Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Seaman's Wages in the Revolution

The Human Passions, Thomas Sanders, 1773, Walpole Library

Timothy Boardman, a carpenter's mate on the Connecticut State Navy ship Oliver Cromwell, kept a journal of his travels that were later transcribed and published as the Log-Book of Timothy Boardman. It is a largely unexceptional and very short piece, but does have a few interesting gems. Among them is this dialogue recorded by Boardman when his term of service neared a close on July 6, 1778. The following is his account of the conversation between him and Captain Parker in Charlestown, South Carolina:
Pr. What are you Doing a Shore.
My Sf. I wanted to See you Sir.
Pr. Very well.
My Sf. The Term of my Inlistment is up & I would be glad of a Discharge Sir.
Pr. I cannot give you One, the Ship is in Distress Plumb has been trying to Get You away.
My Sf. No Sir, I can have Good Wages here & I think it Better than Privatiering I can't think of Going for a Single Share I had a hard task Last Cruise & they all Left me.
Pr. You have had a hard task of it & I will Consider you. & You Shall have as Much again as You Expect. Ranny & those that Leave me without a Discharge will Never Get anything you Better go aboard Boardman. I will Consider you & you'll Lose Nothing by it.
My Sf. I am Oblig'd to you Sir.[1]
As nearly all maritime and naval historians have argued (from N.A.M. Rodger in The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy tp Marcus Rediker in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea), sailors did exercise some agency in their life and were not merely passive subjects to the whims of tyrannical captains at all times.

Boardman, despite being a common sailor, was able to go ashore without permission, directly confront his captain, and negotiate the terms of his continued employment.

This was normal in the eighteenth century. Sailors on merchantmen, privateers, and letters of marque negotiated their wages and had the conclusion of these negotiations codified in a contract. These 'Articles of Agreement' were so common that they could be set in type and printed as a pre-made form ready for the captain, owners, and crew to sign their names to.

Articles of Agreement signed by the crew of the Newport Packet
October 1765, Newport Historical Society
Articles of agreement signed by the crew of the Salley,
September 1764, Brown University.
Acticles of Agreement for the Revolution, printed by
John Dunlap, 1780, Winterthur Collection

What exactly sailors were paid was subject to the cargo of the vessel, the length of the voyage, the time of year, and the skills of the individual sailor. However, there was a certain base level expectation of pay regardless of the port one set off from in Britain as Adam Smith, in his famous book The Wealth of Nations, writes:
As they are continually going from port to port, the monthly pay of those who sail from all the different ports of Great Britain is more nearly upon a level than that of any other workmen in those different places; and the rate of the port to and from which the greatest number sail, that is the port of London, regulates that of all the rest. At London the wages of the greater part of the different classes of workmen are about double those of the same classes at Edinburgh. But the sailors who sail from the port of London seldom earn above three or four shillings a month more than those who sail from the port of Leith, and the difference is frequently not so great. In time of peace, and in the merchant service, the London price is from a guinea to about seven-and-twenty shillings the calendar month. A common labourer in London, at the rate of nine or ten shillings a week, may earn in the calendar month from forty to five-and-forty shillings. The sailor, indeed, over and above his pay, is supplied with provisions.[2]
The Royal Navy was not subject to articles of agreement, nor to the ebb and flow of the economy. Sailor's wages were remarkably low. The wages of Royal Navy seamen had been set in 1653 and hadn't be adjusted for inflation. It remained so throughout the eighteenth century, changing only after the Spithead Mutiny in 1797. The pay was so bad that it was the number one issue raised by the mutineers, even above corporal punishment and bad officers. This poor pay discouraged skilled sailors from enlisting, and contributed to 'The Evil Necessity' (as Denver Brunsman puts it) of press gangs.

Jacob Nagle relates the case of 'a stout young sailor' named Luke Arvour volunteering to join his brig the St. Lucia, despite the fact that "we ware dreaded as a man of war and cruel usage.' That such a skilled seaman would voluntarily join the navy 'apeared strange to both men and officers.' In fact, Arvour was using the navy to secure pay by an indirect route. He had sailed with a merchantman and his captain had withheld pay. Whether volunteering or pressed, a sailor was legally entitled to back wages from previous voyages in civilian vessels, and the navy would secure it for him. Once he had 'received 70 odd guineas,' Arvour deserted.[3]

Sailors leveraged what weight they could to secure pay, but officers could also use pay as a tool for control. When Christopher Prince, mate on the American merchant schooner Polly, arrived in Nova Scotia in 1775, he was surprised to learn that a full blown war had broken out between the American colonists and the British. He negotiated his way out of a prison camp or hulk by vowing to help sail the vessel for equal pay to what he was promised prior to its seizure, that he would not declare himself a British subject, and that he would not help work the guns or arms. As the Americans swept up the St. Lawrence River toward Montreal, where Prince's brig Gaspee was stationed, he was sorely tempted to desert to the American lines. One of the reasons he chose not to was that he 'had very considerable money due to me which I was unwilling to lose.'[4]

The Royal Navy would use money for both carrot and stick. While the base pay of a sailor was dismal and far from competitive, there was always the possibility of prize money. Seizing enemy vessels and selling them along with their cargo entitled the officers and crew to a portion of the money raised by them.

Ha! Ha! hah! - I've got the Chink, Carington Bowles, 1770's, British Museum

Well within living memory was the Anson Expedition of 1740-1744, in which the Centurion seized a Spanish galleon filled with the unbelievable sum of £2,813,586.[5] Common sailors may have received about £300 in prize money, over and above their meager pay.[6] While American vessels offered nothing close to this astronomical prize, they did supplement the pay of the navy, and offered an excuse to put off a general pay raise until the sailors of Spithead forced the Admiralty's hand a generation later.

Sailors received their prize money from naval agents, set up ashore to distribute the cash to the deserving crew. Money being sparse as it was, this was an opportunity for unscrupulous or desperate men and women to defraud the naval agents by posing as sailors or their widows to claim money due to them. Doing so risked death.

The Sailor's Return, Francis Wheatley, 1786, National Maritime Museum
Once sailors had their money, they might spend it fast and free, or their might carefully manage it. If artistic depictions of the time are any indication, many carried their coins in a miser's purse or a more simple pouch acting as a purse. John Nicol writes that when he was paid off from the Surprise in 1783 he kept 'the money that was due me in my hat.'[7] As you can see above and below, this may not have been uncommon.

The Sailor's Pleasure, Bowles and Carver, c1793-1800, British Museum.

[1] Boardman, Timothy, The Log-Book of Timothy Boardman, edited by Rev. Samuel W. Boardman, Albany, New York; Joel Munsell's Sons, 1885, page 115. The nineteenth century editor of Boardman's book misidentifies the Oliver Cromwell as a privateer.
[2] Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Volume One, London: W. Strahan, 1776, page 135. Via Google Books.
[3] 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, pages 60-61.
[4] 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 54.
[5] Heaps, Leo, Log of the Centurion, London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1974, page 254.
[6] Williams, Glyn, The Prize of All the Oceans, New York: Viking, 1999, page 218.
[7] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 55.

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