Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Thames Wharf, c.1757

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

"A Thames Wharf," Samuel Scott, c.1757, Victoria and Albert Museum.

N.A.M. Rodger writes in his oft cited The Wooden World that Royal Navy vessels spent most of their time in port. Rodger's assertion is almost certainly true of merchant vessels as well.

Samuel Scott portrays the most common setting of marine life: a seaside community. The curators of the Victoria and Albert Museum have spent considerable time examining this piece, and have much to say about it:
The identification of the location of this scene has long been a problem which will probably remain insoluble. When bought the painting was entitled 'The Old East India Wharf at London Bridge', while the version at Fishmongers' Hall has been traditionally entitled 'Custom House Quay'. Another possible location which has been suggested is Bear Quay, which was next to London Bridge. All these seem to be unlikely, however, and it may well be that the scene is, in fact, a sort ofcapriccio or else should be located much further down river, possibly at Shadwell (where the East India Company had a warehouse), or at Deptford, or at Blackwall where the large East Indiamen customarily moored. The large bale in the right foreground is marked V.E.I.C. which does suggest the possibility of some connection with the East India Company. The ship moored at the left, however, is a two-decker man-of-war flying a commodore's flag.
The men working at this wharf are connected to the sea, but likely not actual sailors. I will not be tagging this post as I do the others, as it does not reliably contribute to our knowledge concerning the dress of common tars. If I cannot separate the dock workers from the sailors, I risk muddling the two together. Nonetheless, Scott does show some similarities between dockside worker's clothing and that of tars, and he does help us flesh out the world in which the average sailor lived.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In our first detail, we see a gentleman leaning across canvas bound bales to write in his ledger. He wears a blue frock coat with red breeches and a white cravat. His grey hair, or possibly a wig, is bound in a long and thin queue. Atop his head rests a black cocked hat bound in gold tape.

Behind him are a pair of what may well be sailors. The fellow on the right wears a Canadian cap of blue, a short neckcloth of material that I can't quite make out, and a double breasted waistcoat with narrow vertical stripes. His jacket is a pale red or brown, and lined in white. His waistcoat is tucked into the slops/petticoat trousers that are bound with a single button at the waist. At his feet is the East India Company bale mentioned above.

The fellow with the long pipe also wears a Canadian cap, though this one is red. At his neck is a white cravat. His jacket is double breasted with yellow metal buttons, lined in red, and made with slit cuffs.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The gentleman in the previous detail looks to the work of these coopers.

Given that the chaps we saw in the previous detail were wearing buttoned clothing and fur caps, one might assume that the weather is rather chilly on the Thames. Perhaps it is a testament to the work of our diligent coopers that they are in various states of relative undress. I confess myself unfamiliar with the tools and processes of the cooper, but to my untrained eye it appears that they are hammering hoops in place on barrels of dry goods.

The man on the right is without a hat, but wears a smock or jacket with slops/petticoat trousers, and an apron. To the left is another cooper, this with a wide brimmed black hat, no waistcoat, white shirt, and brown coat or jacket with slit cuffs. Our last worker, who bends over to lift or set down a sizable barrel, wears a cocked hat, plain shirt, dark waistcoat, and slops/petticoat trousers.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Leaning out a window is a man watching a barrel as it is hoisted or swung from a dockside warehouse. Though details are sketchy, he is without a hat, wears a white or very pale blue waistcoat, red breeches, and a blue jacket. This is very nearly the same outfit as the gentleman we saw earlier.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
In the background is a man of war flying the red ensign, with a telltale cloud of smoke that indicates her firing a salute. The workers ashore are unfazed. Among them is a man standing atop a cart full of goods, dressed in a single breasted grey or brown jacket and breeches, with a white cravat and no hat. Despite the damage to the painting, we can also see that the man in the left frame of this detail wears a blue jacket with slit cuffs, gold brimmed black cocked hat, and brown or red breeches.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Proclamation of Proclamations, 1763

The Proclamation of Proclamations or the most glorious and memorable Peace that ever was proclaimed in this or any other Metropolis throughout the World, Jeffereys Harnett O'Neall, 1763, Lewis Walpole Library.

The Proclamation of Proclamations or the most glorious and memorable Peace that ever was proclaimed in this or any other Metropolis throughout the World, Jeffereys Harnett O'Neall, 1763, British Museum.

