Sunday, January 17, 2021

Origins of a Myth: Tarred Clothing

I've often read in secondary sources that sailors intentionally tarred their clothing for waterproofing. I haven't seen a primary source that proves this in my period of study. I've addressed this before in a post about canvas hats I wrote some years back.
Richard Henry Dana's straw tarpaulin hat, Mystic Seaport Collection.
EDIT: In an earlier version of this post, I asserted that tarred clothing was used in the Victorian era, and that this was likely a backward projection. This is often the case with other sailor myths: shanties, superstition, and more. However, the inestimable Matthew Brenckle pointed me to some excellent research by Tyler Putman that also explores the paucity of sources in the 19th century to support its widespread practice.

This does not appear to be a practice in the eighteenth century. Our misunderstanding is partly a misreading of the original sources. There are many runaway advertisements that mention the 'tarr'd' garments of sailors in the eighteenth century. This example from The Maryland Gazette is just one of those:
The Maryland Gazette, December 21, 1758, page 3.
This merely proves that the clothing is covered in tar, and says nothing about intent. As J.L. Bell has pointed out over at Journal of the American Revolution, pine tar of the eighteenth century has a melting point that is half that of modern asphalt tar: 140°F (60°C). More importantly for our discussion, pine tar becomes sticky at an even lower temperature.[1] Merely from living aboard a ship, sailors would become coated in tar. I can speak to personal experience from my time working at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, where even though I was no real sailor and they were not employing the more easily melted pine tar, simply being aboard would occasionally leave streaks of tar across my clothes.

Of course, personal anecdotes and experiences say little about actual experience in the past, so let's look at a primary source. Samuel Kelly remembered sleeping on deck and the resulting mess:
One cold night I crept into the cabin stairs to shelter myself from the winds, but Mr. Hall coming up to see the weather detected me, and ordered the officer of the watch to place me on the poop, in the most exposed situation by way of punishment. Sometimes my face was tarred and blackened when I fell asleep on deck.[2]
Besides, if tar was this viscous and easy to rub off, its value as a weatherproofing substance is dubious.

Given that tar stuck to sailors from the working of a ship, and the lack of evidence for intentionally tarring clothing, it just doesn't seem to be a practice of the period. 

Many maritime histories include this myth, including by authors and historians worthy of respect. To be clear: I'm not trying to condemn these historians. I can personally attest to not digging deep on a detail that isn't terribly important to whatever argument I'm trying to make, and later regretting that I oversimplified or misunderstood something. It comes with the nature of practicing history; you're not going to be right 100% of the time.

Most often historians include the reference to tarred clothing as weatherproofing in an off-hand remark and not essential to a larger claim by the author. Functionally, this means that historians have been repeating each other. Secondary source leads to secondary source and spirals back through the decades.

A typical example goes like this:

Memorial University's Maritime History Archive has a brief page describing 'Jack Tar' and citing the myth of intentionally tarred clothing to Isaac Land's 2010 book War, Nationalism, and the British Sailor, 1750-1850 [an excellent book, by the way]. Land's endnote cites the late Jesse Lemisch's 1968 paper Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America. Importantly, Lemisch was making a larger argument about sailors dress as a whole, which is somewhat accurate. The tarring of clothing was just one part of his description:
In his dress he is, in the words of a superior, 'very nasty and negligent,' his black stockings ragged, his long baggy trousers tarred to make them waterproof.[3]
Lemisch cites numerous records in the UK National Archives, New York Historical Society, and numerous New York newspapers, an illustration in the 1923 Mariner's Mirror, and Samuel Eliot Morison's 1959 biography of John Paul Jones. While I was unable to access all of these references, those that I could find were similar to the newspaper advertisement cited above, merely stating that a garment was "tarr'd" or "tarry" without saying anything about intent. Most are merely descriptions of individual sailor's clothing and meant to buffer his larger argument, and so say nothing about tarring at all.

All of this is to say that historians have been repeating the same myth for at least half a century, and probably much longer. There just isn't any evidence that sailors intentionally tarred their clothing before the nineteenth century.

[1] Bell, J.L., "5 Myths of Tarring and Feathering," Journal of the American Revolution, December 13, 2013, accessed January 17, 2021, <>.
[2] 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 21.
[3] Lemisch, Jesse, "Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America," The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 3, July 1968, page 371, via JSTOR, accessed January 17, 2021, <>.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Color Your Own Historic Sailor

Back in 2017, my colleague Ben Bartgis shared an April Fool's Day post over at Napoleonic Tars: 1790-1820.

The reaction was so positive that Ben decided to make it a real thing and asked for my help. To celebrate the Glorious First of June, we are releasing this coloring book for free as a PDF. Just follow the link here to get your copy.

Included are eight black and white or decolorized original images of sailors stretching from the 1740's through the 1810's, documenting the change in mariners' fashions over that tumultuous period. 

Download and print your copy, break out your preferred coloring instruments, and spend some time with us to Color Your Own Historic Sailor!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Origin of a Myth: The Last Stitch

Outlander, Season 3 (2017).
Follower Justin Anderson e-mailed me a short time ago with a specific request:
I'm curious if you have any insights into the origins of the idea that burial shrouds had a final stitch which passed through the nose? I see you mention it briefly in a post, but I can't find anywhere else where this is being discussed online with any real knowledge or academic care.[1]
It's a very prevalent tale, often shared in fiction. Both the Aubrey-Maturin and Hornblower books included it, as do their film and TV adaptations. Outlander includes a poignant scene with the same scenario.

Fiction follows the lead, in this instance, of non-fiction. The Royal Australian Navy regards the last stitch as fact. The same is true of Cdr. Connell and Vice Adm. Mack's treatment of burial at sea in Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions:
According to a very old custom in preparing a body for burial at sea, the sailmaker, when sewing the canvas shroud, takes the last stitch through the nose of the deceased.[2]
The most common version of the story goes that dead sailors were stitched up in their hammocks, weighted down with shot to drag them to the bottom (all of which is true). The last stitch of the canvas would go through the nose, supposedly because the pain would awake the sailor in case someone screwed up and he wasn't actually dead.

