Sunday, July 1, 2018

Book Review: Warships in the Age of Sail

Two things I want to get out of the way right off the bat: I highly recommend this series, and it is not for everyone.

Rif Winfield has done a phenomenal job with the shockingly huge body of information collected into three series. The most well known and most relevant to my work is his British Warships in the Age of Sail. Winfield catalogs every warship of the British Royal Navy. This effort was broken up over four volumes: 1603-17141714-17921793-1817, and 1817-1873, all of which are currently published by Seaforth.
In his second series, Winfield was joined by Stephen S. Roberts to document French warships. Published by the Naval Institute Press, this series consists of two volumes: 1626-1786 and 1786-1862. The latest in this series is a volume on the Dutch navy, focusing on 1600-1714, and is the first in which Rif Winfield had no hand, being written by James Bender.

All of these books are of excellent quality, but are hyper focused. If you are expecting an narrative crammed with yardarm to yardarm sea battles, you'll be disappointed. These are strictly reference volumes, preceded by a brief history of the conflicts in which the warships took part, often reducing entire wars to a single paragraph. Each ship's tonnage, armament, designer, and sometimes a bit of extra information is described in a few short sentences before a rapid fire list of information on their career. These include where she served, what vessels were taken, and how she was decommissioned, captured, or lost.

Think of this as an encyclopedia of warships.

This is very useful to those of us who need a handy and quick reference to a variety of vessels. The citations plentiful, but require a bit of practice to master. Such a body work does not come cheap, and these are pretty pricey books. But if you need a set of top notch reference books to explore the careers of warships in the age of sail, there's really no better source.

Monday, June 18, 2018


Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, John Greenwood, c. 1752-1758, Saint Louis Art Museum.
Shanties aren't really a thing in the eighteenth century.

Hear me out.

I love shanties. Back when I worked at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, I spent many a weekend singing from the bow of the Surprise and the poop of the Star of India, and attended more than my fair share of their Sea Chantey Festivals. Go to the next one on August 26, you won't regret it.

But we also have to understand that the eighteenth century is not the nineteenth, and that not all maritime traditions are as immemorial as we think they are.

There are many definitions and spellings of the term 'shanties.' Richard Runciman Terry gives a fairly narrow definition in his The Shanty Book:
Shanties were labour songs sung by sailors of the merchant service only while at work, and never by way of recreation.[1]
William Main Doerflinger in his 1990 Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman gives a more generous definition that allows for the inclusion of naval seamen and the use of shanties for recreation:
Shanties are the work songs of the sailor of square-rigger days.[2]
What these definitions have in common is the use of shanties to coordinate work. There is scant evidence for that in the eighteenth century.

All of the surviving eighteenth century songs that I've examined (and sung) are of forms typical of the era at large and not a maritime working context specifically. Period songs with a maritime theme are often based on existing tunes that are not explicitly work songs. As George Carey pointed out in his introduction to A Sailor's Songbag, a collection of fifty seven songs collected by an American sailor in the 1770's, only six 'deal with the sea, a fact that dispels the sometimes stereotyped notion that sailors only sang about their profession.'[3] Further, no sailor of the eighteenth century writes of work songs. Stan Hughill in his 1961 Shanties from the Seven Seas makes mention of the lack of sources referring to shanties as such in the eighteenth century.[4] Doerflinger, in his Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, argues that shanties go much further back, but fell into 'comparative disuse during the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.'[5] Paul Gilje, in his very entertaining To Swear Like a Sailor, also states that 'few commentators mentioned shanties until the 1830s. By then they seem to have become widespread.'[6]

I do not argue that there was no singing on the ship. Samuel Kelly suggests there was a time and a place for music in relating a humorous anecdote in which an army band took up their instruments at an inopportune time aboard a transport in 1783:
At daylight the [regimental] band assembled to play a tune on the quarter-deck (I imagine from custom, or regimental orders), this aroused the fury of our master (who probably had not yet forgotten the danger of the night, and being still near the rocks), was astonished at this inconsideration. He therefore with the speaking trumpet in his hand began to lay it on the heads of the musicians with great violence, which soon dispersed the harmony.[7]
Of course, those were not sailors, they were using instruments rather than their voice alone, and they violated the officer's domain of the quarter deck. Seamen were probably more attune to the appropriate time for singing.

Christopher Hawkins, many decades later, remembered crewing an American privateer schooner as she chased down a fat British brig in 1777:
The second Lieut. took the helm and seemed in command-ordered the boatswain after trimming the sails and the great part of the crew to be seated aft and attend to the singing of some of the crew, (Capt. of Marines).[8]
When Hawkins' crew was later captured by the Royal Navy, they defied the British in song:
Our crew were full of vigour and entertained the crew of the frigate with a number of our patriotic songs. Although entertained the loyalists were by no means pleased. The singing was excellent and its volume was extensive-and yet extremely harsh to the taste of the captors. The guard frequently threatened to fire upon us if the singing was not dispensed with, but their threats availed them not. They only brought forth higher notes and vociferous defiance from the crew. The poetry of which the songs were many of them composed, was of the most cutting sarcasm upon the British and their unhallowed cause. I recollect the last words of each stanza in one song were, "For America and all her sons forever will shine." In these words it seemed to me that all the prisoners united their voices to the highest key, for the harmony produced by the union of two hundred voices must have grated upon the ears of our humane captors in a manner less acceptable than the thunder of heaven. For at the interval of time between the singing of ever song the sentinels would threaten to fire upon us and the officers of the frigate would also admonish with angry words. "Fire and be damn'd" would be the response from perhaps an hundred voices at the same instance. The singing would again be renewed and louder if possible. In this manner the first night was spent.[9]
Hawkins is prone to exaggeration, and this anecdote does give me pause, but music was certainly present in the population of American seamen captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Timothy Connor, held at Forton Prison from 1777 through 1779, kept a collection of songs, numbering fifty seven in all.[10]