Yet another crowded political cartoon, this one lampoons the Treaty of Paris in 1763 that ended the French and Indian/Seven Years War. O'Neall was, to use our modern parlance, a hawk. Staunchly opposed to the end of the war, he composed this piece that was not only anti-peace, but anti-Scottish. Twelve lines of verse elaborate on O'Neall's position, as if the caricature was not enough:
So here Fellow-Subjects, (so fine and so pretty!) A Show that not long since was seen in the City, With Marshals and Heralds and Horse-Grenadiers, And Musick before 'em to tickle our Ears, To tell us proud Sawney has patch'd up a Peace, That our Foes may take breath and out Taxes increase, Oh! who could have thought we should ever see the Day, When a Scotchman should over the English hold sway, Thus bully and swagger, and threaten and dare, Till the credulous Lyon falls into the snare? But though Coward-like form his Post he has fled, Let's hope yet his Lordship won't die in his Bed.
"Sawney" is a now obsolete epithet against the Scottish, and in this case refers to Lord Bute. Bute was the first Prime Minister from Scotland since the 1707 Act of Union combined England and Scotland into a single government. The Treaty of Paris was wildly unpopular among the English public and contributed greatly to Bute's eventual downfall, but that is another story.

Among the many crowded figures in this piece, we can see a pair of sailors on the far left in the foreground. The tarpawlin on the right raises his fist to strike a Scotsman, saying, "You a Commisioner! yes, I'll soon make a Commisioner of you; but it shall be in Hell first." This angry jack is joined by his mate, looking rather worse for wear, who declares "Splice my old Timber! I shall have the Freedom of the City for me and my Heirs for ever."

British Museum copy without colorization

Walpole Library copy with color

Both figures wear blue short jackets and cocked hats. Their jackets are slightly off in color, with the fellow on the left in a darker shade. His jacket has a mariner's cuff with an odd pattern to it, something like scalloping, but on the sewn edge. It could be that these are meant to represent buttons, but they are very numerous and closely spaced for that. At the rear, the wooden legged tarpawlin shows a triple vent ot his jacket. His mate's jacket is single breasted. One wears a black neckcloth, the other yellow.

The tar on the right wears his hat backward over bob style hair with the curls off center, and loose fitting long legged trousers. Our wooden legged mariner wears the point of his hat forward, with petticoat trousers/slops hanging down from his one good leg. Both sailors wear white stockings, and the fellow on the right has pointed toe shoes with rectangular buckles.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Press Gang Week: Isaac Land

Consider this a postscript to Press Gang Week. I reached out to Dr. Land after the week had already started. Below is his response.

Dr. Isaac Land is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana State University. He received his PhD from University of Michigan Ann-Arbor in 1999 and is the author of War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor. 1750-1850. Among Dr. Land's recent projects is the Coastal History Blog, part of the Port Towns & Urban Cultures website. One of his specialties is the state of historical scholarship and debate surrounding press gangs.

I showed Dr. Land seven primary source images depicting press gangs at work, and asked him to choose the one that best captured the nature of press gangs in the eighteenth century.

I don’t think that any of these artists was trying to give us a sense of what a typical, real press gang looked like in action (a lot of impressment took place at sea, for example), though maybe the rough-and-tumble choreography and sheer physical comedy of most of your images does capture what impressment looked and felt like in a crowded port town.  The presence of concerned women in so many of the images does underscore the fact that women really did resent the practice, as it deprived them of breadwinners, and were not shy about obstructing or even fighting the gangs.

Mary Wollstonecraft remarked that impressment was a women’s issue.  Still, these images are better considered as political cartoons than as slices of life, and the pointed, sometimes abstract titles (“Liberty of the Subject”) reinforce this.

I’ll offer a contrarian choice and select the George Morland image. Morland is undergoing something of a revival or critical reappraisal at the moment, with a major exhibition in Leeds this year and a new edited volume coming out about his work. Morland’s pious sailor, with his hands clasped in prayer and his large, emotion-laden eyes turned skyward, is presented as a lamb-like victim.  As an artist, Morland is drawing on the long tradition of martyrdom portraits in Christian religious art.  (Most of your other images derive more or less directly from William Hogarth’s sly and coarse physiognomies that in turn owed much to the Dutch genre of moralizing “low life” paintings.)

Morland is also well known for his depiction of the Atlantic slave trade, actually a quieter composition but also one in which the dignity and integrity of the victim—in this case a shirtless, classically proportioned African male—is contrasted with the turmoil and injustice around him.  We can certainly quibble about the merits of the impressment – slave trade comparison, but it is a connection that many contemporaries made.  It is helpful to remember that for Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin, and quite a few ordinary people, impressment was seen as an affront to universal values, or as the naval surgeon Thomas Trotter put it in the 1790s, a violation of “civil liberties.”