Certainly some sailors must have been sewn up and thrown over before they were fully dead. Evidence of this can be found in the recollections of Carl Peter Thunberg, who later remembered such an incident during a voyage to Angola in the 1770's:
Five men had been reported dead, all of them had been sewed up in their hammocks, and two had already been thrown overboard, when the third, the instant he was put on the plank, called out, 'Master Boatswain, I am alive still!' to which the Boatswain with unreasonable jocularity replied,-'You alive, indeed! what, do you pretend to know better than the surgeon?[3]
At a practical level, sewing through the nose seems odd to me. Does the sailmaker stop sewing when they reach the nose, leaving the forehead bare? Does he go back after sewing to and along the top, and then pinch around the canvas until he finds the nose so he can sew through it? Also, if a sailor suffers so much trauma as to pass into unconsciousness that was mistaken for death, it seems unlikely the pinch of a needle would revive him.

Most importantly:

There is no evidence for putting the last stitch through the nose in the eighteenth century. 

I've found no sources that mention this practice at all through the entirety of my period of study.

This reminds me of a seeming non-sequitur (that I swear is relevant; bear with me).
Samurai on horseback, wearing armor and horned helmet, carrying bow and arrows,
1878?, Library of Congress.
A historian of Eastern Asia (whose name escapes me) was talking about our popular understanding of samurai, especially the strict and reverential treatment to an unbending and universally agreed upon Bushido. That understanding is really only true for the tail end of the history of the samurai, when there was a relative peace throughout the empire and the samurai didn't have as fighting much to do. That, and after the Meiji Restoration, they emphasized 'traditional' practices (some of which they had invented) in order to preserve their quickly dissolving subculture. Because this was the period in which those practices were most likely to be recorded, documented and saved, and the period that is closest in time to ours, and especially because the samurai themselves were projecting these practices back in time and casting them as immemorial, they were accepted by historians and society as a whole as timeless.

This is also true of sailors. Most myths and misunderstandings about common sailors are backward projections by Victorian sailors. The advent of steam was rapidly eclipsing sail, and so sailors clung to what they believed to be immemorial practices that were actually quite recent. Superstition, canvas hats, the belief that women are bad luck, bell bottomed trousers, sea shanties, tattoos, an impermeable barrier between officers and crew, and all the rest were far more common in the nineteenth century than the eighteenth, and some didn't apply at all to that earlier era. By contrast, practices that were common among eighteenth century sailors fell out of favor by or through the nineteenth: frying watches, carrying sticks, short cut hair, carved or stamped leather buttons, and others.

So it's possible this was a Victorian practice, rather than a Georgian one. Where does the story come from? Was it actually a myth?

There was a good discussion of this a few years ago on the Authentic Pirate Living History 1690-1730 Facebook group, which is a surprisingly academic font of knowledge, frequented by some great maritime historians. I've also found a reference or two to the last stitch through the nose in the nineteenth century. All of the sources found by both that group and myself lean toward the fictional, and below you'll find a mix of their discoveries and mine.

The earliest reference yet ground was uncovered by Alan Gutchess, the current site director at the Fort Pitt Museum. Frederick Chemier's 'The Life of a Sailor' was published in 1831 in The Metropolitan magazine. The emphasis is mine: 'I have heard it said that it was customary to run the needle in the last stitch through the nose of the corpse; some may do it, but I certainly never remarked it myself.'[4] In a later edition published in 1850, Chemier expanded on this: 'I have heard it said, that it was customary to run the needle of the last stitch through the nose of the corpse. It may or may not be the case (sailors are very curious people in their fancies); certainly I never remarked it, neither have I heard it mentioned as a general occurrence.'[5]

It later appeared in Herman Melville's 1850 semi-autobiographical novel White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War, where he has an entire chapter titled 'The Last Stitch.': 'Small thanks I gets for my pains; and every one of 'em looks so 'proachful-like, with a sail-maker's needle through his nose.' There follows a discussion about whether or not to actually do the last stitch through the nose, with the author standing against it. The sail-maker is staunchly for it, citing 'no innowations' and 'it's a good old fashion.'[6] Again, the earliest mention yet found is from only 19 years before this novel was published.

It is possible that the practice was in place earlier than recorded, but we cannot project that without evidence. Among the many recollections by passengers, captains, and seamen of burial at sea, none mention the stitch through the nose in the eighteenth century.
The Burial at Sea, Sir Frank William Brangwyn, 1890, Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) via The Athenaeum
In the 1881 The Boys' & Girls' Book of Travel and Adventure, an unnamed author wrote:
The thing that the sailmaker had wanted to do, was the old custom of his trade afloat, namely to take the last stitch of yarn through the nose. Without that, it used to be firmly believed that those who were buried at sea could never rest, but some time or somewhere must come up again from the deepest water.[7]
It is not clear to me if this is intended as a fictional account.

In 1894 the Journal of American Folk-Lore published a paper (but didn't cite the author) titled 'Burial Custom Formerly Observed in the Naval Service.' The very title suggests that this was not currently being practiced, and the author claims to have heard this story from a patient at an asylum. In the introduction the author was already starting to note inconsistencies in the tale. Nonetheless, he took it at face value: 'The sailmaker's mate, who performed this office, was well aware of the necessity for taking the last stitch through the tip of the patient's nose; without this precaution the body would not "stay down," however waited with shot, but would shake off the trammels of its sailor shroud, and reappear as a ghost to its former shipmates.' Even the author of this piece admits 'allusions to [this practice] in print are not very frequent.'[8]

Notably, Melville and the authors of Journal of American Folk-Lore and The Boys' & Girls' Book specifically state that the purpose of the last stitch is to prevent the ghost of the sailor from haunting the ship, rather than checking to see if he is alive. Chemier gives no stated motivation. None of these accounts claim to be an eyewitness to the practice, and Chemier is explicitly incredulous.

The only reliable account I've found of this in actual practice is from Cyril Corbet's journal, in which he wrote on March 21, 1874:
The ship's steward, a man named Frederick Garrett, was found dead in his hammock this morning...I never knew before to-day, that in sewing a dead man up in his hammock, before chucking him overboard, they put the last stitch through his nose; at least, Smith-Dorrien tells me so,-he is my authority.[9]
Even in this, which seems pretty likely to be a real story, Corbet is incredulous.
Burial at sea for two casualties of a Japanese submarine attack on the US aircraft carrier USS Liscome Bay, November 1943,
National Archives and Research Administration, via Wikimedia Commons.
The last reference I have found to the practice is the 1960's. In a 1996 letter to the editor of The Independent, a merchant mariner stated that he watched a bosun push 'the large triangular-shaped needle right through the nose. I winced, and he looked up at me and said "That's the law of the sea, the last stitch through the nose, if that don't wake him up I know he's dead."'[10]

I do not mean to diminish the value of stories. The myths and legends of the sea do have real meaning to the sailors of the present. As a historian, it is nonetheless my responsibility to explore the realities of life in the past. Death has always been significant in the lives of sailors, and how we have dealt with mortality has changed over time.