British mariners were also fond of music. When John Nicol visited Hawaii in 1785, one of his shipmates earned a place of respect through his singing:
We had a merry facetious fellow on board called Dickson. He sung pretty well. He squinted and the natives mimicked him. Abenoue, King of Atooi, could cock his eye like Dickson better than any of his subjects. Abenoue called him Billicany, from his often singing 'Rule Britannia'. Abenoue learned the air and the words as near as he could pronounce them. It was an amusing thing to hear the king and Dickson sing. Abenoue loved him better than any man in the ship, and always embraced him every time they met on shore or in the ship, and began to sing, 'Tule Billicany, Billicany Tule,' etc.[11]
There is a difference between songs, shanties, and chants. When it came to working tunes, chants appear to have been the choice.

Ebenezer Fox, a young man who served aboard a privateer and was held aboard the prison ship Jersey during the Revolution, referred to work chants in his memoirs. He wrote of the sailors using 'yo-hoi-ho heave' in tossing a young sailor into the water for a swim, and in specifically referencing use of the windlass 'We then weighed anchor, for the last time, with a joyful "Yeo-a-hoi," and set sail for our native land.'[12]

Fox's memoir must be read critically, as he was writing many decades after the event, and there are inconsistencies in his text. The latter quote, however, falls in line with another primary source.

William Falconer's 1769 An Universal Dictionary of the Marine was a seminal work, and though he does include fanciful fabrications, his book is very helpful. In Falconer's entry on 'Windlass' (an identical entry in his 1780 edition is included below) he writes that when sailors are using handspikes in the device to weigh anchor, 'the sailors must all rise once upon the windlass, and, fixing their bars therein, give a sudden jerk at the same instant, in which movement they are regulated by a sort of song or howl produced by one of their number.' Taken with Fox's account of weighing anchor, these sources corroborate each other.
William Falconer, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, The Strand (London) T. Caddell, 1780,
page 338, University of California Libraries via Internet Archive.
Falconer also included an entry in his appendix on French terms for 'UN, deux, troi' which relates the use of a chant of sorts to coordinate work, including a simple English variant.
William Falconer, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, London: T. Caddell, 1769,
page 491, Library of the Marine Corps via Internet Archive.
This sort of coordinated chanting was also related by the American Reverend Ammi Robbins, who experienced that familiar frustration of not being able to get a song out of his head:
The boatmen sing a very pretty air to 'Row the boat, row' which ran in my head when half asleep, nor could I put it entirely out of mind amid all our gloom and terror, with the water up to my knees as I lay in the boat.[13]
None of this evidence indicates what we think of as shanties with chorus, verse, or a narrative. In the nineteenth century there was a combination of ballads and chants to create shanties. It is very likely that there was a strong African influence on the creation of shanties, particularly by the enslaved people of the New World.

There has also been some projecting backward, which is very common in the study of maritime history. A belief has run throughout history that sailors don't really change. Whether it is in their religious beliefs, language, or dress, people then and now often imagine sailors are slow to change, and that traditions of the sea are immemorial. As such, ballads and songs that existed at the time are cast as sea shanties when that was not their intention.

Sailors did sing. When we use the term 'shanties,' we imply a specific musical tradition of work songs that was not yet fully formed in the Atlantic world.

[1] Terry, Richard Runciman, The Shanty Book: Sailor Shanties with Lyrics and Music, ebook: CreateSpace, 2014, page 10
[2] Doerflinger, William Main, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, revised edition, Glenwood, Illinois: Meyerbooks, 1990, page 1.
[3] Timothy Connor, A Sailor's Songbag: An American Rebel in an English Prison, 1777-1779, George C. Carey ed., Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1976 page 16.
[4] Hughill, Stan, ed., Shanties From the Seven Seas: Shipboard Work-songs and Songs Used as Work-songs from the Great Days of Sail, London: Routledge & Kegen Paul, 1961, page 5.
[5] Doerflinger, Songs of the Sailor, page xiv.
[6] Gilje, Paul A., To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850, New York: Cambridge University, 2016, page 170.
[7] 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 78.
[8] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 14.
[9] Ibid., pages 63-64.
[10] A Sailor's Songbag.
[11] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 83.
[12] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, pages 190 and 224.
[13] Robbins, Rev. Ammi R., Journal of the Rev. Ammi R. Robbins: A Chaplain in the American Army, in the Northern Campaign of 1776, New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1850, page 18, Library of Congress via the Internet Archive.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Untitled Print, 1762

Untitled print, Paul Sandby, 1762, British Museum.

Thanks again to follower Adam Hodges-LeClaire for pointing this piece out to me.