Be sure to visit the Coastal History Blog to keep following the work of Dr. Isaac Land!

Friday, September 4, 2015

The Liberty of the Subject, 1779

National Portrait Gallery (UK)

National Maritime Museum

Walpole Library

The Liberty of the Subject, by James Gillray, 1779, National Portrait Gallery (UK), National Maritime Museum, and Lewis Walpole Library.

Wikimedia Commons also hosts a high quality version of the National Portrait Gallery print. Due to a copyright claim on the part of the NPG against Wikimedia, I will not be hosting their copy of that version.

In this very entertaining cartoon, a group of British women try to fight off a press gang. Their victim, a hapless tailor with tape and scissors in his waistcoat pocket, is shuffled away while the gang trades blows with the women. There's a number of sailors in the gang, but we only get a good view of the two dragging away the sailor.

Gillray's print is the same in each of the above collections. What is interesting is the variation in color. Colorists were not beholden to the artist's original intentions, and projected their own expectations on the prints. Some were lazy (only the colorist on the National Portrait Gallery's
copy bothered to paint the hand grasping the poor tailor's left arm), but all of them brought their preconceived notions to the table. While there are certainly variations in the three prints, the similarities are notable.

The sailor on the left has lost his hat in the fray, and despite having his short hair pulled by one of the women in the crowd, seems to be enjoying himself. His neckcloth is variously depicted as yellow with red dots, salmon colored, or pale yellow. In every iteration, his double breasted jacket is blue with cloth covered buttons both on the lapels and the short slit cuffs. The waistcoat is triple breasted with cloth covered buttons, fashioned with a short cut off, and hangs down to the waist. The National Maritime Museum's copy shows his waistcoat as yellow, but the other two are red. His loose trousers are long, all the way to the ankles, and plain, except in the National Portrait Gallery's copy, where they are decorated with narrow vertical red stripes.

His mate to the right looks considerably more alarmed. He wears a black round hat turned up on the right side. His white hair or wig is in a bob style. The neckcloth projecting from his jacket or sleeved waistcoat is white, except in the NPG copy where it is black, and is tied in a very interesting knot that I can't quite place. His single breasted jacket is a light purple, a dark bluish purple, and blue with cloth covered buttons. His slops/petticoat trousers range in hue from white to brown. In every copy his stockings are white.

Both sailors wear shoes with gradual pointed toes and rectangular white metal buckles with rounded corners.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Press Gang Week: Keith Mercer

Dr. Keith Mercer is a Research Associate at the Gorsebrook Research Institute, Saint Mary's University. Dr. Mercer received his PhD from Dalhousie University in 2008, and has published numerous articles on Canadian maritime history with a focus on press gangs and resistance to impressment. You can read several of these articles in full at his official website
I showed Dr. Mercer seven primary source images depicting press gangs at work, and asked him to choose one that best captured the nature of press gangs in the eighteenth century.

These are all terrific images.

What's so exciting about studying press gangs these days is the quality and quantity of the scholarship -- in Britain, North America, and the wider Atlantic World. It's a welcome change from when I picked up the topic in grad school 15 years ago. For my part I've focused on the Canadian colonies, particularly civil-naval relations in the naval ports of St. John's, Halifax, and Quebec City. No one had really studied that topic before. There exists folklore and popular memory about press gangs, but that's about it. My answer thus stems from the Canadian context.

Like Marcus Rediker, I choose the Morland painting from 1790, which I've always called "Jack in the Bilboes." Interestingly, as in Denver Brunsman's answer about the Falklands crisis in 1770, this depiction of a press gang may have resulted from another large-scale, peacetime mobilization of the Royal Navy in 1790 stemming from the British-Spanish territorial dispute over Nootka Sound (off British Columbia, Canada). Britain's rapid mobilization of its powerful navy was a major deterrent for Spain and likely prevented war. It included significant impressment, including "presses from all protections." Even the North American squadron based at Halifax used impressment to get in fighting shape. But the colonial government resisted, especially pressing on shore.

This image is the only one showing impressment at sea, albeit in a boat coming ashore. For me this speaks to a common misconception about impressment. In the vast majority of cases, certainly away from the major British port towns and the government-operated Impress Service, impressment occurred on the water rather than on land. This included boats coming ashore, merchantmen stopped on the high seas and along the coast, and particularly naval guard boats and cutters boarding incoming vessels in harbours. In other words, the traditional caricature of the press gang accosting civilians on the street or barging into taverns was both a relatively rare occurrence and something of an anachronism, especially in the Canadian and colonial American contexts.

