Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Braddock's Tars: Common Sailors and the Braddock Expedition

On behalf of Carlyle House Historic Park I'll be speaking at the Lyceum in Alexandria, Virginia Monday, March 26 regarding a little known party of thirty-three Royal Navy sailors that marched with Braddock's 1755 expedition to attack Fort Duquesne. In Braddock's Tars: Common Sailors and the Braddock Expedition, I will use their story as a lens to look at the larger picture of common sailors in the British Atlantic World. The talk begins at 7 PM, and you can RSVP right here.

Detail from A View of the Taking of Quebec September 13th: 1759,
published by Laurie & Whittle, 1797, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images

If Virginia to too far for you, I'll be speaking on the broader topic of sailors in combined operations in the French and Indian War in my talk From Braddock to Wolfe: Royal Navy Seamen Ashore in North America as part of Fort Ticonderoga's twenty-third annual War College of the Seven Years War from May 18-20.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Staved Tankards and Coopers

Gregory Theberge, at his 18th Century Material Culture Resource Center, put together an excellent slideshow of naval foodways in material culture. Through his research, with some backing from the American Revolution: Portraying the Sailor group on Facebook, Gregory found a surprising constant in British naval messes of the eighteenth century: staved tankards.
The example above was excavated from the 74 gun man of war Invincible, wrecked in 1758 in the English Channel.[1] Another was found on the other side of the Atlantic, from the wreck of the 14 gun sloop Swift which sank off Patagonia in 1770.[2] Archaeologists also turned up a staved tankard from the 1779 wreck of the American privateer brigantine Defense off the coast of Maine.[3]

Stave tankards also appear in period artwork.
Detail from The Wapping Landlady, Francis Hayman, c.1743,
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Detail from The Sailor's Farewell, Charles Mosley, date unknown,
National Maritime Museum. The colorist may have given it a metallic look.
Staved tankards in a maritime context pre-date my era of study by centuries. From wrecks as early as the 1545 Mary Rose archaeologists have recovered staved tankards. They continued to be used after my period of study, as you can see in Thomas Rowlandson's study for the 1799 print A Ship's Cook, in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.

Curious as to why the staved tankard was so present in the maritime world, I turned to Marshall Scheetz, owner and operator of Jamestown Cooperage, LLC. As a sort of modern John Nicol, Marshall Scheetz makes staved tankards by hand in the same fashion as eighteenth century coopers at sea:
While a shipwright creates the vessel in which men sail, the cooper creates the vessels that hold the provisions that men need to survive at sea for extended periods of time. To me, the supply lines of the 18th and 19th century British Navy were wonders of the contemporary world. The Victualling yards of Portsmouth, Plymouth, Deptford, and Harwich were marvels of food processing in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.  Most of these provisions, victuals, etc were stored and shipped in casks made by armies of coopers. The coopers were often specialized in making standardized casks for specific types of products; salt beef or pork, butter, beer, liquor, peas, bread, flour, etc. And, there were always coopers aboard official Naval vessels, in promoted positions, to maintain stores and to see that casks were stowed properly.
So why staved tankards?
Wooden drinking vessel make sense for sailors.  A wooden vessel won't shatter when knocked over during high seas and the flared shape offers a lower center of gravity making it difficult to tip over. Many metals will corrode when exposed to salt water, but wood thrives in the environment. Many tankards were bound with wooden hoops, sapling or split. The importance of coopers to ocean going vessels can not be overstated. This puts coopers in every port and on most vessels.  Because of coopers proximity to sailors and the enormous government contracts and elevated status given them it's natural that coopered bowls and drinking vessels would be ubiquitous at sea along side "scuttle butts," water tuns, butter firkins, and wine hogsheads. 
Staved tankard by Marshall Scheetz, available on entoten.com

---
[1] Tankard, INV.112, Invincible collection, The Historic Dockyards Chatham, accessed December 25, 2017, <https://collection.thedockyard.co.uk/objects/9003>.
[2] Dolores Elkin, et al., “Archaeological research on HMS Swift: a British Sloop-of-War lost off Patagonia, Southern Argentina, in 1770,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 36, Issue 1, March 2007, pages 49.
[3] Shelley Owen Smith, The Defence: Life at Sea as Reflected in an Archaeological Assemblage from an Eighteenth Century Privateer, doctorate dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1986, figure 39, page 79.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Flogging and the Cat

This post is part of my series Race, Revolt, and Piracy, examining racial violence at sea in the eighteenth century.