The curators of the British Museum, in the catalog entry for this piece, believe this to be Sandby's reply to William Hogarth's cartoon The Times. The public debate around the peace negotiations to end the Seven Years War got hot in the press, and Hogarth's Times was copied and answered several times by other artists. Sandby's is possibly the most artistically sophisticated of these responses.

There's a lot going on here, and for more on the political message and the various figures, I do strongly recommend reading the curators' catalog entry.

As always, I'm going to focus on the tars in this cartoon. In the frame on the left and out of frame on the right sailors bookend the piece.
Clutching a broken anchor and covered in cobwebs, a sailor and a grenadier stand atop the scroll outside the left frame of the cartoon. They are juxtaposed against a Scotsman beating a legless man with his own wooden leg on the right scroll. The broken anchor is obvious enough, but the cobwebs suggest disuse, which is hard to argue for the Royal Navy in the final year of the Seven Years War. Fighting a war on multiple continents meant that even with the French Navy shattered by the numerous victories of 1759 the British fleet was stretched across the globe and constantly sailing from one ocean to the next. Perhaps Sandby intended this to be a warning of things to come?

This sailor wears a reversed cocked hat with a narrow brim over his bob wig. His handkerchief is worn over the jacket, but the style is indiscernible. The jacket itself is tucked into his wide legged trousers, and may be intended as a frock, as I can't make out any opening on the front. In any case, the jacket ends in slash cuffs. To emphasize his poverty, the sailor has a patch over his left knee. The trousers end about the bottom of the calf.
According to the curators: 'At the extreme right, Edward, Duke of York, Admiral of the Blue, wearing sailor's trousers, and followed by another naval officer, climbs over a blank inn-sign of the Patriot Arms to come to the assistance of his uncle Cumberland.'

His uniform is decidedly that of an officer, and the trousers may be intended to make his affiliation with the sea apparent. I disagree wit the curators assessment of the man standing behind him. The handkerchief over his jacket and the stick in his hand are the marks of common seamen, not officers. Neither of these objects are present on the Duke of York himself. The sailor also wears a bob wig.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Revengeful Stick

Detail from British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at Louisbourg,
Louis Pierre Boitard, 1755, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
There are a lot of things I didn't expect when I started this website back in 2014. When studying depictions of sailors' slop clothes, I was surprised by the number of open cuffs, bob wigs, cocked hats worn reversed, and the variety of handkerchief styles. Among the most prolific accouterments of the sailor in artwork of my era is the stick.

A question arose from seeing so many representations of sailors and sticks: why? What purpose does the sailor's stick serve?

Now that I have combed through court records, memoirs, and especially period newspapers, it is my belief that the primary purpose of the sailor's stick was as a weapon.

That is not to say the sailor only ever used his stick as a weapon. Mariners are often depicted dancing with sticks.
Detail from Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, John Greenwood, c. 1752-1758, Saint Louis Art Museum.
Detail from The Sailor's Fleet Wedding Entertainment,
M. Cooper, 1747, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
Detail from The Wapping Landlady, engraved from the Original Painting in Vaux Hall Gardens,
published by Carrington Bowles, 1743, British Museum.
Deatil from Greenwich Hill or Holyday Gambols,
William Humphrey, 1770's, British Museum.
Just as often, sailors are depicted bearing sticks in courtship. Including the very not safe for work print that accompanied a 1770 edition of the erotic novel Fanny Hill. Tame examples of sticks present in courtship are depicted below.
Detail from Jack on a Cruise, M. Darly, 1781, British Museum.
Detail from The Modern Harlot's Progress, or Adventures of Harriet Heedless,
Carington Bowles, 15 May 1780, British Museum.
Jack got safe into Port with his Prize, Robert Sayer, 1780, British Museum.
However, I have not yet found any written evidence of sticks being used for any purpose other than violence. This may simply be because sticks were common enough to pass without mention unless there was an exceptional circumstance that required they be mentioned, though the startling lack of any other source is stark. Further, sailors are very rarely depicted carrying sticks at sea or aboard ship, and this absence may be explained by that tool being primarily a weapon, and therefore discouraged or unnecessary afloat.

