Kyle Dalton has very kindly asked me to share a few thoughts on masters to tie in with his post on William Bligh and masters’ uniforms. I will focus on their career paths and social backgrounds because there are many misconceptions about just this issue.
The title ‘master’ (in the Royal Navy they were not called ‘sailing masters’) already gives an indication. Before a Royal Navy as such existed, the English crown would hire merchant ships for their military exploits, including the crew and the master. The master retained command of the ship as such, that is, in all nautical matters, while army officers – captains and generals – coordinated the expedition on the whole. When a Royal Navy had been established, with its own captains and generals (who were re-named admirals), masters of merchant ships continued to be hired as nautical specialists: now without their ships, but the title stuck.
|"Etched from the Life on Board a Scotch Ship: Cook, Captain, and Mait," artist unknown
(John Kay?), c.1750, National Maritime Museum (UK)
A Navy-internal career path was theoretically possible, but an exception. One popular stereotype about masters is that many of them were ‘failed lieutenants’, passed midshipmen who had given up waiting for a commission. This could not be further from the truth: The vast majority of masters had been trained outside the Navy, and all of them were examined and certified by Trinity House, a civilian authority. They had possibly (though not necessarily) attended a ‘mathematical school’, had served an apprenticeship at sea (usually for seven years) and were, by the time of entry in the Navy, already at the pinnacle of their profession, being masters or at least chief mates of merchant ships.
This, in fact, sometimes led to clashes between masters and captains, since masters who had commanded merchant ships before were unused to having superior officers. If such cases came to a court martial, the court often treated masters leniently because they were ‘unacquainted with the customs of the service’. Many masters returned to the merchant service at some point, a liberty which was possible through them being warranted rather than commissioned.
|Portrait of James Cook as Master of the Pembroke
Sculpted by T. Major, 1759, National Library of New Zealand
They usually came from social backgrounds that were situated fairly firmly in the ‘middling stations’ of society; very similar, in fact, to the backgrounds of most commissioned officers. Many of them came from families with seafaring backgrounds, with fathers, uncles, older brothers or cousins who were also shipmasters, merchants, ship owners or owners of dockyards. Few masters rose through the ranks in the Navy, at least no more than rose to other positions as officers. Socially, they were very much on a footing with lieutenants – but even so, some of them seem to have envied their colleagues the glamour of a commission.