In short:

The last stitch was not practiced in the eighteenth century, was never widespread in the nineteenth century, was always portrayed as an immemorial practice from the time of its invention, and was explicitly about ghosts until the twentieth century.

[1] E-mail to the author dated February 29, 2020.
[2] Connell, Cdr. Royal W. and Vice Adm. William P. Mack, Naval Ceremonies, Customs, and Traditions, sixth edition, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2004, page 70.
[3] Thunberg, Carl Peter, Travels in Europe, Africa, and Asia, made between the years 1770 and 1779, Third Edition, London: F. and C. Rivington, 1796, page 118, Yale University via the HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed August 1, 2018, <>.
[4] Chemier, Frederick, 'The Life of a Sailor,' in The Metropolitan: Monthly Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts, Volume 1, London: James Cochrane & Co., 1831, page 394, via Google Books, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.
[5] Chemier, Frederick, The Life of a Sailor, London: Richard Bently, 1850, page 75, via Google Books, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.
[6] Melville, Herman, White-Jacket; or, The World in a Man-of-War, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850 page 395, via Google Books, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.
[7] 'Committed to the Deep: An Incident of Personal Recollection of Life at Sea,' in The Boys' & Girls' Book of Travel and Adventure, London: Strahan and Company Limited, 1881, page 285,  via Google Books, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.
[8] 'Burial Custom Formerly Observed in the Naval Service' in Journal of American Folk-Lore, Volume VII, Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, and Company, 1894, page 68, via Google Books, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.
[9] Corbet, Cyril, "Venus" at the Isle of Desolation: My Private Journal During the "Transit of Venus" Expedition in 1874, Southampton: Alfred Randle, 1875, page 126via Google Books, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.
[10] Craig, Tim, 'Letter: Stitch that would waken the dead,' The Independent, January 15, 1996, accessed March 17, 2020, <>.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Crossing the Line

Often on this webpage I address assumptions about the past that are imposed by later generations. Sewing a corpse through the nose, wearing canvas hats, nearly all sailors' superstitions, sea shanties, hair plated into a long pigtail, a liquid diet that is exclusively rum, and the arbitrary line between naval and merchant seamen are just some of the myths rampant in popular and even academic history. Outlander, John Adams, Turn, the Assassin's Creed series, and other forms of popular fiction perpetuate these ideas, all of which are derived from the nineteenth century. Any of these assumptions would be appropriate for 1850, but none would be correct for 1780.

Every now and then, I do come across something that is exactly as we picture it in history and fiction. Such is the case with the infamous crossing the line ceremony.

According to Rob Doane, curator of the United States Naval War College Museum, "the first documented instances [of the ceremony] can be found in the accounts of French sailors from the early sixteenth century." By my period of study, it was a well worn tradition. It was so well known that John Nicol refused to write much about it: ' I will not describe the ceremony to fatigue the reader, as it has been often described by others.'[1]

Then and today, when sailors first pass over the Equator they are subjected to a ducking. The severity of the ducking varied greatly, and was the most cause for distress. Joseph Banks, on the famous 1768 exploratory voyage of Captain Cook's Endeavour, kept a journal in which he related the ceremony for October 25:
A block was made fast to the end of the Main Yard and a long line reved through it, to which three Cross peices of wood were fastned, one of which was put between the leggs of the man who was to be duckd and to this he was tyed very fast, another was for him to hold in his hands and the third was over his head least the rope should be hoisted too near the block and by that means the man be hurt. When he was fasned upon this machine the Boatswain gave the command by his whistle and the man was hoisted up as high as the cross piece over his head would allow, when another signal was made and immediately the rope was let go and his own weight carried him down, he was then immediately hoisted up again and three times served in this manner which was every mans allowance.
Throughout the history of the ceremony there has been criticism that the event has gone too far. Sailors have been drowned, assaulted, and abused during the crossing the line. This certainly appears to have been the case in the eighteenth century as well. Banks found it 'sufficiently see the different faces that were made on this occasion, some grinning and exulting in their hardiness whilst others were almost suffocated and came up ready enough to have compounded after the first or second duck, had such proceeding been allowable.'[2] Samuel Kelly, later recalling his first voyage in 1778 'saw the captain's steward ducked from the main yard-arm, three times, while the ship was running six or seven miles an hour...but it was an unwarranted proceeding, and attended with great danger, as the ship was rolling very much.' Kelly himself was subjected to a form of waterboarding: 'my eyes were closed with a wet cloth or stocking bound round my head; I was then conducted and placed on the edge of a large tub of water, but escaped with a little wetting on the captain's interference.'[3]

There were a few ways to avoid the ducking.[4] The first was to pay your way out. In the case of Kelly's 1778 ceremony, the cost was half a crown, though he didn't get the chance to present his fee before they ducked him. Banks recorded the cost on the 1768 voyage as significantly higher: '4 days allowance of wine...and as for the boys they are always duckd of course.' The other avenue of escape was rank. Banks described others that escaped by their inclusion on a 'black list' including the captain, ship's doctor, 'my self my servants and doggs.' Whether or not other dogs and cats escaped he leaves unsaid, though does make a point that the pets' names were recorded and examined to determine if they had crossed the line on previous voyages.[5]

Some men seemed to enjoy the ceremony in spite of or (at least in the case of Banks) because of the near drowning. Nicol declared the ceremony he witnessed in 1789 aboard the Lady Julian 'the best sport I ever witnessed.'[6] Kelly expressed no such enjoyment.

Part of the fun was derived from the appearance of the god of the sea. It was noteworthy enough for Julius Caesar Ibbetson to illustrate during his 1788 voyage on the frigate Vestal.

Crossing the Line Ceremony on Board the Ship, 'Vestal,' Julius Caesar Ibbetson, c.1788, Yale Center for British Art.
Nicol was particularly impressed with the apparently convincing costume the crew of the convict ship Lady Julian prepared:
We had caught a porpoise the day before the ceremony which we skinned to make a dress for Neptune with the tail stuffed. When he came on deck he looked the best representation of a merman I ever saw, painted, with a large swab upon his head for a wig. Not a man in the ship could have known him. One of the convicts fainted, she was so much alarmed at his appearance, and had a miscarriage after. Neptune made the boys confess their amours to him, and I was really astonished at the number.[7]
Usually the absurdity of Neptune was of more importance than a convincing costume. Kelly recalled 'two seamen, representing Neptune and an attendant, disgifured with blacking, flour, and an odd kind of dress.'[8]

[1] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 127.
[2] Banks, Sir Joseph, The Endeavour Journal of Sir Joseph Banks, via Gutenberg Australia, accessed October 16, 2019, <>.
[3] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, pages 21-22.
[4] Ibid., 21.
[5] Banks
[6] Nicol, 127.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Kelly, 22.