A hint of the purpose of sticks is in the memoirs of Olaudah Equiano. He faced the usual dangers that accompanied a life at sea: drowning, fire, death in battle, corporal punishment, and the like. As a black man sailing Caribbean and North American waters, Equiano was also subject to racial dangers like attempted kidnapping:
One day, while I was a little way out of the town of Savannah [Georgia], I was beset by two white men, who meant to play their usual tricks with me in the way of kidnapping. As soon as these men accosted me, one of them said to the other, 'This is the very fellow we are looking for that you lost:' and the other swore immediately that I was the identical person. On this they made up to me, and were about to handle me; but I told them to be still and keep off; for I had seen those kind of tricks played upon other free blacks, and they must not think to serve me so. At this they paused a little, and one said to the other—it will not do; and the other answered that I talked too good English. I replied, I believed I did; and I had also with me a revengeful stick equal to the occasion; and my mind was likewise good. Happily however it was not used; and, after we had talked together a little in this manner, the rogues left me.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, London: T. Wikins,
1789, pages 72-73, University of Michigan via HathiTrust Digital Library.
Equiano's use of the stick was for self defense, and he was far from the only one. When an unnamed sailor from the Hastings was accosted by a highwayman, the blustering tar declared 'that he expected some Broadsides before he surrendered' and later struck the highwayman 'on the Head with his Stick, which so stunned the Fellow, that he fell from his Horse.'
The Derby Mercury, January 20, 1748, Page 4.
The use of the stick for personal defense is alluded to in a print depicting the murder of a midshipman from the Wager during the sailors' difficult time ashore after their vessel wrecked. As Captain Cheap shoots Midshipman Henry Cozens, a small group of sailors charges toward the sound of the pistol, sticks in hand.
Detail from A Representation of Capt Cheap, Commander of the ship Wager, Shooting Mr. Cozens his Midshipman, artist unknown, published 1745 in A voyage to the South-seas, and to many other parts of the world, from 1740 to 1744, by an officer of the fleet.
In another case, two sailors jumped a third on the road and attempted to rob him. Both attackers resorted to striking their victim 'with a bludgeon' and 'a stick.' Despite the onslaught, 'by his Knife and Walking Stick, he defended himself so bravely, that they retreated with great precipitation, without their booty.'
The Derby Mercury, November 17, 1749, page 3.
In the above anecdote we see sailors using the stick both for offensive and defensive purposes, but the sources available lean heavily toward the stick as an offensive weapon. In 1758, a sailor used his stick to beat his wife for infidelity, a shocking crime for which he was incarcerated.
Jackson's Oxford Journal, August 12, 1758, page 1.
The use of sticks in domestic violence is echoed in a possibly apocryphal tale from 1790, a sailor saves his unfaithful wife by beating her lover with 'a large oak stick.'
The Public Advertiser, July 30, 1790, Page 3.
This scene is repeated in the comic opera Thomas and Sally, and so depicted in this print that accompanied the score of that play.
Plate from 'Thomas and Sally or, the Sailor's Return. A musical entertainment in two acts and in verse,'
author Isaac Bickerstaffe, artist unknown, 1770, Internet Archive.
On a larger scale, seamen would use their sticks in riots and brawls. In a trial at the Old Bailey in 1761, a number of sailors produced sticks in a tavern.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 05 June 2018),
October 1761, trial of Stephen Dane (t17611021-30).
In October of 1763, a riot broke out in Shoreditch, and the sailors in the mob struck at the soldiers called to suppress them 'with their sticks.'
"The Late Riot in Shoredtich," The Beauties of All Magazines Selected for the Year 1763,
Volume 2, London: T. Waller, 1763, page 509, via Google Books.
Sailors are also depicted as wielding sticks in the riot on the Strand in 1749.
Detail from The Mob attempting to pull down Peter Woods house, Unknown Artist, 1749, British Museum.
The sailor in Philip Dawe's Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man is also armed with a stick, and is one of the most prominent figures in the American mob depicted there.
Detail from The Bostonian's Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering,
attributed to Philip Dawe, published by Sayer and Bennett, 1774, John Carter Brown Library.
The rioting mess of shipmates who rescue the woman of ill repute from the law in John Collet's A Rescue, or Tars Triumphant also bear sticks.
A Rescue, or the Tars Triumphant, John Collet, 1767, Open Art Collection.
At times the violence that sailors wrought with their sticks was celebrated. Increasingly during the Seven Years War and especially during the American Revolutionary War, sailors were used as personifications of Britain. And so their sticks came to have political meaning as well. When sailors forced their way onto the field in their enthusiasm to engage the French during the Battle on the Plains of Abraham, the story was repeated in several newspapers. These Georgian journalists were particularly impressed that the sailors were so eager despite 'some having cutlasses in their hands, others sticks, and some nothing at all.'
"Behaviour of the brave Tars at Quebec." The Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. VI,
March 1762, page 135, via Google Books.
In 1781, a Mr. Churchill penned a metaphorical ballad in which the sailor's 'trusty oak stick' was used to beat down the French and those that would shelter them.
"Song 421. Written by Mr. Churchill." The Vocal Magazine; or, Compleat British Songster, London: Harrison and Co., 1781,  page 112, New York Public Library via HathiTrust Digital Library.
The theme of the sailor striking at personifications of Britain's enemies is quite present in cartoons of the latter half of the eighteenth century. A pair of sailors bearing sticks have struck a hard blow against a stereotypical Spaniard in Cruikshank's 1790 Political Sparring.
Detail from Political Sparring, Isaac Cruikshank, 1790, British Museum.
William Wells drew a sailor strangling a personification of the Dutch in 1783.
Detail from Proclamation of Peace, William Wells, 1783, British Museum.
And in a poorly engraved cartoon by Thomas Colley, a British sailor watches over his French prisoners while brandishing his stick.
Detail from The Ville de Paris, sailing for Jamaica, or Rodney triumphant,
Thomas Colley, 1782, British Museum.
For attack and defense, the sailor carried a stick with him ashore. As a symbol of violence borne by the personification of Britain, it became an extension of Britain's might. In reality, it was used for the sort of nasty brawling that sailors were (rightly or wrongly) notorious for.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Captain Silver Fist

