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.