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Friday, September 13, 2019

From Braddock to Wolfe: Able Seaman Henry McCann

Today is the 260th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. It capped a massive imperial conflict that permanently removed the French from their North American holdings and replaced it with the British rule that persists to this day.

General Wolfe's legendary victory in Canada served as a bookend to the French and Indian War. His conquest was the opposite end of the spectrum from the defeat on the Monongahela four years earlier. The massive casualties suffered by British and provincial forces in that earlier battle meant there were few that would witness both Braddock's loss and Wolfe's triumphant victory, both of which proved fatal to the generals.

Seaman Henry McCann of the Centurion was the only sailor to have experienced both events.
Detail from Robert Orme’s A Plan of the Line of March with the Whole Baggage, printed by Thomas Jefferys in 1758, in the
Richard H. Brown Revolutionary War Map Collection of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library
McCann was one of thirty five officers and men assigned to the naval detachment of Braddock's expedition to capture Fort Duquesne at the beginning of the French and Indian War. He spent three months marching from Alexandria, Virginia to what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. McCann and the naval detachment were essential in hauling guns with block and tackle, floating supplies and troops down rivers, and carving Braddock Road, much of which is still used today. Just as the army was closing in on the French fort, they were ambushed at the Monongahela. The naval detachment stood in the van of the army and took heavy casualties in the battle.

Disease, desertion, and especially death in combat reduced the thirty five sailors to nineteen or twenty over six months. Only eleven of these were fit for duty.[1] At least three of the survivors would be dead within a year, two of whom may have succumbed to wounds inflicted during the battle.[2] If we include the three men who died within a year of the battle, the navy lost well over half the men in the detachment as a direct result of the expedition.

McCann was exceptionally lucky, escaping without a wound as we can see here in the original return of the naval detachment when finally loaded aboard the frigate Garland for return to their vessels.
Detail from ADM 1/2009 f.20, photographed by Alexa Price
McCann was returned to the Centurion and spent most of the war on the North American station. He and his shipmates took part in the fall of Louisbourg, a successful conjunct expedition in 1758 during which sailors built batteries and lobbed shells at the anchored French fleet. On July 25th, sailors under Admiral Boscawen rowed out to the surviving French vessels, capturing a 64-gun ship, and burning a 74.
The Siege of Louisbourg, artist unknown, c.1760, eBay.
The following year, McCann and the Centurion were on station at the siege of Quebec. There were key differences between the sailors participating in the Braddock Expedition and the Siege of Quebec. Wolfe's sailors were rarely employed in manual labor, their accommodations were within the Wooden World with which they were accustomed, and they were not expected to serve as infantry. Indeed, unlike Louisbourg, there was relatively little for the sailors to do. During several landings they would shuttle soldiers back and forth, and they worked the guns when they could, but they could not elevate them to reach the heights of the city.

There was, of course, a flurry of activity when Wolfe ordered the landing at Anse-du-Foulon over the night of September 12 to 13. Sailors, including many from the Centurion and quite possibly McCann himself, once again took to their boats and helped ferry the troops ashore. This time, they also helped rig block and tackle to move artillery up the steep precipice that faced them, a task that McCann would have been very familiar with from his time on the Braddock Expedition.
Detail from A View of the Taking of Quebec, Laurie & Whittle, 1797, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
These sailors then rushed their guns to the Plains of Abraham to prepare for the battle, as you can see in Benjamin West’s 1770 masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe.
Detail from The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West, 1770, Wikimedia Commons.
On the Plains they were expected to retire back to the boats. As an anonymous naval volunteer wrote, “I was a volunteer among a large body of seamen, landed about five o’clock in the morning, and appointed as a corps de reserve. But such was their impetuosity to engage, and their resentment at being kept out of danger, that, according to their accustomed politeness, they were perpetually damning their eyes, &c. because they were restrained from pushing into the heat of the fire, before they were wanted.”[3]

The Scots Magazine echoes this account: “Observing the foot-soldiers drawn up for engagement, instead of continuing their route, they fell into the ranks among the soldiers, some having cutlasses in their hands, others sticks, and some nothing at all.” General Wolfe “thanked them for the service they had performed, and desired they would immediately repair to their ships, as their stay among the soldiery, unarmed, and unacquainted with the discipline of the army, as they must necessarily be, would only expose their lives, without their being able, in such a situation, to be the least service to their king and country.” The sailors replied, “God bless your honour, pray let us stay and see fair play between the English and the French.” Some of the seamen did return to the shore, “but others...swore, that ‘the soldiers should not have all the fighting to themselves, but that they would come in for some way or other;’ and actually remained in the ranks, and when a soldier dropped in the action near any of them, they put on his accoutrements, charge, and fired with the rest.”[4]

The French and Indian War was effectively ended on the Plains of Abraham. As yet, I do not know what became of able seaman Henry McCann after that event. Most likely, he returned to sea and continued his career afloat.

What I can say with certainty is that Henry McCann was an exceedingly common sailor. The extraordinary circumstances that sent him marching hundreds of miles from the sea to the Monongahela, and up the St. Lawrence River to witness the death rattle of French Canada left a trail of documents that allow us to follow their lives. By exploring individuals like McCann, we can see that seamen protested their abominable conditions, and suffered at the hands of their officers, the enemy, and nature. Further, we can use their experiences as a lens to observe broader trends in the Atlantic World and in their Wooden World. The average person is worthy of our study.

[1] “An Account of the Detachment of Seamen sent with his Excellency General Braddock on the Late Expedition against Fort du Quesne,” ADM 1/2009, f.20.
[2] Garland muster book, April 1754-December 1756, ADM 36/5659, f.293.
[3] “Letters of a Volunteer,” transcribed in The Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Appendix Part II, Quebec: Desault & Proulx, 1901, page 24.
[4] “Brave sailors,” The Scots Magazine, Volume 24, March 1762, pages 119-120, via Google Books, accessed September 13, 2019, <>.