A while back I read James Tormey's The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton’s Commodore James Barron and His Fleet. It's an inoffensive pop history, though there are few notes and even fewer primary sources. Entertaining, and a good introduction to a topic that has been little explored.
Throughout his book, Tormey drops references to a Virginia Navy captain nicknamed 'Silverfist:'
Virginia in early 1776 was on its way to creating a navy. It required men, ships and supplies. There were many capable leaders available among the sea captains and mates of its prewar mercantile seamen. One of the most unusual of these officers was Thomas Herbert, son of John Herbert, a ship builder from Hampton. Herbert had lost his left hand, which he had replaced with a prosthesis made of silver. Unsurprisingly, he also acquired the nickname "Silverfist."[1]
Tormey's citation for this includes a typo, but after tracking down the source I found it to include Herbert's role as First Lieutenant on the Virginia Navy schooner Liberty and nothing about his supposed nickname.[2] Such a superhero title (there is a comic book series about the American Revolutionary War called Pistolfist) struck me as unlikely. What a silly, pirate-esque thing to call someone in the eighteenth century. It seemed so ridiculously Robert Louis Stevenson that I simply couldn't countenance it.
I did a bit of digging around. Edward Park mentioned him in the Spring 2002 edition of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, though without citation.[3] C. Leon Harris transcribed a number of primary source documents relating to 'Silverfist' on the Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters website, though he also doesn't state his source for that tidbit.[4] Similarly vague is Robert Armistead Stewart's use of the nickname in his 1934 book The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution.[5]

In the end, it was the immensely helpful Naval Documents of the American Revolution series that gave me the proof I needed. In an October 16, 1777 letter to Philip Stephens, Secretary to the Admiralty, Captain Richard Hughes of the 74-gun Centaur relayed intelligence he had gathered through interrogations of the crew from the American schooner Betsey. This mostly related to American ships in and around Nantes, France. Hughes' intelligence was of vital importance to the Admiralty as France was about to enter the war on the Americans' side. Among those vessels related by Captain Hughes was 'One Brig, Fitting as a Privateer, Captn Abbott-commonly call'd Silver Fist, expected to sail in a Fortnight.' Editor Michael J. Crawford corrects Captain Hughes in a footnote, denoting that 'Silver Fist' was Thomas Herbert. Perhaps Hughes misheard the American sailors pronunciation of 'Herbert' as 'Abbott.'[6]

This is further supported by post-war pension application records. Many of these were helpfully transcribed by C. Leon Harris, as mentioned above. Proof that Captain Hughes was referring to Captain Herbert comes from the Library of Virginia's Digital Collections, where a digital copy of the original 1791 petition is available.
Legislative Petitions of the General Assembly, 1776-1865, Accession Number 36121,
Box 65, Folder 22, Library of Virginia's Digital Collections
Herbert wrote 'that in the year 1777, your Petitioner Commanded the Brigg Liberty and Made a voyage to Nantz.'[7]
A newspaper advertisement offering a prize Herbert seized during his Nantes voyage.
Virginia Gazette, Purdie, August 21, 1778, page 1.

Further evidence comes from Patricia Holloway's family tree. She cites pension records in the Elizabeth City County Court dating to 1831, in which there are a couple references to the nickname: 'Thomas Herbert, deceased who was called "Silver Fist''' and "Thomas Herbert, who was usually called "Silver Fist."' I have not seen the originals from this pension record, but I also have little reason to doubt it. I will update this if I find the originals.

I was curious as to whether Captain Herbert's prosthesis was actually silver. Knowing nothing about silversmithing or the properties of silver, I turned to Steve Smithers of Stephen Smithers & Son Silversmiths and Restortation.
Though I have not heard of silver being used as a prosthesis before, my feeling is that it would be a very appropriate material for such a purpose. First, silver has excellent anti bacterial properties, and as such would be superb at preventing infection. This was known back in the 18th C. and before. Indeed, silversmith Paul Revere offered dentistry among his many services. And today, silver is used extensively in modern burn creams and antibiotic creams. Secondly, it is a very malleable substance, which can be formed by hammering and soldering into many complex shapes. I'm sure shaping a piece of silver in the form of a fist would be well within the capabilities of many a master silversmith.
It appears that Herbert's prosthesis did little to affect his dexterity. Timothy Abbott, who writes and maintains the Facebook page If I Recollect Right: Rev War Pension Narratives, provided me with more scans of original pension documents. Of particular interest is the one below:

Affidavit of Spivey Wyatt,-Knew Capt Thomas Herbert well, and is under the impression that he served during the whole of the Revolutionary War in the State Navy of Va. as a Captain: on one occasion was associated with him in the land service on a scouting party in Nansemond County, and there saw Capt. Herbert shoot one of the hands who was rowing the boat of a Tory & who was suspected of providing supplies to the enemy.
Every student of history should think critically about secondary sources, and follow the notes where they lead. Now and then you'll be surprised to find truth where you least expect it.

[1] Tormey, James, The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton’s Commodore James Barron and His Fleet, 40-41.
[2] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William James Morgan, ed., Volume 5, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970, page 1299, via Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[3] Park, Edwards, 'Virginia's Very Own Navy,' Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2002, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[4] Harris, C. Leon, 'Pension Application of Thomas Herbert R15006,' Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, May 12, 2015, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[5] Stewart, Robert Armistead, The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution, Richmond: Mitchell & Hotchkiss, page 46-47, 201.
[3] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Michael J. Crawford, ed., Volume 10, Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1996, pages 916-917, via Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[4] Library of Virginia Digital Collections, Legislative Petitions of the General Assembly, 1776-1865, Accession Number 36121, Box 65, Folder 22, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Advance Three Steps Backwards, 1779

Advance Three Steps Backwards, (Word of command the last War by Col._) or the Militia Heroes, published by Matthew Darly, 1779, American Antiquarian Society.
Advance Three Steps Backwards, or the Militia Heroes, published by Matthew Darly, c.1779, British Museum.
Advance Three Steps Backwards, (Word of command the last War by Col._) or the Militia Heroes, published by Matthew Darly, collection unknown.

Thanks to follower Phil Hosea for bringing my attention to this print. I was unable to find the source of the third image here, so if you happen to know where it is from, please let me know!

The rebellion in the American colonies was draining the British. With the entry of the French and Spanish in 1778, the war expanded across the globe and strained the Crown's resources. Threats of invasion of Britain saw a renewed emphasis on militia companies, but it appears that the printer Matthew Darly didn't think much of them.

In this cartoon, Darly skewers the ragtag companies of British militia as inept. Muskets are angled all over the place, and the men of the company are of all sorts of sizes and shapes. The fellow on the far right is a sailor.

He wears a round hat with an upturned brim over a bob wig. A white neckcloth is tucked into his single breasted jacket, which is orange/brown in one coloration, and blue with red cuffs in the others. His petticoat trousers are green in both colored prints, which I don't think I've ever seen before. Perhaps it was the same colorist for both copies, but it is the only consistent coloring aside from the red uniform coats with blue facings that the soldiers in the image wear.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Disappointment - 'Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook'

I often recommend books here on British Tars, but today I'm taking a different tack. Here's a book you should avoid: Martin Dugard's Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook.

Dugard's premise is solid enough. James Cook is a fascinating figure, and his voyages of exploration around the world are the stuff of legends. Sure, there's already plenty of biographies out there about Cook, but another popular history treatment of the man isn't necessarily going to be harmful.

I didn't even make it through chapter three.

Dugard commits wholeheartedly to myth-making and stereotypes of common sailors. Not once in the brief portion I read does he critically assess the tired tropes he so eagerly parrots, and citations are nonexistent.

Some of these are cosmetic, and of only indirect importance to the main subject. He states 'sailors often kept pigtails in place by applying a thin layer of tar. All this gooey, black pitch coating clothes and hair of the era earned the nickname Jack Tar,' and wore 'baggy breeches coated with tar to keep out the wet and cold.' There is no evidence that sailors of the era ever intentionally tarred anything for the purposes of weatherproofing, and it is a well documented fact that until the 1790's, sailors generally wore their hair short.

At times, there are puzzling assertions that it would take a simple Google search to disprove. Dugard argues that Cook was 'the first man in Royal Navy history to rise from the bottom of those ranks [common seamen] to an officer's commission and command.'[1] It is true that it was exceptionally difficult for sailors to rise to a commissioned rank, but to say that Cook was the first man to ever do so is either disingenuous or inexcusably ignorant.

In other cases, Dugard ignores key facts. At one point, he completed skips the idea that landsmen and ordinary seamen exist, jumping straight to able seamen. This is a very strange omission, and one that can only come from complete ignorance of the subject. It is possible, though unlikely, that Dugard intentionally ignored these classes, as it more readily supports his strange argument that 'real sailors' didn't occupy the lower decks. Not only is Dugard wrong, he is incredibly wrong. It would be impossible to sail a ship with nothing but inexperienced, untrained, and ignorant landsmen.

He seems committed to painting the world of the sailor as a terrible and oppressive place, populated by the dregs of society, but isn't committed to doing the research to prove this. When Dugard argues that sailors received an 'annual salary of just one pound sterling,' he's entirely wrong, or perhaps just making it up. For landsmen in the Royal Navy, one of the lowest paid positions one could hold in the Atlantic World, pay was over ten pounds a year.

When Dugard is right, it's by mistake. 'Sailors were surprisingly apathetic about God. They put more faith in omens and apparitions.' He's sort of right, but not totally, and for the wrong reasons. It is true that many observers at the time noted 'the only time a sailor began praying was when is his ship was in danger of sinking,' but this is probably due to the sailors' belief that they could still affect their fate. Only once they were in danger that was beyond their control, then they turned to God. To claim they were uniform atheists shows a profound misunderstanding of their world.

This kind of ignorance can only come from someone disinterested in their own story, or more interested in writing a novel without the need to develop characters, a plot, and dialogue by masking it as a history. Avoid this book.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Why They Went to Sea

Life as a sailor in the eighteenth century was dangerous and difficult. Death, corporal punishment, low pay, and press gangs were only some of the dangers facing the sailor afloat. It is little surprise that desertion was such an epidemic problem for the Royal Navy. Paul Gilje, writing in his book Liberty on the Waterfront, said 'many seamen would agree: aboard ship the work was arduous and they were often miserable.'[1]

In the words of Marcus Rediker:
The tar was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: On one side stood his captain, who was backed by the merchant and royal official, and who held near-dictatorial powers that served a capitalist system rapidly covering the globe; on the other side stood the relentlessly dangerous natural world.[2] 
Why go to sea at all?

