Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Sailors' Knives

Today's guest post comes courtesy Matthew Brenckle. He is specialist in maritime material culture, and former historian for the USS Constitution Museum in Boston. Matt is now the proprietor of his own historic hat making business.

This detail of a 1775 watercolor by Lt. Gabriel Bray depicts a sailor of
Pallas with an open clasp knife.  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Visiting Nantucket in the years before the American Revolution, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur explained the importance of the humble knife to the seafarer, and the high esteem in which it was held.  Of the island whalers he said,
I must confess, that I have never seen more ingenuity in the use of the knife; thus the most idle moments of their lives become usefully employed.  In the many hours of leisure which their long cruises afford them, they cut and carve a variety of boxes and pretty toys, in wood, adapted to different uses….  You will be pleased to remember that they are all brought up to the trade of coopers, be their future intentions or fortunes what they may; therefore almost every man in this island has always two knives in his pocket, one much larger than the other; and though they hold everything that is called fashion in the utmost contempt, yet they are as difficult to please, and as extravagant in the choice and price of their knives, as any young buck in Boston would be about his hat, buckles, or coat.  As soon as a knife is injured, or superceded by a more convenient one, it is carefully laid up in some corner of their desk. I once saw upwards of fifty thus preserved at Mr. …..’s, one of the worthiest men on this island; and among the whole, there was not one that perfectly resembled another.[1]
Here is the seaman’s knife in all its guises.  It was a tool for carving useful things, or crafting decorative trinkets.  It served as a fashionable accessory, something to be admired and envied.
Crèvecoeur saw his Nantucket mariners on shore.  Had he witnessed them working at sea he could have enumerated a score of other uses.  In a world of wood and rope, the knife was the sailor’s indispensable companion.  In the 18th century, the folding clasp knife seems to have been the blade of choice.  Inexpensive and easy to slip in a pocket, their very ubiquity means few bothered to mention their existence.[2]

A clasp knife belonging to sailor John Frazer, recovered from the 1785 wreck
 of the British collier General Carleton.  From The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785,
Waldemar Ossowski, ed. (Polish Maritime Museum, Gdansk, 2008).

A sailor’s knife made quick work of salt meat, and could slice through seizings or other lines with ease.  It could also slice a shipmate. The oft-repeated story that upon entering a ship a sailor was forced to snap the point off his knife is probably apocryphal.  At least, no eighteenth-century evidence of the practice has yet been found.  With or without a point, sailors frequently used their knives as weapons of interpersonal violence, both afloat and ashore.  Unless a fight ended with the untimely demise of one of the participants, however, the records are silent.  Murder was a serious offence, however, and both civil and naval courts are full of cases involving knife play.

English sailors supposedly were scornful of using knives to settle disputes, preferring fists to blades.  Said one sailor when faced with a clasp-knife wielding Portuguese opponent, “I’ll not use that thing [the knife], but I’ll box you in the English way.”[3]  Yet, as a nationalistic early-twentieth-century law commentator bluntly put it, “stabbing was nearly as common in the British Navy as it can have been among [the Spanish] to whom it is supposed to be appropriate.”[4]  The records certainly support this supposition.

Among court proceedings appear a large number of crimes of passion, or stabbings committed in the heat of the moment.  For example, in 1743 two seafaring men who had perhaps spent too much time in the White Bear public house got into an argument over who was more esteemed aboard ship.  Lewis Legier, who had been Commodore Anson’s cook, naturally argued that a cook, especially a commodore’s cook, enjoyed far more respect than a mere sailor.  His companion, Gabriel Beaugrand disagreed, called Legier a “lying Rascal,” and commenced striking him on the head with the pewter pint pot from which he had been drinking.  Not one to be abused, Legier grabbed Beaugrand, threw him onto the table, and wrested the pot from his hand.  A general scuffle ensued.  At length, Legier cried “I am dead,” and collapsed lifeless on the floor.  Beaugrand made a speedy exit, and an examination of Legier’s body revealed he had been stabbed three times.  The next day a “Knife with a sharp pointed Blade, about eight or nine Inches long” was discovered in the yard next door.[5]

