or perhaps tucked into the loose trousers. His jacket is fitted with simple, unadorned cuffs. The sailor's neckcloth is tied almost like a neckstock. Over short and loose hair he wears a round hat with a short brim.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Petticoat Trousers and Trousers

Number crunching time.

Today I'm examining trousers and petticoat trousers, and their presence in primary source art depicting common sailors from 1740-1790. For the purposes of this examination, I am working off of a pair of definitions. 

Detail from Shipping at Spithead, Francis Holman, date unknown (1770's?),
John Bennett Fine Paintings via Online Art Gallery

Trousers are long legged garments, presumably worn without a garment beneath. The legs of this garment end anywhere from the middle of the calf to the bottom of the ankle, and the end may fit close or loose to the body. 

Detail from Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley,
1778, National Gallery of Art

Petticoat trousers are wide legged garments that end just below the knee, though sometimes as low as mid-calf, and may or may not be worn over breeches (breeches that are usually, but not universally, blue).

There is certainly some overlap between these garments, and it is not at all clear to be that these terms were defined as such in the period. It may be that petticoat trousers were sometimes referred to simply as trousers in the period. Therefore, I have imposed a certain level of subjectivity to this examination that cannot be helped.

For this piece, I have examined 420 images that can be tightly dated. Not all of these images depict sailors where the garment they wear from the waist down can be seen. Among all images, 230 depict sailors in trousers. 158 depict sailors in petticoat breeches. 
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Of the 420 images examined, 231 of them depict sailors in trousers.

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Taken together, we can see a trend.

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Proportionally, trousers tend to be present more often than petticoat trousers, though there is a near parity until about 1770, when petticoat trousers start to become less common than trousers, with numerous exceptions in every decade.

It is worth noting that these garments often exist beside each other in a single image, and so are not exclusive of each other at any significant time in my period of study.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Leather Buttons

Illustrations, engravings, and paintings can only take us so far in the examination of common sailors' clothing. As I have often said before, art has its limitations. Most artists on this website were not sailors, and so their images are often exaggerated caricatures of what they saw of sailors ashore. Colorists could impose their own interpretations on engravings, adding stripes where the artist intended none, or changing the buttons to be white metal, yellow metal, or cloth covered.

Other sources can fill in the gaps. Archaeological excavations of ships can reveal items that would otherwise go completely unnoticed in a straight examination of primary source artwork. Take this interesting example:

Steve Rayner and Matthew Brenckle, in comparing the findings from four separate vessels stretched out over thirty years turned up a single button style present at every one. All of the following photos, save one, were provided by Steve Rayner.

From the 74 gun Invincible wrecked off the Isle of Wight in 1758:

Button, INV.135, Invincible collection, The Historic Dockyards Chatham
The naval sloop Boscawen abandoned around 1767 on Lake Champlain:

Personal Possession from the H.M.S. Boscawen, Gail Erwin, Texas A&M, 1994, page 174

The American privateer Defence burned and sunk in Stockton Springs, modern day state of Maine in 1779:

The Defence: Life at Sea as Reflected in an Archaeological Assemblage from and Eighteenth Century Privateer, Shelley Owen Smith, University of Pennsylvania, 1986, page 115

And the merchantman General Carleton, sunk in a storm off the Polish coast in 1785:

Detail of General Carleton Waistcoat, courtesy of Matthew Brenckle

The similarities are immediately obvious. These small leather buttons are present on a privateer, two warships, and a merchantman recovered in the English Channel, the Northeastern coast of the United States, the Polish coast, and one of the Great Lakes in North America. Despite being spread out over nearly thirty years, these star pattern leather buttons are present.

Such a detail is entirely absent from art alone, but undeniably present in sailors' material culture.

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Rise of Striped Trousers

A few months ago I was preparing to attend Before the Siege: The British Army at Yorktown. As part of the organizing effort for the naval contingent, I compiled all the images I have collected dating to 1781 to get a snapshot of what artists thought sailors should look like in that period. I was surprised at how many were wearing striped trousers.

Detail from A Man of War Towing a Frigate into Harbour,
Carrington Bowles, 1781, British Museum.

