Wednesday, November 29, 2017

British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at Louisbourg, 1755


British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at Louisbourg, Louis Pierre Boitard, 1755, Colonial Williamsburg.


British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at Louisbourg, Louis Pierre Boitard, 1755, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.

Copies of this cartoon can be found at Williamsburg, the Walpole Library, the John Carter Brown Early American Images collection, the Library of Congress, the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan, and other major institutions.

Louisbourg had long been a target of the British in their wars against French Canada. This political cartoon by Boitard was counting chickens before they hatched. It would be another three years of war between the American and French colonies of North America.

There are a good number of sailors in this print, so we'll get right into it!


Starting from the left, there is a sailor at the base of the pyramid brandishing his curved cutlass and, in the words of Boitard, "pointing to the eclipse, & leering at a French Politician trapt by his own Schemes." This sailor wears a reversed cocked hat with narrow brim, held up by a skinny loop. His blue single breasted jacket has mariners cuffs with matching buttons. The waistcoat beneath is white with narrow vertical red stripes over a white shirt. A pair of white petticoat trousers and white stockings leading to pointed toe shoes with rectangular buckles complete his appearance. Peeking from beneath the petticoat trousers on his right leg is the tie that binds the breeches beneath.


In the foreground on the far right, conversing with a soldier, another tar sits by a cannon where he "Squeezes the Gallic Cock by the throat, & makes him disgorge the French usurpations in America." He also wears a blue jacket, with its mariners' cuff open so we can see the white shirt beneath. Trousers or petticoat trousers run down to the top of his calf when he site. He wears a yellow neckcloth which is spotted, and may have red spots in the Williamsburg version, but the resolution is too low to be certain. It appears that this sailor, too, wears his cocked hat reversed.


Behind the cannon "A Gang of brave Saylors [are] exulting at the Starving French coopt up." All of them wear petticoat trousers and carry or wear cocked hats, many of them bare bob wigs as they raise their hats in rejoicing. Most of them brandish long sticks. The mariner up front wears a striped waistcoat just like that of the sailor by the pyramid. Among them, the least uniform is only differentiated from his mates by the brown jacket he wears. Interestingly, most have flap pockets on their waistcoats and jackets, and at least one on his jacket.

Monday, November 27, 2017

British Heroism at Omoa, 1789


British Heroism at Omoa, artist unkown, in The Gentleman's and London Magazine: Or Monthly Chronologer, August, 1789, Google Books.

The latest in the images I have thus far collected of the British tar at Omoa, this print accompanied a brief description of the event published in the August 1789 edition of The Gentleman's and London Magazine: Or Monthly Chronologer.

Where Humphrey, who was the first to put the British tar at Omoa into an engraving, put the coarse words of a sailor into the mouth of the tar, the author of the Monthly Chronologer is closer to the original merciful version as related by Captain Dalrymple, though still far from accurate by that account:
One brave Castilian, resolved to conquer or die, threw himself before the brave British tar, and opposed him with all the vigour and skill he was master of, but was quickly disarmed. But the generous victor, disclaiming to take advantages, took up the sword, and presented it to the owner, "Now," cried he, "we are on equal terms; defend yourself. I scorn to attack an unarmed man" The Spaniard, struck at his generosity, received his sword, and bravely defended himself; but was soon forced to yield. "Generous Conqueror!" cried he, "I am in every way your inferior. You first overcome me by your valour, then by your generosity, and now again I am forced to submit. But where such heroism is found, resistance is vain, and opposition fruitless."
The author is so bold as to go even further with this syrupy exaggeration by claiming that the sailor was given instant preferment, something not mentioned in the original dispatches.

A sailor so supernaturally skilled at combat and mercy as to make a Spaniard decry himself as 'in every way your inferior' should look uncommonly gallant. Our unknown engraver has done his best to imbue the British tar with a manful and gallant look.


The tar wears a round hat with wide brim bound with tape. From his right shoulder to his left hip is draped a baldrick for his cutlass, which is clasped in his right hand. He wears a dark jacket that ends about the top of the thigh (though it is difficult to be certain). A single breasted jacket runs down to the plain petticoat trousers where it might be tucked in. The petticoat trousers themselves have a 'broad-fall' fly and end about the top of the calf. White stockings run to pointed toe shoes with large oval buckles. The resolution isn't high enough to be certain, but the straps of his shoes might be trained in the sailor's fashion.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Gallant Behaviour of an English Sailor, c.1785


Gallant behaviour of an English Sailor in offering a sword to an unarmed Spaniard to defend himself, at the taking of Fort Omoa, in the Bay of Honduras, October 20th 1779, engraved by John Record after Metz, c.1785, Library of Congress.

Here is another edition of the British tar at Omoa. This print was engraved for Raymond's History of England, a work that (according to the Brighton Royal Pavilion and Museums) was first published in 1754, but continued into 1787. The Library of Congress dates this c. 1785, as the particular edition that this was published in included events through the Spring of 1784. Other copies exist in the collection of the National Maritime Museum and British Museum.

Though intended as a historical piece, rather than as a caricature or political cartoon, this engraving portrays the Spaniard in archaic clothing more reminiscent of the seventeenth century than the late eighteenth. Portrayals of Spaniards as backward or out of sync with the times were incredibly common among English cartoonists. It is interesting to note that a straight historical narrative of the time also depicted the stereotypical Spaniard in his anachronistic garb.


The sailor wears no hat, and wears his hair short and loose. Without a neckcloth, his white shirt hangs open. The blue jacket is single breasted without pockets or collar, ending right below the natural waist. His plain trousers end just above the ankle, revealing rounded toe shoes.


Three of his mates mount a ladder over the fortress walls. They too are hatless and wear blue jackets. It appears that the engraver or the colorist has given the second tar climbing the ladder a handkerchief around the neck, or perhaps a collar of different color than the body of the jacket.

Monday, November 20, 2017

A British Sailor Offering a Sword to an Unarmed Spanish Officer, 1783


A British Sailor offering a Sword to an Unarmed Spanish Officer, engraved by John Thronton, 1783, Library of Congress.

Another copy of this print can be found at the National Maritime Museum.


In the upper left, sailors bearing cutlasses mount the parapets. All of them wear short caps, probably Dutch/Monmouth knit caps, though it's difficult to be sure. Rushing up the ladder is a jack in a jacket that ends beneath the waist, it appears to have two vents and is lined in white. His trousers end above the ankle.

Standing atop a Spanish gun and proudly waving a British flag, a sailor wears a patterned bandanna around his head, a black neckcloth at his collar, a single breasted waistcoat with cloth buttons ending at the waist, and an unlined jacket. His trousers are vertically striped. 

The gallant sailor at the front, offering a sword to his enemy, wears a round hat with a very short brim. His neckcloth is striped. Our hero wears a double breasted, lined jacket with slash cuffs. The waistcoat is double breasted, ending at his white petticoat trousers with their broad fall fly. We get a peek at his breeches beneath, and see that they are fastened with laces! It's not often we see sailor's breeches, much less a good view of how they are closed. White stockings lead down to the pointed toe shoes with oval buckles.

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.