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.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

An original sketch by an English officer on board of one of Adml. Howe's Fleet while at anchor in New York Harbor, 1776

An original sketch by an English officer on board of one of Adml. Howe's Fleet while at anchor in New York Harbor, just after the Battle of Long Island, Thomas Davies, 1776, New York Public Library.

Special thanks to Todd Braisted for pointing this out to me. For anybody interested in the loyalist experience during the American Revolutionary War, he's the guy to go to. His website is great, take a look!

Combined operations between the Royal Navy and the British army were crucial in the American Revolutionary War. New York was arguably the most successful of these. Tens of thousands of Hessian and British troops were carried ashore in flat bottomed boats manned by British sailors.

The brothers Howe (General and Admiral) broke the back of the Continentals, who fled Long Island in disorder. This image shows a few warships lying at anchor with backed sails in New York Harbor just after the battle. At the time, it would be easy to think that the war would be short lived, and perhaps that accounts for the simple, pacific feel of Davies' piece.

Thomas Davies was an officer of the Royal Artillery, and so had an eye for geography. This was enhanced by his inclination to natural science and reflected in his artistic skill.

Davies depicts two men rowing their boat in the foreground. The boat has an oddly high prow, but I am no expert in the historical construction or appearance of small boats. Each oarsman wears a round hat and jacket.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Two young gentlemen and a sailor boxing, date unknown

'Two young gentlemen and a sailor boxing,' Robert Pollard, date unknown, British Museum.

'Three men standing by a cannon, another figure boxing to left,' Robert Pollard, date unknown, British Museum.

Robert Pollard was a painter and engraver who was especially active in the 1780's, though also well beyond. Maritime subjects were a favorite of Pollard's, and especially catastrophic wrecks like the Halsewell, Centaur, and Grosvenor. In these sketches, perhaps studies for an unfinished engraving, are in a different vein. Two officers stand casually, half watching a boxing match between a sailor and a young man in a cocked hat with cockade who wears a queue.

Given the length of the young fellow's hair and the cockade on his hat, it is possible that he is a midshipman. This is interesting, in that he appears to be fighting a common sailor, with short cut hair, in his shirtsleeves, and striped trousers. Perhaps he is also a midshipman, and wearing working clothes, but it is an odd juxtaposition. In any case, everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, save for the midshipman himself, who looks rather worried.

 Boxing has a complicated history afloat. Ostensibly forbidden aboard warships, it was practiced anyway. When Christopher Hawkins was taken up as a young man by a Royal Navy warship from his American privateer in 1777, he experienced this first hand: 'Boxing was not allowed on board the frigate yet the boys would sometimes play the pugilist, and no notice would be taken of it by the officers.' Olaudah Equiano's experience with officers and pugilism was not just a benign neglect, but active encouragement:
On the passage, one day, for the diversion of those gentlemen, all the boys were called on the quarter-deck, and were paired proportionally, and then made to fight; after which the gentleman gave the combatants five to nine shillings each. This was the first time I ever fought with a white boy; and I never knew what it was to have a bloody nose before. This made me fight most desperately; I suppose considerably more than an hour; and at last, both of us being weary, we were parted. I had a great deal of this kind of sport afterwards, in which the captain and the ship's company used very much to encourage me.

Given that this is a rather aged sketch, I have taken the liberty of enhancing it a touch so that we might better see the sailors at their game.

Our hatless boxer wears close cut and wavy hair. A few lined at the back of his head give the hint of what might be a handkerchief, but I can't be sure. His plain shirt does not appear to have its sleeves rolled up, but is tucked into trousers with vertical stripes that run down to the top of his ankles.

While the nervous boxer stands in the far left of the frame, three smiling sailors watch his progress.

This mariner wears his curly hair loose and cut well above the shoulder. His jacket has a calling collar, and it appears that he is wearing a closely knotted neckcloth. His waistcoat is open to at least the center of the chest. Around his waist is a pair of petticoat trousers, with breeches perfectly visible on his right knee.

These two wear caps of differing styles. The one in the foreground appears to be wearing a knit cap, which may also be the case with his mate. Both wear the same style of jacket as the sailor to the left, and notable the sailor in foreground here wears a ruffled garment at his neck. While I cannot be sure if he wears trousers or petticoat trousers, the pocket is perfectly clear.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


It is common in historical reenacting to assert that sailors often went barefoot when afloat, but what do the sources say?