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Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Jack Tar and Britannia

Detail from British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at LouisbourgLouis Pierre Boitard, 1755, 
John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
Britannia, a female personification of the British isles, dates to antiquity.[1] She still stands as a symbol of the British nation: noble, martial, prosperous, brave, and beautiful.

Increasingly as the eighteenth century progressed, Britannia was joined by her new friend Jack Tar.
Detail from Old Time's Advice to Britannia, artist unknown, 1761, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
Detail from The European State Jockies Running a Heat for the Ballance of Powerartist unknown, 1740, British Museum.
Detail from Labour in vain or let them tug & be Da-nd, Thomas Colley, 1782, 
National Maritime Museum.
Britannia and Jack are both courageous, but unlike Britannia, Jack is usually not often a handsome figure. When he comes into riches, Jack spends lavishly and foolishly. Where Britannia commands attention and respect by her bearing and presence, Jack takes to his fists.

Last year I wrote a piece for the Journal of the American Revolution: 'Hearts of Oak on Canvas: Watson and the Shark.' I argued that 'Increasingly throughout the [eighteenth] century, and particularly with the American Revolutionary War, the character of Jack Tar took on the role of personifying the nation.' Today I'd like to flesh that out a bit more by exploring the portrayal of Jack Tar in eighteenth century art alongside Britannia.

For the purposes of this piece, I will be focused exclusively on political cartoons, in which the intent of the author to say something about the nation at large comes into play. Slice of life portrayals like Gabriel Bray's works will not be examined, as they do not intend deeper metaphor.

The capture of Portobello by Admiral Vernon in 1739 elevated the common sailor to a national figure. In caricature he was to be supported or pitied.  As such, in the 1740's, sailors were often depicted as participants in great military and political upheavals. Usually, this participation is passive. In Samuel Lyne's 1742 cartoon Bob the Political Ballance Master, sailors are helpless victims of the ministry's failed policies. The same is true in the 1748 cartoon Tempora mutantur, et Nos mutamur in illis.
Bob the Political Ballance Master, Samuel Lyne, 1742, British Museum.
Detail from Tempora mutantur, et Nos mutamur in illis, unknown artist, 1748, British Museum.
By the Seven Years' War, Jack Tar becomes a much more violent figure. With the Annus Mirabilis of 1759, the 'year of miracles,' Jack became more active in caricature. Here we see the beginnings of Jack as defender of Britain, but not yet as a stand in for the nation itself.

In political cartoons of the 1750's and 60's, Jack Tar is rarely the sole British character. These political cartoons are crowded affairs with numerous characters and text bubbles crammed into small spaces. Jack is often one of several characters representing different classes of British society. Nonetheless, we start to see some of the first major examples of Jack Tar as a sole personification of Britain.
The With the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, and especially after the crisis precipitated by the entry of France and Spain into the conflict, Jack Tar was increasingly featured as the sole character representing Britain.

Much Ado About Nothing, artist unknown, 1756, American Antiquarian Society.
In the crisis created by the entry of Spain and France into the American Revolution, Britain felt vulnerable. This may perhaps explain the acceleration of Jack Tar to stand-in for the Kingdom. He is often depicted as thrashing caricatures of France, Spain, the Dutch, and America.

Monsieur Sneaking Gallantly into Brest's Skulking Hole after receiving a preliminary Salutation of British Jack Tar the 27 of July 1778,
W. Richardson, 1778, John Carter Brown Library
Don Barcello, Van Trump, & Monsieur de Crickey Combin'd together, Thomas Cowley, 1780, British Museum.

Jack England Fighting the Four Confederates, John Smith, 1781, British Museum.
Jack Tar continued to be portrayed as Britain personified well after my period of study, but the acceleration from passive participant to nationhood itself is the most defining feature of sailors in political cartoons of the latter half of the eighteenth century.

[1] Henig, Martin, 'Britannia', Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, Volume 3 Part 1, Zurich, Artemis, 1983 pages 167–69.

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Tuesday, May 28, 2019

'A Sail to make a Tent of'

Early last year, follower Tom Apple was reading through a post by Norman Fuss on The Journal of the American Revolution about a painting depicting the British view of Yorktown in 1781.[1] Apple noticed an interesting detail:
Special Collections, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Library, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. 
Noting the tent with the reef points, Matthew Brenckle chimed in excitedly 'A topsail!'

It makes sense. Both tents and sails are canvas after all. There was a detachment of sailors serving the guns and building entrenchments during the Siege of Yorktown and it is possible this was the shelter for some of them.

Prior to Apple's discovery, I had assumed that sail tents were a last resort of shipwrecked seamen. When Brinton Hammon's vessel was stranded on a reef for two days in 1747, his captain ordered the crew to row ashore with 'our Arms, Ammunition, Provisions and Necessaries for Cooking, as also a Sail to make a Tent of, to shelter us from the Weather.'[2] Daniel Defoe wrote a similarly desperate decision for his fictional Robinson Crusoe in 1719:
Having got my second cargo on shore...I went to work to make a little tent with the sail, and some poles which I cut for that purpose.[3]

After the Duke William sank in December 1758 with hundreds of Acadian refugees aboard, an anonymous author penned a letter to the The Gentleman's Magazine suggesting that all captains should be prepared to create rafts for 'preserving the lives of the persons on board in such a case.' In this, the author suggests that the crew load the raft with provisions and 'a spare sail, to serve them for a tent' should the survivors reach shore.[4]
While the sailors at Yorktown weren't quite so desperate as the Acadians of the Duke William, the crew of Hammon's sloop, or the fictional plight of Robinson Crusoe, they were certainly not in an advantageous position. The use of a sail tent may therefore be a strong indicator that its occupants were in some distress.

[1] Fuss, Norman, 'An Iconic Artifact Revisited,' Journal of the American Revolution, January 13, 2015, accessed May 27, 2019, <>.
[2] Hammon, Brinton, A Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings, and Surprizing Deliverance of Briton Hammon, a Negro Man, Boston: Green & Russel, 1760, page 5, via Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, accessed May 27, 2019, <>.
[3] Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Vol 1, London, 1784, via Google Books, accessed May 27, 2019, <>.
[4] Anonymous, 'Hint to the Captains of Ships to Provide Against Accidents,' The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 29, London: D. Henry, 1759, page 58, New York Public Library via HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed May 27, 2019, <;view=1up;seq=70>.

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Thursday, March 28, 2019

Poseidon’s Curse

Today's guest post comes from Christopher P. Magra, Professor of Early American History at the University of Tennessee and an expert on naval impressment. His new book Poseidon's Curse: British Naval Impressment and Atlantic Origins of the American Revolution is available for sale now, and British Tars: 1740-1790 readers can get 20% by following this link.