Detail from Monsieur Sneaking Gallantly into Brest's Skulking Hole after receiving 
preliminary Salutation of British Jack Tar the 27 of July 1778, W. Richardson, 
1778, John Carter Brown Library.  
Edward Ward was no seaman, but he was witty. His satirical outline of the men who used the sea The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War stayed in print for decades. One of the more memorable lines concerns the dread cat of nine tails:
Cerberus is not more dreadful to the dead, than this cat is to the living; but indeed she's never let loose, but by order of the commander, who many a times lashes a man out of the same itch of fancy that he cats a woman.[1]
In his book, Ward both reflected popular ideas of the Wooden World and informed them. Essentially, Ward amplified caricatures of sailors. When it comes to popular perceptions of sailors in the past (and to some degree, in the present), it is easy to fall into the idea of the Wooden World as 'rum, sodomy, and the lash.' I've addressed the difficulty of examining 'sodomy' afloat, and today I'll be exploring 'the lash.' Was it really so common as we assume, how was it administered, and what does the cat of nine tails say about the sailors of the British Atlantic world?

Sources from the time are clear: flogging was a constant and seamen feared flogging. What it says about the Wooden World is that despite the shared culture of common sailors aboard merchantmen, men of war, and guineamen (slavers), there were differences between them. The use of violence aboard these vessels can be explored using the cat of nine tails as a lens. Merchantmen disdained the cat, men of war allowed its limited use in a ritualized context, and guineamen embraced the cat.

Aboard Royal Navy vessels, the boatswain was responsible for discipline of the ship's company. Informally, and really at any moment, he could administer corporal punishment by way of his rattan or maybe a rope's end. When naval sailors were convicted of a court martial offence or had transgressed to a degree that earned the attention of the captain, they could and often were sentenced or ordered to be flogged by the more severe cat of nine tails.

Ashley Bowen, then an apprentice to a merchant sea captain, wrote in 1744 of a 'cat with 9 part of log line.'[2]

In 1751, Nathan Bailey may have been the first to academically define the cat of nine tails, and his dictionary was vague:
CAT o' nine Tails, is a Whip with nine Lashes.[3]
Francis Grose defined the cat as thus in his famous Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:

CAT OF NINE TAILS, a scourge, composed of nine strings of whipcord, each string having nine knots.[4]
Dr. Alexander Falconbridge, a slave ship surgeon turned abolitionist, described the cats he observed on guineamen in his 1787 An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of Africa:
 An instrument of correction, which consists of a handle or stem, made of a rope three inches and a half in circumference, and about eighteen inches in length, at one of which are fastened nine branches, or tails, composed of log line, with three or more knots upon each branch.[5]
Detail from The Court Cotillion or the Premiers New Parl*****t Jig,
Terry, 1774, American Antiquarian Society.
The use of the cat was constant enough to become associated with British sailors, and with the Royal Navy, among the many cultures they encountered. When John Nicol sailed to China, he wrote that:
They are much alarmed at the appearance of a man-of-war ship, and they often say, 'Englishman too much cruel, too much fight.' There were some English seamen flogged for mutiny while we lay in the river. The Chinese wept like children for the men, saying, 'Hey, yaw, Englishman too much cruel, too much flog, too much flog.'[6]
Olauadah Equiano, after being kidnapped from modern day Ghana and sold into slavery, was terrified by the way English sailors treated each other on the Middle Passage:
One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast, that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute. This made me fear these people the more; and I expected nothing less than to be treated in the same manner.[7]
Equiano's introduction to the brutality of slavery, an institution even more defined by flogging, was accompanied by a sailor suffering the same abuse the enslaved could expect.

Captain James Cook also used flogging to instill fear in a foreign population. Gunner's mate John Marra remembered that when a cask was stolen from the Resolution's coopers in Tahiti, Cook demanded the thief be turned over to him.
It was judged necessary to punish him as a terror to others: he was therefoer tied up and severely whipt after the manner of the discipline of the navy for offences of the like nature; and this was done in presence of the Chiefs of the island, and a great concourse of the natives who attended the execution, and who looked with an evil eye upon those concerned in what they called a cruel punishment.[8]

Hogarth also played to these fears in his print The Idle Prentice Turn'd Away and Sent to Sea.
Detail from The Idle Prentice Turn'd Away and Sent to Sea,
William Hogarth, 1747, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
The Idle is being ridiculed by a pair of sailors. One points to a gallows at water's edge, the other dangles a cat of nine tails. They warn of a harsh and short life at sea for this profligate. Though prone to exaggeration and parody, Ward and Hogarth were right about the fear of flogging that sailors held. Many wrote of their experiences witnessing and being subjected to the lash. This was true on both merchant and naval vessels.