An example of just such a caricature:
"A Cribbage Party in St. Giles Disturbed by a Press Gang," Thomas Rowlandson,
1787, Royal Collection Trust

Impressment on shore was just too dangerous, for those doing the pressing. It often led to violence, political disputes, and negative publicity. Press gangs were relegated to the water, where they were far more productive anyway. Unless sailors jumped ship, which was very dangerous at sea, they were not getting away.

Keep an eye out for Dr. Mercer's upcoming book North Atlantic Press Gangs: A Social History of the British Navy in Canada, 1675-1815. For more information about his work, to read his blog, and more, visit

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Press Gang Week: Niklas Frykman

As part of the ongoing Press Gang Week, today's featured historian is Niklas Frykman.

Dr. Frykman received his PhD at the University of Pittsburgh in 2010, where is currently an Assisant Professor in the Department of History. He specializes in mutiny in European navies in the long eighteenth century, and his work is published in Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the age of Revolution: A Global SurveyMercantilism Reimagined: Political Economy in Early Modern Britain and its Empire, and in the Journal of Social History.

I showed Dr. Frykman seven primary source images depicting press gangs at work, and asked him to choose the one that best captured the nature of press gangs in the eighteenth century.

I don’t think any of the images really captures impressment very well, and really they say much more about the various prejudices that English society had about sailors in particular, and the working class more broadly, than about coercive recruitment. I also find it really remarkable that you’ve only been able to find seven prints! That in itself is extremely telling, it seems to me.

However, I do think overall that Collet and Barlow do a better job than the others.

"The Press Gang," c.1760, John Collet

"Attic Miscellany: Maning the Navy," 1790, J. Barlow

First, they do not portray those pressed as respectable artisans and middling types set upon by the violent sailors of the press gang, as is the case in some of the other ones. For one thing, it is clear that the primary purpose of impressment was not just to hoover up manpower, but specifically to funnel skilled manpower (that is, experienced sailors, not tailors!) into the navy. 

Detail of a tailor being pressed from James Gillray's
"The Liberty of the Subject," 1779

But I also dislike the politics of this implied contrast between the landed respectable working class and the disreputable, violent, uncouth and unprincipled maritime working class, whose denunciation is achieved by portraying them as the perpetrators of the very violence they in fact were victimize by. What makes that contrast worse is that in some of the prints there are no officers or other higher ranking representatives of the impressment hierarchy present, thus making the sailors of the press gang sole agents, and turning the whole thing into an example of intra-class rather than the inter-class violence it really was. More positively, what I appreciate about Collet is the way the image shows the humdrum, almost banal nature by which impressment often tore families apart (and took men to their deaths). But the violence upon which that banality arose is at best hinted at. In Barlow, in contrast, it is central, though its sting is removed by the cartoonish, literally de-humanizing nature of the image.

So, all in all, none do a great job, but each captures elements of the truth (like the importance of women in fighting the press gangs in Rowlandson or Gilray, or the political implications in the images from the Lewis Walpole Library) and Collet and Barlow in a way accumulate most truthful elements, while avoiding some prominent prejudices.

Pick up a copy of Mutiny and Maritime Radicalism in the Age of Revolution: A Global Survey, co-edited by Dr. Niklas Frykman to learn about other forms of violent resistance in the maritime world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Press Gang Week: Marcus Rediker

As part of the ongoing Press Gang Week, today's featured historian is Marcus Rediker.

Author of important works including Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail, The Slave Ship: A Human History, and Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750, Marcus Rediker received his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently the Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh.

I showed Dr. Rediker seven primary source images depicting press gangs at work, and asked him to choose the one that best captured the nature of press gangs in the eighteenth century.

I would pick the Morland painting, by quite a margin, with Barlow second.

Morland captures impressment in action and renders realistically and in convincing detail both people and place.  One sees the unexpected situation, a boat hijacked, so to speak, along the waterfront, which was always a dangerous place.

He also captures the chaos: the bosun (with his stick) at the moment of capture, the hat in the water, the sailor ankle-deep, the violence, actual and threatened.  Is the sailor with the clenched fist African-American?  He appears to be darker-skinned than the rest of the people depicted.  All in all, it's the best representation of the press gang I've ever seen.

My second choice would be Barlow, but it is compromised by its (conventional) use of caricature, making the faces of the workers look rather ridiculous.

Be sure to pick up a copy of Rediker's latest work Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail.