Saturday, June 21, 2014

John Kilty's Runaways

With the exception of the Gabriel Bray collection, the images I examine here tend to be isolated examples of common sailors or, perhaps more commonly, entirely fictional caricatures of those men. As primary sources, images can take us only so far.

I have mentioned in prior posts that run away ads in eighteenth century newspapers offer us a glimpse at the material that made up the garments that sailors wore. Another benefit of them is that they can give us a hint of what the life of those sailors was actually like.

Thankfully, the Maryland State Archives has done a phenomenal job of scanning in many extant copies of the eighteenth century paper the Maryland Gazette. It's free to peruse for anyone and, though it has no text search option, is a wealth of information of the day to day workings within a British colony of the 1700's.

While searching runaway ads in this paper, I came across a fairly common one describing a sailor by the name of James Couley:

July 3, 1766
The sailor's rig he wears is incredibly unremarkable. It's precisely the sort of thing you would expect from a mariner of the period.

But the story doesn't end there.

April 6, 1769
Two years later, another run away ad was put out for the sailor John Fipps. What is remarkable about these ads is that they come from the same captain and the same ship! Polly, Captain John Kilty. He even offers the same reward for the run aways: two pistoles.

So what was life like for these sailors? It's difficult to say precisely. The advertisements taken out to push the cargo carried by the Polly and her crew are vague, promising only "An Assortment of European and East-India Goods." Though the first ad, placed in 1767, promises a tantalizing mystery "unopen'd cargo."

June 11, 1767
July 4, 1771
Captain John Kilty (sometimes spelled Kelty, as we see above) is most often referred to in reference to his son, the more famous John Kilty Junior. What we can say is that he was Catholic, hailed from London, and later became involved in the establishment of maritime defense for the colony (later state) of Maryland at the beginning of the American Revolution. He appears several times in the substantial (and only recently digitized) volumes of the Naval Documents of the American Revolution, primarily giving advice about the outfitting of ships for running cargoes and defending their shores.

But what sort of man was he? Were his sailors tempted by the possible wealth and comforts of shore? Or were they driven from the ship by a domineering captain?  These, and other questions, will probably remain perpetually unanswered.

Even so, it's good for us to orient the people we study, and place them in the context of their time. The clothing sailors wear says something about them, but there has to be something to be said to begin with.

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