Very few images depict sailors entirely barefoot. I have examined well over 400 images created between 1740-1790, ranging from high art to political cartoons and everything in between. Of these, only three shows sailors with neither shoes nor stockings.

The earliest depiction in my era of study is a political cartoon that includes a pair of barefoot sailors. Notably they are ashore, and the point of the cartoon is to show them dis-empowered and in the thrall of an enemy. It could be that the artist, Samuel Lyne, was intending to show a certain poverty among the sailors.

Detail from Bob the Political Ballance Master, Samuel Lyne, 1742, British Museum.
Less ambiguous is Thomas Hearne's portrayal of a sailor working on the 20 gun Deal Castle. Though painted in 1804, Hearne was present for the 1775 voyage, and based the painting on sketches taken at the time.
Detail form A scene on board His Majesty's ship 'Deal Castle' the year 1775
Thomas Hearne, 1804, National Maritime Museum.
Julius Caesar Ibbetson also depicts sailors afloat without shoes or stockings, but they are mixed between both men with shod feet and those without. Like Hearne, he was present for this event, and illustrated it at is happened.
Detail from Crossing the Line Ceremony on Board the Ship, 'Vestal,'
Julius Caesar Ibbetson, c.1788, Yale Center for British Art.
As with Ibbetson and Hearne, Gabriel Bray painted the below from life. Bray is made all the more reliable an artist by the fact that he was a naval officer, and more intimately familiar with sailors and their ways. In this we see that the sailors both on deck and aloft wear shoes. However, the sailor leaning on the gun is clearly without stockings.
Detail from Seaman Leaning on a Gun on the Pallas,
Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.
The common sailors themselves have little to say on the matter. Like most material culture in this class, it was not considered remarkable enough to record, and no journal, memoir, or novel penned by a common sailor that I have read has yet cast much light on this. When sailors do mention going barefoot, it is only as an exception and in an unusual circumstance.

Jacob Nagle, after escaping to shore and leaving his shoes aboard, had this unfortunate experience in 1781:
I having no shoes, I could scarcely walk. He rode ahead to New Castel and bought me a pair of shoes and had a dinner provided for us all. In a few days we arived in Philadelphia, but my feet were so inflamed I could not put them to the flore.
Samuel Kelly also lost his shoes and much of his clothing in 1784:
Having neither shoes nor stockings this called my feet severely, as well as my shoulder, having nothing on it but a shirt or canvas frock.
William Williams, writing the semi-autobiographical novel The Journal of Penrose, Seaman, relates the clothing that remains on his eponymous character after a spell as a Spanish prisoner in the 1740's:
Here I shall give the reader a rough draught of my Garb as I then appear'd. (Viz) a long pair of ragged and narrow Spanish trowsers,  a fragment of an old blue Shirt not enough to pass under my waistband, a remnant of an old Red handkerchief round my head, without either shoe or stocking to my feet. I had yet my old blue bonnet.
Depictions of sailors and their own words do not provide us much evidence for working afloat without shoes. This is by no means definitive, and there is more research to be done. Working barefoot probably occurred (the evidence from Hearne's Deal Castle painting is compelling), but it is impossible to say how frequently this happened.

Monday, December 4, 2017

South Elevation of the Stone Lighthouse Completed Upon the Edystone in 1759, 1763

South Elevation of the Stone Lighthouse Completed Upon the Edystone in 1759, engraved by Edward Rooker, figures by Samuel Wale, 1763, Bonhams.

The Eddystone Light is a fixture in the maritime culture of Britain. A true marvel of engineering, this version was completed in 1759.

This 1763 print does not appear to be what the auction page is referring to. Bonhams states that this is a book about the Eddystone published in 1791. Even the engraver does not appear to be the same, with Bonhams identifying him as H. Hughes, whose name does not appear on the print.

A small crew of sailors carry a gentleman (perhaps a sea captain) to the stone. Each wears a cocked hat and shirtsleeves, with bob wigs or their hair bobbed in a seamanlike fashion. At the bow stands a fellow with a single breasted jacket, extending his boathook to the ring presumably installed for that purpose. He wears plain trousers.