Cambridge University Press published my new book, Poseidon’s Curse, which explains the longue durĂ©e, semi-global dimensions of the American Revolution. I spent ten years doing archival research for this book. I hope you will give it a read. In the meantime, enjoy the abstract below.
Parliament made it legal for the British navy to press mariners and ships into military service in North America in 1775. A 1708 law banned naval impressment in this part of Britain’s seaborne empire. But, this ban had become 'prejudicial' to the British navy, as it 'proved an Encouragement to Mariners belonging thereto to desert in Time of War, or at the Appearance of a War, to the British Plantations on the said Continent of America.'[1] The British navy was short on volunteers throughout the early modern era. Desertion remained an additional manning problem. And the navy needed commercial ships for troop transport, message delivery, and special assignment, as well.

News of the 1775 legislation spread very quickly across the Atlantic Ocean.  American newspapers printed detailed descriptions.[2] Colonial readers learned that the Crown and Parliament had expressed their willingness to do everything in their power to force Americans to comply with the new law. 

William Tudor, a Harvard graduate who practiced law in John Adams’ office in Boston, described the sensation the impressment legislation caused in Massachusetts. In Tudor’s words, the new law 'had almost as great an Effect on the People in this Town as the Arrival of the Port Bill produced.' The Boston Port Bill, one of the Intolerable Acts, or Coercive Acts, closed the large American seaport to all commercial traffic in 1774 in response to the Boston Tea Party. The new law, Tudor believed, generated a great deal of anxiety in the maritime community. 'The Women are terrify'd,' Tudor wrote, about the fate of their mariner husbands, sons, and brothers. Local merchants were 'dispirited' about the fate of their commercial shipping and perishable cargo. Tudor expected 'The Gloom which at present prevails will go off in a Day or two,' as it had in the wake of the Port Act. He believed Americans would stir from their shock and take action to forcibly resist the new impressment law. 'Americans may now show whether they deserve Freedom,' Tudor wrote, 'by discovering Resolution' and resisting 'Slavery.'[3]

Tudor’s law partner, John Adams, was serving as a representative from Massachusetts in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Adams referred to the 1775 legislation as the 'Piratical Act; or Plundering Act,' as it robbed Americans of maritime employment and profits from overseas trade. Adams also saw it as the straw that broke the camel’s back. He believed it was responsible for 'sundering' America from the British Empire 'I think, forever.'[4]

Adams served on the 'Committee of Five' that drafted the American Declaration of Independence in 1776. The committee thought fit to include naval impressment as a grievance in this momentous document. Congress approved the grievance. It stated that the British government 'constrained our fellow Citizens.' These citizens had been 'taken Captive on the high Seas.' They were forced to serve in the British navy at the start of the Revolutionary War, and they were made 'to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.'[5]

There was an immediate context for this grievance. By 30 June 1775, there were twenty-nine British warships stationed off the North America coast between Florida and Nova Scotia. These warships carried a total of 584 guns and 3,915 men.[6] By 9 October 1775, another six warships patrolled North America’s coastline in an effort to suppress rebellion along the waterfront.[7] The commanding officer, Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, resorted to impressment to accomplish this mission. At Boston on 20 February 1775, he explained to the Admiralty, 'Necessity obliges me, contrary to my inclination, to use this method to man the King’s Ships.' He reported that 'The Ships with me at Boston are beginning to be sickly, they have lately lost several men by deaths, and as desertions happen, notwithstanding the utmost care is taken to prevent it,' he had ordered press gangs to do their work along the eastern seaboard.[8] Americans that read and heard the Declaration would have understood that Graves’ gangs had taken men and made them fight their neighbors.

There also existed a longer and geographically expansive context for this grievance. The British navy had been pressing mariners and commercial vessels around the Atlantic Ocean for over one hundred years by 1776. It had 'constrained' a lot of people, not just Americans, and not only maritime laborers. The Atlantic approach to studying the past that I use in Poseidon’s Curse helps me bring this deeper context to the surface.[9]
The Liberty of the Subject, by James Gillray, 1779, National Portrait Gallery (UK)
There were Britons living and working along the coast of Africa, in the British Isles, in the Caribbean, and on the eastern seaboard of North America who resented the ways in which press gangs constrained their economic freedoms. Maritime entrepreneurs, including merchants and ship owners who charged freight rates to transport goods, believed the state appropriation of ships and maritime laborers posed a threat to profit margins. There was a great deal of profit to be made in shipping lucrative commodities such as dried, salted cod, slaves, sugar, and tobacco long-distance to overseas markets. Impressment elevated labor costs, which shrunk profit margins. It also delayed, disrupted, and destroyed maritime commerce. The requisitioning of privately owned commercial vessels led to property damage and temporary and permanent forms of property loss. Members of the British Atlantic business community closely linked the preservation of their private property rights and their ability to maximize profits with their political liberty.

By the eighteenth century, employment options and earnings had become vital to maritime laborers and their families. They viewed them as necessary survival mechanisms in a capitalist system. They may not have loved them, any more than they had love for competitive labor markets, but they found them necessary. Moreover, they associated these economic freedoms with their political liberty. Impressment curtailed these freedoms without providing workers with a viable alternative. The American Revolution was moored in this deep and wide sea of shared resentment.

Having said this, Americans felt especially constrained. Though press gangs were most active in Great Britain, they were the most highly regulated there. The British government established the Impress Service for coastal communities in the British Isles during the eighteenth century to ameliorate the harsh effects of naval impressment. The Admiralty stationed regulating captains in coastal communities and set up rendezvous points to carefully process pressed men. This was explicitly done to limit the threat to Britons’ liberties. Between 1746 and 1775, Parliament permanently banned impressment on and around Newfoundland and Caribbean island colonies to encourage commerce and safeguard economic and political freedoms in these areas. Americans were jealous about the encouragement the British government bestowed upon other colonists in the Atlantic World. They were also particularly anxious about the implications of this imperial favor. They feared that it meant Americans would support the expansion and maintenance of Britain’s seaborne empire at their own expense. There were Americans who believed they were being unduly constrained, while others were allowed to prosper. The Revolution was moored in these particular concerns that were unique to North America.