This led me to wonder how prevalent striped trousers were over the course of my era of study. Focusing, for now, only on the art created during the time, I put together a graph showing the presence of trousers in the available art.

Out of 416 images that can be tightly dated, 231 depict sailors in trousers. I have included all images of trousers, including plain (generally prints which were not colored), white, and striped. The remaining image depict petticoat breeches, breeches alone, or the sailor's clothing below the waist is too indistinct to draw any conclusions. The orange line represents the total number of works included, and the blue represents the number of those pieces that depict a sailor wearing trousers.


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Trousers (plain, white, and striped altogether) are relatively constant in their presence in most depictions of sailors from 1740 through 1790. This is not true of striped trousers.

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Striped trousers are not present in any significant numbers until a sudden explosion beginning in 1779.

I can only speculate as to the reasons for this sudden popularity. Perhaps it was tied with the rising tide of identifying the common sailor as a personification of Britain, like patriotic bunting. Or maybe the opposite is true and it was loosely linked (as it would later be to the sans-culottes French Revolution) to a perceived democratic fervor among the lower ranks of society, as we can see in the 1781 political cartoon The Virtuous and inspir'd State of Whigism in Bristol 1781.

Detail from The Virtuous and inspir'd State of Whigism in Bristol 1781,
artist unknown, 1781, British Museum

I stress that these are mere theories, and I have not dug any deeper than pure numbers based on artistic depictions alone. Stay tuned, because I'll be examining other specific garments in the near future!

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

On Handkerchiefs

Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, VA
Detail from Earl of Cornwallis Bound to Bengal, William Gibson, 1783

A short time ago, a reenactor asked about how to wear neckcloths as a sailor of the mid to late eighteenth century. I thought it was about time to put down my observations. These are partly lifted from my comments in the thread over at the Facebook group Rev War Reenactors, but greatly expanded with images and quotes from common sailors of the period.

To start off, I should first define what garment we're talking about. I have thus far used the term 'neckcloth' for this blog because I thought that term was clear in precisely what it was referring to: a cloth worn about the neck by sailors. It turns out that sailors themselves did not refer to them as such.

Hannah Snell, the woman who disguised herself as a man to serve as a marine and 'merry tar' afloat, used a handkerchief to conceal her identity when she was sentenced to flogging in about 1747:
When she was Whipt on board, her Hands being lashed to the Gangway, she stood upright, and tied a Handkerchief round her Neck, to prevent, as it were, any Lashes that she might accidentally receive there, to conceal her Breasts, which were covered by the Ends of the Handkerchief falling over them, and thereby prevented a Discovery which must unavoidably have happened, had not she thus acted.
Christopher Prince told of the various garments his female cousins sewed for him in 1766 as he was preparing to sail away:
They made me a number of stocks, which I always wore when I was on shore in the place of a handkerchief around my neck.
Olaudah Equiano remembered narrowly escaping death when a fire broke out in his cabin in 1773:
All this time I was in the very midst of the flames; my shirt, and the handkerchief around my neck were burnt, and I was almost smothered in the smoke.
Samuel Kelly related an event that may have happened in 1782:
I have been informed that a seaman in London, having received an order on Drummand & Co., Bankers, for his wages, tied the paper in the corner of his neck handkerchief, and by inquiry found the house at Charing Cross where he requestd to see Mr. Drummond, and on being introduced, asked, 'Is your name Drummmond?' On receiving a reply in the affirmative, he produced and handed Mr. D. the order saying, 'There's a tickler for you!! But don't distress yourself if you have not so much money in the house. Give me two or three guineas just for a night's cruise, and I'll call again for the remainder.'
Jacob Nagle spoke of being robbed in 1787:
In the morning when I awoke, the Governors barges cap that I wore was gone, my handkerchief off my neck, and what money I had about me was gone. 
Common sailors referred to these garments as handkerchief, or (in the case of one) a neck handkerchief. In the near future, I will be editing every post on this website to reflect this more accurate terminology. For more on neckwear, the vocabulary surrounding it, and how it was used, be sure to check out Ruth Hodges' presentation from earlier this year. I am indebted to Ruth for help on this post.

Photo from General Carleton Shipwreck, page 193.