Historians have firmly come down on one primary motivation: money. As N.A.M. Rodger wrote in The Wooden World, 'The main part of the answer is undoubtedly economic necessity, or opportunity.'[3] Peter Earle echoed this sentiment among non-naval mariners in his Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, 'Gain was clearly important to many. Sailors were not badly paid and there was a good chance of promotion for the competent. Such a chance to move up in the world was not easily available in other occupations open to the poor. Economic motivations were strongest in wartime when competition from the Royal Navy always forced the wages of merchant seamen up to very high levels and drew many young men away from their previous landbound lives.'[4]

As Earle suggested, there were secondary motivations, such as the ability to rise in the social hierarchy of the Atlantic World. 'Gain, adventure, a desire to see the world, were among the more positive reasons for going to sea,' Earle wrote, 'for others, the decision was very much a pis aller. They took refuge in a ship because the land had nothing to offer or was positively dangerous, the sea providing a convenient bolthole for many a runaway apprentice, deserting husband, debtor or fugitive from justice.'[5]

More prominent was the thirst for adventure and a distaste for life ashore. Gilje writes that

Some sailors rejected the limits and regularity of work ashore. Others were restless. Often, beyond the thrill of the sailing vessel's bow cutting through the spray of salt water, men who went to sea sought a certain kind of freedom. On the waterfront a sailor might act out his fantasies and enjoy excesses of liberty; at sea he experienced a different freedom that came from the vast expanses of the ocean and the fact the he had the whole world to explore.[6]
The words of the seamen themselves, gathered through my Sailors Memoirs Project, reinforce the historical consensus. Adventure and economics were the two primary motivating factors for pursuing a life at sea. A third theme also becomes apparent in the words of seamen: love. Interestingly, the sailors generally prioritize adventure over economics. We have reasons to doubt the words of the seamen I have examined here, but nearly all of them undoubtedly hold a kernel of truth. Sailors were motivated by both wages and the rare ability to see the world. Love is, predictably enough, more complicated.

As I will be focusing on the reasons sailors chose to go to sea, I will be omitting force from this post. Press gangs, enslavement, crimps, and all other forms of forced servitude are not addressed here.

It is also important to note that these were the reasons given by the men and women who went to sea, and were written mostly for an audience to consume. Again, their true reasons for going aboard may have been different from what they published.

Further, I have not distinguished between various merchant, privateer, and naval services. As Rodger states, 'Men joined a King's ship or a merchant's as opportunity or preference suggested, and they moved easily from one to another...there was no identifiable class of man-of-warsmen, there were simply seamen working at the moment for one particular employer.'[7]


Great Encouragement for Seamen, E. Russel, 1775,
Library of Congress American Memory 
The most common stated motivation for going to sea was a need for adventure. John Wyatt signed aboard the York man of war out of 'having a great Desire to see the World.'[8] John Nicol conveyed the jubilation he felt at going to sea, even while acknowledging that the pressed hands didn't share his enthusiasm:
To me the order to weigh anchor and sail for the Nore was the sound of joy. My spirits were up at the near prospect of obtaining the pleasures I had sighed for since the first dawn of reason. To others it was the sound of woe, the order that cut off the last faint hope of escape from a fate they had been impressed into much against their inclination and interest. I was surprised to see so few who, like myself, had chosen it for the love of that line of life. Some had been forced into it by their own irregular conduct but the greater number were impressed men.[9]
It is worth noting that press gangs could only legally seize men 'who use the sea' and landsmen were undesirable on a man of war. The men forced into Nicol's ship were old hands who had long before chosen the life of a sailor, and their initial motivations are lost to us.

William Spavens was another who dreamt of a life on the open sea:
Some years after I lived with a farmer at Clee Thorps, where frequently having a view of Ships sailing by on the Humber, I thought Sailors must be happy men to have such opportunities of visiting foreign countries, and beholding the wonderful works of the Creator in the remote regions of the earth; I considered not the perils and hardships they are sometimes exposed to; I thought of nothing but pleasant gales and prosperous voyages, and indulging a curiosity which seemed implanted in my nature.[10]
The call to adventure was even felt strongly by those who were old hands. Olaudah Equiano, as an enslaved boy, had no choice but to go to sea as his occupation, but it still called to him after years afloat: 'I longed to engage in new adventures, and to see fresh wonders.' Given the chance to remain ashore and make his living there, Equiano would not yet settle. He described himself as 'of a roving disposition, and desirious of seeing as many different parts of the world as I could.'[11]

Dull life ashore, when compared to adventure at sea, could convince former seamen to return to their trade. Christopher Hawkins, despite a difficult, short lived, and nearly fatal career as a privateer, found life ashore working a farm unbearable:
One day in the haying season, being at work mowing grass, with two men who were stout and active, and my scythe not being in the best order I could not keep my end up with them. This provoked me to such a degree that I threw my scythe into a brush heap-the two men (Daniel Clark & Stephen Scott) who were fellow labourers with me, on observing me leave the field inquired of me where I was going and whether or not I was angry. I answered that I was not pleased with my scythe, and that I was going to sea-upon this they raised a laugh though I had by this time got some distance from them towards the house.[12]
This sense of adventure sometimes had a political angle to it. Ebenezer Fox claimed that the first time he put to sea was with a group of friends inspired by the American Revolution's rhetoric:
We made a direct application of the doctrines we daily heard, in relation to the oppression of the mother country, to our own circumstances; and thought that we were more oppressed than our fathers were. I thought that I was doing myself great injustice by remaining in bondage, when I ought to go free ; and that the time was come, when I should liberate myself from the thraldom of others, and set up a government of my own; or, in other words, do what was right in the sight of my own eyes.[13]