To be clear, when I say that flogging was a constant, I mean that it was ever present in maritime society and nearly every sailor experienced or witnessed abuse. I do not assert that every vessel was commanded by a vile masochist. Nearly every sailor's memoir includes a story of a brutal officer and some, like Robert Barker's The Unfortunate Shipwright, or Cruel Captain, are explicitly about unfair punishment at sea, but the majority of most sailor's memoirs relate events aboard ships where sailors were not beaten mercilessly and at the drop of a hat.

By way of example, A.G. Jamieson, in his paper 'Tyranny of the Lash? Punishment in the Royal Navy during the American War, 1776-1783,' examined the sloop Wolf 's punishment record:
There were only eighteen floggings in five and one-third years, giving a total of 276 lashes and an average of fifteen lashes per flogging. Thirteen of the floggings were of twelve lashes and five of twenty-four lashes each. Only fifteen individuals were subject to flogging. The fourteen men flogged in the period 1776-1780 amounted to 4.9% of all the seamen and marines who served with the ship in that period.[9]
Jamieson found that, in his admittedly small case study, only about 5.4% of ship's companies were subjected to corporal punishment during the American Revolutionary War.[10]

In a broader study, John D. Byrn Jr. examined seventy three Royal Navy vessels stationed in the Leeward Islands between 1784 and 1812 and found only nine percent of ship's companies suffered the lash. Put another way, 'If nine percent of the inhabitants of the lower decks of king's ships were flogged, ninety-one percent were not.'[11]

It is also worth remembering that corporal punishment and physical violence were common means of discipline throughout the British Atlantic world, and not particular to sailors. N.A.M. Roger reminds us:
The eighteenth century was an age in which personal violence was more common than it is now. Flogging was a frequent punishment for both children and adults, and even in the highest levels of society fights, brawls or duels were not unusual. People were more accustomed to settle affairs with a blow than now seems proper.[12]
When flogging did occur, the cat does not appear to have been used much on merchant vessels. Sailing aboard the Bonita in 1785, Samuel Kelly recalled that:
The master was well acquainted with our want of provisions, and as I had once received a good flogging with the bit of a large rope for asking for more meat for the crew, I was not very fond of risking a repetition.[14]
The rope's end was a popular form of punishment for both merchant and naval seafarers. Ashley Bowen suffered the rope's end many times from the cruel master of the merchantman Hawke:
We sailed about the first of May and before we got Halfway Rock astern I had a smart rope's ending from my master. O Dear my Mother![14]
What precisely the rope's end was composed of is hard to say; probably whatever was at hand. When merchant captain James Lowry was brought to trial for beating the sailor Kenneth Hossick to death, chief mate James Gadderar testified in 1752:
the Captain took a small rope of an inch or inch and quarter round, and began to beat him with the bite of it.[15]
The artist Samuel Wale later depicted Lowry raising a small segment of rope doubled over in his hand, creating a bend that would strike the unfortunate victim.
Detail from The Murder of Kenith Hossack by Captain Lowry,
Samuel Wale, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art.
Whether the difference between flogging with a rope's end and a cat of nine tails was known to the general public is unclear. R. Bennett's 1752 cartoon Captain James Lowry shows a cat of nine tails at his feet.
Detail from Captain James Lowry, R. Bennett, 1752, British Museum.
The cat of nine tails is mentioned at the Lowry trial in the testimony of sailor John Hunt. Tellingly, Hunt mentions the cat to say it is a man of war's instrument, and does not claim that it was present at the crime. This was Hunt's answer to the prosecutor's question of whether he had seen men whipped at sea in the past:
I have, but in a different manner : with a cat of nine tails in a man of war, and let loose directly; they are whipped between their shoulders, but this was almost likely to break a man's bones. I never saw a man flogged on board a merchantman in my life.[16]
Hunt viewed abuse on merchantmen as unexpected. This also appears to have been the case on the Hawke, where Ashley Bowen was beaten regularly by his captain. At least once, despite being a merchant ship, Bowen was beaten with a cat of nine tails. The crew were aggrieved by this treatment, and 'the Mate..said if I should die on the passage out he would be a witness against' the captain.[17]

Guineamen were more likely to use the cat against their sailors. James Field Stanfield sailed on a slave ship in the 1770's, and recounted the abuse the crew suffered in verse. His cruel captain applied salt to the wounds of sailors given the lash:
Now writhes his tortur'd frame! The scourges ply- / And from the lash  the quiv'ring mosels fly. / Invention next, from her exhaustless stores, / O'er the bare bones the venom lotion pours, / Whose acrid salts in searching conflict dart, / With pungent anguish barbing ev'ry smart.[18]
As quoted above, Equiano saw a white sailor flogged to death with a rope's end, and Dr. Falconbridge saw a sailor flogged with the cat 'and sometimes he was beat with a bamboo.'[19]

Perhaps it was the constant use of the cat against the enslaved men and women, packed and crowded into the Guineamen that broke down the ritualized naval barrier that usually prevented the use of the cat on merchant vessels. This, however, is a topic that deserves far more attention than I can give in this short post.