It is also helpful to note that common sailors appear to have worn their neckwear differently from masters and naval officers. Officers usually wore neckstocks that were carefully tied and tucked into their waistcoats. In the case of Captain Wilkinson's portrait, where an officer affects the dress of a common sailor, his handkerchief is tied and tucked in a fashion far more becoming an officer and a gentleman than Jack Tar or Tom Pipes.

Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, VA
Detail from Captain Andrew Wilkinson, Gabriel Mathias, 1755, Mariners' Museum.

Common sailors generally wore the handkerchief over their shirt collar and outer garments. There is a tendency among sailor-reenactors/living historians to tuck the neckcloth under the collar like a modern necktie, an error I myself have committed.


To be sure, some sailors did wear their handkerchiefs as such, but the majority of primary source images contradict this. The detail below shows the handkerchief clearly being worn over the outer jacket.

Detail from A New Method of Macarony Making, As Practiced at Boston
in North America
, Carington Bowles, 1775, University of Wisconsin Digital
Library for the Decorative Arts and Material Culture.

In this detail from George Carter's Death of Captain Cook, you can also see the handkerchief being worn over the sleeved waistcoat of the sailor climbing into the boat. The sailor on the right does have his collar peeking above the handkerchief, which is tied just a few inches from the base of his neck.

Detail from Death of Captain James Cook, George Carter, 1783, National Library of Australia.

In this detail from Benjamin West's painting, you can see that the neckcloth is worn over the outer garments. The sailor in the back wears his a bit loose, but tied in a different knot than the fellow in Death of Captain Cook.

Detail from Penn's Treaty with the Indians, Benjamin West, 1771-1772,
Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art via With Art Philadelphia.

In Copley's Watson and the Shark, the standing sailor helping row the oar wears his handkerchief close around the neck, but once again over his outer garments with only a hint of the collar beneath.

Detail from Watson and the Shark, John Singleton Copley, 1778,
National Gallery of Art

As to knotting the handkerchief, you can't really do it wrong. You can see a variety of knots in the images above, but it's easiest to just do a square knot. That appears to be how it is tied in the cartoon below.

Detail from Saint George for England, Carrington Bowles, 1781, British Museum
The distance of the knot from the throat does appear to change over time. From the 1740's through the 1760's, the handkerchief was worn close around the neck in virtually every print and painting in which a handkerchief can be seen.

The Wapping Landlady, engraved from the Original Painting in Vaux Hall Gardens,
published by Carrington Bowles, 1743, British Museum
Detail from A New Sea Quadrant, George Adams, 1748, Houghton
Library, Harvard University via Capitu Tumblr.

Detail from  Much Ado About Nothing, artist unknown, 1756,
American Antiquarian Society.

Detail from For Our Country, Samuel Boyce,
1758, British Museum.
It is only in the 1770's that handerkchiefs start to loosen around the necks of sailors in art. It is quite possible that it began in the 1760's, but if this is the case, I've not yet found any evidence of it. With that said, through 1790, the handkerchief is either closely tied or hanging just a few inches below the neck.

By 1790, most images still show handkerchiefs being worn close by sailors, but a few hint at the trend in the early nineteenth century (as pointed out by my brother blogger over at Napoleonic Tars) to wear the handkerchief very low indeed.

Detail from My Poll and My Partner Joe, Isaac Cruikshank,
1790, Walpole Library

As I have said before, we must be aware of a very real possibility of artistic bias. Most artists whose works I have featured on this website were not sailors. As such, it is quite likely that most sailors we see depicted are representative of what the artist thought they should look like, rather than what they actually wore. Very few sailor artists exist, and we cannot take the few images of theirs which clearly show a sailor wearing a handkerchief as being representative of the nameless thousands who formed the British and American ships that populated the Atlantic world.

Detail from A sailor bringing up his hammock, Pallas, Gabriel Bray,
1774, National Maritime Museum

Even so, we can draw broad generalizations from the hundreds of images that depict sailors in the mid to late eighteenth century.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, 1782


Frontispiece to A Selection of Scotch, English, Irish and Foreign Airs, by James Aird, published by J. McFadyen, 1782, Internet Archive.

Special thanks to follower Adam Hodges-LeClaire for pointing this one out.