The American Revolution was not solely the result of frontier land disputes or even just events in North America. There was demand for naval protection along the four corners of the Atlantic Ocean and across shipping lanes. The British navy pressed mariners and commercial vessels into military service to provide this protection. The British government deemed military force necessary for the elaboration and maintenance of overseas colonies and trade. The state appropriation of free labor and private property generated widespread resentment among business owners and workers. Britons on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean wanted the benefits of a seaborne empire without too many costs. They sent anti-impressment signals to Parliament. The British government decided to favor certain Atlantic interests over others. These decisions incentivized the behavior of stakeholders who defended the imperial system. They motivated colonists who were not beneficiaries to want to leave that system. Events on and around the Atlantic World shaped the contours of the imperial crisis.

The state appropriation of free labor and private property played an important role in the decline of Britain’s seaborne empire. These constraints helped convince colonists that there were imperial chains that needed to be cast off. Colonial American merchants and mariners resented the ways in which press gangs negatively impacted their living standards and their economic freedoms. A mid-eighteenth-century shift in Britain’s blue water policy and impressment legislation in 1708, 1746, and 1775 converted this resentment into rebellion.

Alexis de Tocqueville captured Americans’ sense of being constrained within Britain’s seaborne empire. He wrote, 'The Declaration of Independence broke the commercial restrictions which united them to England, and gave a fresh and powerful stimulus to their maritime genius.'[10] Of course, Americans still had work to do to free themselves from British naval impressment. It took the War of 1812 to finally lift that constraint.

[1] 15 George III, c. 31.
[2] See, for example, Boston Evening Post, 3 April 1775 and 10 April 1775.  
[3] William Tudor to John Adams, 4 April 1775. Papers of John Adams, Digital Edition, Massachusetts Historical Society,  
[4] American Archives, documents of the American Revolution, 1774-76,, Series 4, Vol. 5, 472.
[5] The Declaration of Independence,  
[6] “Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to General Thomas Gage,” Boston, June 30, 1775, William Bell Clark, et al., eds.  Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1964-), (hereafter NDAR) Vol. 1, 785.
[7] The National Archives, Kew, England, Records of the Colonial Office, 5/122/35.
[8] NDAR I:98.  Vice Admiral Samuel Graves to Admiralty Secretary Philip Stephens, 20 February 1775.  For evidence that Graves continued to order the captains under his command to press Americans, see NDAR I:177.  On 24 June 1775 the Admiralty acknowledged “that many of your Ships are considerably short of their Compliment of Men.  And that there is no likelihood of making up the deficiency by Volunteers.”  They sent Graves press warrants “empowering the Officers of the Ships of your Squadron to Impress such a Number of Seamen & Seafaring Men as may be necessary to complete their respective Compliments.  The Clause of the Act of the 6th of Queen Anne which forbid the impressing of Seamen in America being repealed by an Act passed in the last Session of Parliament as you will see by the enclosed Copy which I send you.”  NDAR I:492.  Stephens to Graves, 24 June 1775.
[9] Other Atlantic approaches to the study of the American Revolution include Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (Yale University Press, 2015); David Armitage, “The First Atlantic Crisis: The American Revolution,” in Philip D. Morgan and Molly A. Warsh, eds., Early North America in Global Perspective (New York: Routledge, 2014): 309-336; David Armitage, “The American Revolution in Atlantic Perspective,” in Nicholas Canny and Philip Morgan, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the Atlantic World, 1450-1850 (Oxford University Press, 2011): 516-532; Thomas Bender, Laurent Dubois, and Richard Rabinowitz, eds., Revolution!: The Atlantic World Reborn (New York: Giles, 2011); and Wim Klooster, Revolutions In the Atlantic World (New York University Press, 2009). None of this scholarship on the origins of the Revolution focuses on naval matters.
[10] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy In America, edited by Bruce Frohnen (New York: Gateway Editions, 2003), 333.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Shipboard Mess: Food, Drink, and Camaraderie

Deail from 'A view of the Endeavour's watering place in the Bay of Good Success, Tierra del Furgo, with natives. January 1769,'
Alexander Buchan, 1769, British Library via Wikimedia Commons
Everyone's got to eat. It's as universal as death and sleep.

At meal time, sailors divided themselves into messes. Each mess generally consisted of six men, who divided a set portion of food among themselves and sometimes cooked it. In William Falconer's 1780 An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, his definition of the 'mess' is immediately followed by the definition for 'mess-mate':
MESS, a particular company of the officers or crew of a ship, who eat, drink, and associate together.
MESS-MATE, a companion or associate of the above division.[1]
In his memoirs, William Spavens gave a detailed description of life at sea and included an explanation of the mess system:
The Steward makes a fresh mess-book every month, so that the men can change their mess-mates, as often as they please; and when he serves their beef or pork, he calls forward one day and backward the next, to give them an equal chance of time to eat it.[2]
Messmates were self selecting. This meant that sailors chose which companions to spend time with, and which they could avoid. By giving sailors the opportunity to change their messmates about once a month, officers gave them the agency to reduce shipboard conflict.

For common sailors, messmates were family. Olaudah Equiano devoted pages of his Interesting Narrative to one of his closest friends. A young enslaved African held aboard the Aetna in 1760, Equiano's upbringing, education, ambitions, and beliefs were entirely different from his European shipmates. Among them, 'there was also one Daniel Queen, about forty years of age, a man very well educated, who messed with me on board this ship.' Queen taught Equiano how to shave and read, and gave him instruction in Christianity.
In short, he was like a father to me; and some even used to call me after his name; they also styled me the black Christian. Indeed I almost loved him with the affection of a son. Many things I have denied myself that he might have them; and when I used to play at marbles or any other game, and won a few halfpence, or got any little money, which I sometimes did, for shaving any one, I used to buy him a little sugar or tobacco, as far as my stock of money would go. He used to say, that he and I never should part; and that when our ship was paid off, as I was as free as himself or any other man on board, he would instruct me in his business, by which I might gain a good livelihood. This gave me new life and spirits; and my heart burned within me, while I thought the time long till I obtained my freedom.[3]
This relationship was beyond the difficult to define affinity that sailors harbored for the enslaved. The mess system enabled strong relationships that provided an emotional support network for sailors that was otherwise unattainable at sea. In her 1765 memoirs Catherine Jemmat, daughter of Rear Admiral John Yeo, related a 'humorous' tale of a sailor contemplating death:
The poor fellow begg'd to speak with his messmate, who went to him, and he told him he should soon be dead, and he would leave him his pay which was due.[4]
Jemmat's tale was fictional, but this sort of comfort and care was common among the brotherhood of mariners. Finding a spot in a welcoming mess was essential to social survival at sea. In Hannah Snell's authorized 1750 biography The Female Soldier, the ghost writer states that 'as she was very tractable, sprightly, and wiling, she soon was caressed by her messmates, for whom she would very readily either wash or mend their linen, or stand cook, as occasion required.'[5] By leveraging her skills learned ashore as a woman to relieve men of their more feminine tasks, Snell carved out a place in the mess and assured herself a niche in the Wooden World.