The line between naval and merchant flogging may appear arbitrary, but it seems to have been firm. This is illustrated in the case of the aforementioned Ashley Bowen. When the vile master of the Hawke boarded the warship Dorsetshire, he attempted to use naval discipline against his own merchant apprentice:
When on board, he asked Mr. Griffith to let the Boatswain's Mate bring me to a capstan bar in order to frighten me, which was done, and Captain Burrish, walking his quarterdeck, the people called out "flogging on board." Some left their stations and others, making uproars, Captain Burrish wished to know the meaning sent for Mr. Page, the First Leftenant, which said that Mr. Griffith was the author of it. Then Mr. Griffith was sent for and had a smart repremand for his conduct, and so I was released and sent out of the Dorsetshire. And as we came to Mahon, he said he would send me to school and he would never strike me more.[20]
Fear of flogging was powerful among seamen. While Bowen's cruel master failed to utilize that fear, there were many others who did not. Christopher Hawkins' shipmate, taking a disliking to Hawkins' American sympathies during the Revolutionary War, stabbed him with a fork:
He was immediately sentenced to receive two dozen lashes from the boatswain's mate for this outrage, and tied to a gun. He now began to beg my forgiveness. I interposed in his behalf with great anxiety, but to not purpose except saving one of the dozen. The dozen that he received was most horribly inflicted-the blood ran down to his heels. The boatswain's mate who administered his punishment was a hard hearted wretch and appeared destitute of human feelings-his names James Richardson. The witnessing of this punishment and the shrieks of the sufferer made me sick at the stomach.[21]
Even before being lashed (or, as he was tied to a gun, perhaps struck with a rattan across the backside), Hawkins' attacker immediately broke down. Terror was the point. Fear of flogging kept crews in line and motivated them. In an unusually cynical exploitation of that fear, Captain Cummings of the Blandford used flogging quicken his crew's pace. Decades later William Spavens still remembered:
I have known him call all hands to sway up the main top gallant yard, which ten men would have effected with ease; and if we were not all upon deck in five minutes, he would place a petty officer at every hatchway to stop those who remained below, and would order each man a dozen lashes at the gangway for his tardiness.[22]
Perhaps the most terrifying use of the cat was a flogging around the fleet. John Nicol, who personally witnessed this cruel punishment, shared a vivid memory:
One of our men was shipped through the fleet for stealing some dollars from a merchant ship he was assisting to bring into port. It was a dreadful sight: the unfortunate sufferer tied down on the boar and rowed from ship to ship, getting an equal number of lashes at the side of each vessel from a fresh man. The poor wretch, to deaden his sufferings, had drunk a whole bottle of rum a little before the time of punishment. When he had only two portions to get of his punishment, the captain of the ship perceived he was tipsy and immediately ordered the rest of the punishment to be delayed until he was sober. He was rowed back to the Surprise, his back swelled like a pillow, black and blue. Some sheets of thick paper were steeped in vinegar and laid to his back. Before he seemed insensible. Now his shrieks rent the air. When better he was sent to the ship, where his tortures were stopped and again renewed.[23]
Violence beget violence. Sailors subjected to the lash did their best to escape. If caught in their attempt to desert, they were again punished with a flogging. Samuel Kelly told of a flogging around the fleet brought on by this very dynamic:
I saw two seamen flogged through this fleet for desertion, a most cruel punishment, especially as the desertion is sometimes occasioned by severe and cruel treatment. These men were fixed to a kind of gallows in a boat, and exposed to the tropical sun whilst going through their punishment, and I was informed one of the men expired on the same day.[24]
Based on the evidence I have gathered above, the use of the cat of nine tails is best expressed as a spectrum of violence. Merchantmen were far from exempt from floggings, though the cat itself rarely appear. Naval vessels saw the constant use of the cat, sometimes for very minor infractions indeed, but only after a direct command from the commanding officer, and then administered in a ritual that justified that violence. On slavers the cat was used indiscriminately, perhaps a result of the breakdown of civilization among a tightly confined crew encouraged to use violence of all sorts without consequence.

This spectrum is only a theory, and one that certainly must have exceptions, but it is a framework I hope to test in the future when examining violence at sea.