Published late in the American Revolutionary War, Aird's five volume work was dedicated to 'the Vounteer and Defensive Bands of Great Britain and Ireland.' It contained music to inspire the soldiers and sailors in the defense of their homeland, the suppression of the rebellious colonies, and the invasion of foreign territories.

The figures in the frontispiece represent a grenadier and highland solider, and two sailors. The grenadier tramps on the seal for Spain, and the soldiers stand on the banner of France. Recognizing the presumed motivations of sailors, an open chest of coins lays beside them.



Both sailors wear long trousers that end above the ankle and taper a bit close to the leg. Both wear jackets with drop collars, turned back cuffs, and matching lapels. One wears a double breasted waistcoat, and the other wears a single breasted waistcoat. They both sport bob wigs and round hats, though the fellow on the left has a uniformly upturned brim with tape, and the other's hat is turned up on both the left and right and bears some sort of device on the front. One sailor holds a curved cutlass still in its sheath.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Sailors' Hair

There were a lot of assumptions that I had going in to this project. Among them was that sailors wore long queues bound tight down their backs. This was in no small way influenced by the detailed Pirates and Patriots of the American Revolution, originally published in 1984 and an introduction to life at sea during the American War of Independence for generations of young readers.

For the record: almost nothing on this page is correct.

To be fair to Keith C. Wilbur, he was well intentioned and immensely readable for a young audience. Nonetheless, Wilbur's work was not academically rigorous. Abundant primary source images produced in my period of study directly contradict that idea that sailors wore long and tightly bound "rattails."

Detail from A Marine & Seaman fishing off the Anchor
on board the Pallas in Senegal Road
Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.

Detail from A View of ye Jason Privateer, Nicholas Pocock,
c1760, Bristol City Museums.
The purpose of cutting hair short is unclear. It is easy to assume, and perhaps correct, that cutting hair to shoulder length and lower prevented that hair from getting wrapped in the lines with which sailors must necessarily work.

Seamen relaxing on the Pallas, Gabriel Bray, 1774, National Maritime Museum.
In the Bray image above, we see a "seaman" wearing a long, tightly bound pigtail in 1774. However, his hat is that of the marines, and all of Bray's other images clearly depicting common sailors shows them with short hair, as in the image below.

Seaman Leaning on a Gun on the Pallas, Gabriel Bray, 1775,
National Maritime Museum

Short hair may also have been seen as a marker of the subculture of common sailors, like their blue jackets, cocked hats worn reversed, and walking sticks. American sailor Jacob Nagle, then serving in the Royal Navy, remembered the justice meted out to the first lieutenant of the 74 gun Ganges, probably in early 1784. Variously described by Nagle as 'a villen and a terror to a seamen,' and 'a rail tarter to a seaman':
[Edward Riou] was coming a cross the fields to the hard way in the night. He was atack'd by three sailors, and they got him down and cut his long hair off, close to the neck, though he was a strong, powerful man, but they did not hurt him any other way, but he could never discover who they ware that done it.
Perhaps this was a way of reducing Riou to the level of the seamen he so terrorized.

If short hair was indeed a cultural marker, the transition from the short hair worn by sailors for most of my period of study may have left a superstitious imprint when the transition began to long plaited pigtails. From the memoirs of Samuel Kelly, relating an incident in 1783:
I requested one of my shipmates to comb and tie my hair, for which purpose I sat under the bow of the boat. While we were at this work the master came forward to see what we were about, and being very superstitious, he flew into a great passion and gave us to understand that it was no wonder we experienced such a foul wind when such trash (as me) was combing his hair in the night.
Kelly's anecdote comes shortly before the publication of the first image I'm aware of that clearly shows a long, tightly plaited pigtail:

The True British Tar, Carrington Bowles, 1785, collection unknown.
Notably, Bowles' piece depicts a sailor wearing a wig, and not his own hair. Nonetheless, it is a departure from the usual sailors' short bob wig. Around 1790, just as my study ends, pigtails become more common.

Detail from Ban-yan Day on board the Magnificent; or,
Pease Porridge hot from the Coppers!
, John Nixon, 1789, British Museum.
I still do not know when precisely the transition began from short hair to long pigtails, but it was clearly late in the eighteenth century.