Between 1755 and 1778, British naval courts martial were held on fifty men accused of murder; a large portion of these cases involved seamen’s personal knives.[6]  A particularly ugly case was tried in December 1778. Two seamen from Worcester, David Caynes and Edmond Butler, were accused of killing shipmate Matthew Cavanagh over a matter of four pounds.  By all accounts, the two defendants were pretty rough customers.  Caynes, a boatswain’s mate “carried a knife which he was very ready to produce in terrorem.  He was in the habit of sticking it in the deck, and looking significantly at such of his messmates as he wished to cow.”[7] At length Caynes stuck his knife in Cavanagh and pitched his body overboard from the head, a crime for which he hanged.  We know what this knife looked like thanks to the testimony of one witness: “[Caynes] put his hand in his pocket, and drew his knife out, and said, putting his thumb on the open blade of the knife, ‘If I hear any more of that this shall be your portion.’”[8] We learn that Caynes’ knife was a clasp knife kept in a pocket, but also that there could be some unpleasant dealings in the darkness of the middle watch.

The knife was only useful against unarmed (or similarly armed) opponents.  Most other ship-board edged weapons such as cutlasses, swords, pikes, and even boarding axes had a greater reach than the average knife.  John Carden demonstrated this in 1798, when as a young lieutenant he led a boarding party to subdue a mutiny aboard a merchant vessel:
I soon reach’d her Deck, & found her in a high state of Mutiny.  I rush’d with a dozen Men arm’d to the Cabin, where the Mutinous part of the crew outside its Door were assembled. – The Captain was just coming out, & a Seaman having a large knife was rushing forward, as he explained, to have blood for blood.  At this moment I prick’d him with my Sword under the right Arm, he turned short round, when I plac’d my Sword [at] his Brest. - My Crew seiz’d him, bound him hand & foot, & plac’d him in the bottom of our Boat, & thus this wrong headed kickup or Mutiny was totally subdued.[9]
Carden relates this tale with no small amount of pride, but a man armed with a knife had no chance against one armed with a sword.  No sailor used a knife in battle, except as a weapon of last resort.

A workaday tool or an instrument of terror, the clasp knife could be found in every sailor’s jacket pocket, easily concealed and easily drawn when the occasion required.

A detail of a mezzotint portrait of Capt Andrew Wilkinson, before 1761. He’s using a clasp 
knife with a clipped point to cut the tails of a splice.  National Portrait Gallery, London.

[1] J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (Westvaco, 1976), 176-177.
[2] Transcripts of court cases involving theft are some of the best sources for determining the price of knives in the eighteenth-century.  In October 1799 Mary Clarke and Clarissa Parker of Shadwell, London, two women of questionable morality, were dragged before a justice at the Old Bailey.  They were accused of stealing, among other sundry articles, a knife valued at 12 pence from one John-Christian Wolfe, a seaman from HMS Bellona.  Apart from a canvas bag, the knife was the least expensive item lifted from the hapless sailor, and though hardly trivial, the value of the knife was but 4 percent of a Royal Navy seaman’s monthly wage (24 s. per lunar month). In February of the same year George Barry, a merchant seaman, was assaulted on the highway in East Smithfield by two men, John Tate and John Connoway, alias Irish Jack.  Accosting Barry and throwing him against the side of a shed, the two malefactors riffled the victim’s pockets, relieving him of six shillings and a clasp knife valued at 2 pence.  Both thieves were found guilty, and despite the small value of the stolen goods, they were sentenced to death.
[3] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 2 November 2005), 6 May 1761, trial of Antonio de Silva (t17610506-24).
[4] David Hannay, Naval Courts Martial (Cambridge, 1914), 157. 
[5] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, 2 November 2005), 19 May 1743, trial of Gabriel Beaugrand and Lewis Brunet (t17430519-9).
[6] Hannay, Naval Courts Martial, 142.
[7] Ibid., 149.
[8] Ibid., 150.
[9] John Carden, quoted in William Gilkerson, Boarders Away: With Steel (Lincoln, R.I., 1991), 129-130.


  1. The old fellow's fury was awful. He sprang to his feet, drew and opened a sailor's clasp-knife, and balancing it open on the palm of his hand, threatened to pin the doctor to the wall. [Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island]

  2. Old knife is really gold knives

  3. i hope to find a real old sailo's knife for sale

  4. Un Articulo Fantástico muy bien documentado de un tema apasionante , felicitar al autor y agradecerle esta narración.