Detail from The Human Passions, Thomas Sanders, 1773,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
While adventure was the reason most often given by the sailors themselves, a need for money was probably the primary reason men went to sea. The New England sailor Christopher Prince met a Captain Shaw (an army captain, not a sea captain). Shaw asked Prince to take him to sea, stating:
I am a stranger to everybody and every part of the world. I was born in the country, and a part of my days brought up on a farm, and served my time at the Saddler's trade, and could not get my living there at that trade. I have left my father's house to earn my own living some how, and I am willing to see what I can do on the ocean, and that is your occupation. I wish you would accept of me as a companion.[14]
Sailors might return to sea or change their trade while on a voyage by the influence of economics. William Spavens deserted from his vessel in the hope of earning more money on a much riskier trade:
Our intent was to have procured a passage to Calcutta, and there engage in country ships, which are trading vessels navigated by lascars, with only a white Captain, Boatswain, and Gunner, who are allowed a stipulated quantity of private property on board, as private trade or venture, in augmentation of their wages, which presented us with a view of accumulating fortunes and being great.[15]
Economics could be overcome by other factors, as related by Jacob Nagle who was offered the chance to go privateering against his fellow Americans:
The Stag privateer of Liverpool of 26 guns came in, wanted hands, and six or eight went with him. He wanted me verry much to go, but I could not think of fighting against my country, though I learnt afterwards they fared better than we did They took several prizes, sent them into St. Thomases, sold them, and got their prize money and went home to Philadelphia in American ships, while the remainder of us was laying in jail.[16]
Ebenezer Fox lost his affinity for adventure during the American Revolution, but returned to sea despite that so that he might help his family in a time of distress:
Though unwilling to leave her in her affliction, I felt the necessity of exerting myself, that I might contribute something to the maintenance of the family, who were left very destitute. I knew of no way in which there was a prospect of my being so useful to them, as that of engaging for another cruise.[17]


Bachelors Fare, Carington Bowles, 1777,
British Museum.
Sometimes sailors went to sea out of love, or at least professed that they did. When John Nicol joined the First Fleet to Australia he, like many others, fell in love with a convict. They were forced to part, and for years afterward he continued trying to find his way back to her, taking voyages that would get him closer: 'With a joyful heart I set sail for London to look out for an Indiaman that I might get to Bombay and inquire for Sarah, for she was still the idol of all my affections.'[18]

Romance could pull a sailor to far shores, or shove them from their native land. Mary Lacy fled her town and eventually signed aboard a ship to avoid the pain of a jilted love:
My mind became continually disturbed and uneasy about this young man, who was the involuntary cause of all my trouble, which was aggravated by my happening to see him one day talk to a young woman: the thoughts of this made me so very unhappy, that I was from that time more unsettled than ever. As short time after, a thought came into my head to dress myself in men's apparrel, and set off by myself.[19] 
Notably, another woman who disguised herself as a man and put to sea named Hannah Snell also claimed that love (or at least obligation) drove her to it. Her husband, a sailor named James Summs who 'turned out the worst and most unnatural of husbands' abandoned her. After some time Snell 'thought herself privileged to roam in quest of the man who, without reason, had injured her so much, for there are no bounds to be set either to love, jealousy, or hatred in the female mind.'[20]

Women chasing men to sea was a trope repeated in fiction and may have been leveraged by Snell's biographer to legitimize her stepping out of her proper sphere. As Suzanne J. Stark puts it:
By far the most frequently given reason for a women enlisting the navy or marines, and the most patently absurd, was that she was seeking her male lover who had either run off to sea or been forced on board a ship by a press gang. This ubiquitous motif, which I call the lost-love theme, is found wherever women seamen are mentioned.[21]
In Stark's Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, she argues that a variety of factors motivated women to take on the masculine role of Jack Tar, including economic opportunity, identification with men, and the restricted role of women in society that could be shed by assuming a male identity. 'It is unlikely,' Stark writes, 'that [Snell] ever had a husband named Summs.'[22]

In the end, a variety of factors motivated men (and women) to put on slops and climb aboard. Money, the call of adventure, and even love could all play a factor in their choice to join a dangerous trade. Historians over the past three decades have argued this, and the words of the sailors themselves reinforce this. Economics were probably the most important factor, but the need for adventure is undeniably near the center of their 

[1] Gilje, Paul A., Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004, page 66.
[2] Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, page 5.
[3] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 114.
[4] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 15.
[5] Earle, Sailors, 16.
[6] Gilje, Liberty on the Waterfront, 68.
[7] Rodger, Wooden World, 113.
[8] Wyatt, James, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of James Wyatt, London: W. Reave, 1753, page 8.
[9] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 26.
[10] 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 23.
[11] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, pages 85, 171.
[12] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, pages 60-61.
[13] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, page 18.
[14] 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 114.
[15] Spavens, Memoirs, page 75.
[16] 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 50.
[17]  Fox, Adventures, 79.
[18] Nicol, Life and Adventures, 152.
[19]  Slade (Lacy), Mary, The History of the Female Shipwright, London: M. Lewis, 1773. in The Lady Tars: The Autobiographies of Hannah Snell, Mary Lacy and Mary Anne Talbot, Tucson, Arizona: Fireship Press, 2008, pages 62-63.
[20] 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, pages 4-5.
[21] Stark, Suzanne J., Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996, page 98.
[22] Stark, Female Tars, page 102.