Messmates were central to sailors' lives. So much so that perhaps the strange practice of frying watches was an extension of the mess ashore. The ceremonial practice of frying watches was a communal activity in which a small group of sailors would participate, and that small group was most likely a mess.
Detail from Sailors Carousing and Frying Watches, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art
The social benefits of the mess system also encouraged the socially toxic aspects of cliques. When Jacob Nagle's vessel took aboard soldiers, the redcoats were put on a parallel mess system. The japes of the mariners combined with the natural difficulties of eating afloat to make the voyage a miserable one for the poor soldiers:
When the pudings ware nearly done, before dinner, in the coppers, they would send a line from the fore top, and one hook on a large pudding, and up it would fly in an instant, and in less than five minutes it would be devoured. When they piped to dinner, purhaps six in a mess come to look for there pudding, had nothing to eat, though if detected they would be punished. In the meantime the poor soldiers ware 6 men upon 4 mens allowance. When going for their peas at dinner, with a large bowl full, and the ship rolling, away they went into the see scuppers, and the peas gone for the whole mess. There was no pity, but all hands laughing at each other. The seamen would go to the steward and get a bowlful of oatmeal and make a cake of it and bake it in the hot ashes till it was done and sell it to the poor fellows for six mens allowance of wine, which was three pints.[6]
These cliques sometimes manipulated the mess system to their advantage. This may sometimes have been mostly above board appeals to those in charge of preparing meals, which may have been the case with sailmaker William Bicknell of the frigate Richmond, who named the ship's cook in his 1764 will.[7] Sailors could also more directly game the system draw more rations than they should have been allowed. When rising through the ranks of the Connecticut Navy ship Oliver Cromwell, Christopher Prince earned the captain's trust by revealing to the ship's clerk how his shipmates were cheating the ship:
I then pointed to him from his own book the names of several heads of messes which I knew was not complete in their numbers, and he had granted to every mess six rations. We then went to one which he had granted six rations, and he had but one beside himself. There was four rations per day lost in one mess. He then asked him to name all in his mess as he had done to him before. 'There is Tom and myself is two, and there is John, 3, Josephes, 4, John Josephes Joe, 5, and Portuguese Joe, 5.' His name was John Josephes Joe, a Portuguese. He added four names to himself when there was but two in the mess...A similar deception was found in several of the other messes but not to that extent.[8]
Generally, a mess would send a single member to collect the food for the entire mess, which may have been shared out of a single bowl or plate. Sailors appear to have individually owned their utensils, as several excavations have turned up pewter spoons carved with the initials of common sailors.[9] Given the size of staved tankards from the period, these may also have been shared among the mess.
Detail including staved tankard from The Wapping Landlady, Francis Hayman, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The communal and representational nature of the mess enabled manipulation, and officers had to find new ways to combat them. Prince was soon promoted to purser and steward, and instituted a system to verify the identity of the sailors who came to receive their rations for the day: 'I would not allow no man anything to eat or drink without a numbered ticket, with every man's name in the mess signed by the clerk.'[10]

Officers also had to prevent theft between the messes. The cliques created by the mess system encouraged rivalries between them, which might contribute to shipboard conflict. The Massachusetts privateer Defence, sunk in 1779, appears to have instituted a system to combat this. Shelley Owen Smith included an illustration of mess tags in the 1986 doctorate dissertation The Defence: Life at Sea as Reflected in an Archaeological Assemblage from an Eighteenth Century Privateer.[11]
David Switzer described the find in his article "The Excavation of the Privateer Defence" in the journal Northeast Historical Archaeology:
Small wooden tags found in the galley area also carry initials and markings. Thought at first to be gaming pieces,the tags - some carved to resemble projectile points - are now known to have been used to designate a particular mess section of six or seven seamen. With string a tag was tied to a chunk of meat to be boiled down in the galley stove cauldron with the tag hanging over the side. At mess call, the "captain" of a mess section went to the galley with a kid and by means of the tag identified his portion which was carried back to be shared with his mess mates.[12]
In exploring the mess system, we see the contradictory nature of sailors' social lives. They were intensely personal and nearly familial in their care for one another, but could just as easily victimize anyone outside their overlapping circles of social connection. The mess system allowed sailors to cross incredible gulfs of cultural difference, while at the same time enabling them to take advantage of their shipmates. As with most of the sailors' world, the mess system reveals a contradictory society of conflict and acceptance.

[1] Falconer, William, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, London: T. Cadell, 1780, page 184, University of California Libraries via Internet Archive, accessed March 9, 2019, <>.
[2] Spavens, William, Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens, edited by N.A.M. Rodger, County Somerset: The Bath Press, 2000, page 107.
[3] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, pages 91-92; Carretta states that the pay book of the Aetna that 'Daniel Queen' was listed as 'Daniel Quin, able seaman', footnote page 266.
[4] Jemmat, Catherine, The Memoirs of Mrs. Catherine Jemmat, Volume II, London: publisher unknown, 1765, page 88, via Google Books, accessed March 12, 2019, <>.
[5]  Snell, Hannah, The Female Soldier; Or, The Surprising Life and Adventures of Hannah Snell, London: R. Walker, 1750, in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008, page 10.
[6] Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, page 73.
[7] 'Will of William Bicknell, Master Sailmaker of His Majesty’s Ship Richmond,' UK National Archives, 22 June 1764, PRO 11/899/393.
[8] Prince, Christopher, The Autobiography of a Yankee Mariner: Christopher Prince and the American Revolution, edited by Michael J. Crawford, Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2002, page 129.
[9] e.g. Bingeman, John H., The First Invincible (1747-1758): Her Excavations (1980-1991), Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010, page 164-166; 'The Excavation of the Privateer Defence,' Northeast Historical Archaeology, Volume 12, 1983, page 46, via Binghampton University, The Open Repository,  accessed March 9, 2019, <>.
[10] Prince, Autobiography, 134.
[11] Owen Smith, Shelley, The Defence: Life at Sea as Reflected in an Archaeological Assemblage from an Eighteenth Century Privateer, doctorate dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1986, page 63.
[12] Switzer, 'Excavation of the Privateer Defence,' page 48.