---
[1] Ward, Edward, The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War, seventh edition, London, 1760, page 46.
[2] Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 45.
[3] Bailey, Nathan, An Universal Etymological English Dictionary, 1751, R. Ware, Google Books, accessed January 18, 2018.
[4] Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London: S. Hooper, 1785, page 28, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[5] Falconbridge, Alexander, An Account of the Slave Trade on the Coast of AfricaLondon: J. Phillips, 1788, page 40, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[6] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 108-109.
[7] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 57.
[8] Marra, John, Journal of the Resolution's voyage: in 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775, London: F. Newbery, 1775, page 183.
[9] Jamieson, A.G., 'Tyranny of the Lash? Punishment in the Royal Navy during the American War, 1776-1783,' in The Northern Mariner, The Canadian Nautical Research Society, Volume 9, No. 1, 1999, page 55, accessed January 17, 2018, <https://www.cnrs-scrn.org/northern_mariner/vol09/nm_9_1_53to66.pdf>.
[10] Jamieson, 'Tyranny,' page 64.
[11] Byrn Jr., John D., Crime and Punishment in the Royal Navy: Discipline on the Leeward Islands Station, 1784-1812 (England), Louisiana State University Historical Dissertations and Theses, 1987, page 172, accessed January 18, 2018, <https://digitalcommons.lsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5344&context=gradschool_disstheses>.
[12]  Roger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 212.
[13] 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 123.
[14] Bowen, Autobiography, page 38.
[15] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 03 January 2018), February 1752, trial of James Lowrey (t17520218-1).
[16] Bowen, Autobiography, page 45.
[17] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 03 January 2018), February 1752, trial of James Lowrey (t17520218-1).
[18] Falconbridge, Account of the Slave Tradepage 40, via Google Books, accessed January 3, 2018.
[19] Stanfield, James Field, The Guinea Voyage. A Poem in Three Books, London: James Phillips, 1789, page 20. 
[20] Bowen, Autobiography, page 50-51.
[21] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 36.
[22] 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 35.
[23] Nicol, Life and Adventures, page 50.
[24] Kelly, An Eighteenth Century Seamanpage 27.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Hammocks, Bedding, and Where they Slept

Detail from The Sailor's Farewell, Charles Mosley,
date unknown, National Maritime Museum.
Hammocks were the most common instrument for a sailor to catch his rest, but they weren't the only ones. Sometimes unusual sleeping arrangements were forced on sailors. Such was the case for Samuel Kelly, whose first voyage in 1778 was a miserable affair:
The night before the ship sailed I slept on board, but as there was not sufficient room in the place allotted for the men to sling a hammock for each, I had to spread my mattress on a chest. Soon afterwards a drunken boatswain's mate took possession of my bed and left me to shift for myself.[1]
Twice more in Kelly's memoirs he relates having to sleep on chests, and always as a last resort. William Spavens also had to result to using his chest as a bed:
I lay asleep on my chest under the half-deck with Jerry on the deck by me.[2]
The use of chests as beds appears to have been ad hoc and never a first choice. A more reasonable alternative to hammocks might have been the folding bed. When Mary Lacy disguised herself as a man and took up the role of carpenter's apprentice on the Sandwich, her master possessed 'a bed that turned up.'[3]
Detail from A sailor bringing up his hammock, Pallas,
Gabriel Bray, 1774, National Maritime Museum
Hammocks were, however, the most common form of bed for sailors. They could take some getting used to. Lacy remembered:
When I attempted to get into bed at night, I got in at one side and fell out on the other; which made all the seamen laugh at me.[4]
Sailors also differentiated between hammocks and bedding. Hammocks were the canvas slings that cradled the bedding, which consisted of mattress, sheets, blankets, and pillow. On Royal Navy vessels, sailors could buy bedding for which they paid through deductions in pay. There was even a column for this deduction printed into muster books.
Muster book of the Seahorse, 1755, ADM 36/6610
Bedding could be separated from the hammock for washing, and perhaps to accompany the sailor as he moved from one ship to another. John Nicol mentions putting his 'bedding and chest on board a vessel bound for Leith.'[5] Spavens also carried 'my chest and bedding down between decks.'[6]

Further evidence that bedding was the possession of the common sailor, and the hammock belonged to the ship, might be gleaned from how sailors treated their bedding. When Ebenezer Fox's ship was captured during the American Revolution, the defeated American were ordered into the British boats:
Our crew were ordered to pass down the side of the ship into the enemy’s boats ; but were forbidden to carry anything with them. Some of our crew fastened their bedding upon their backs, and tumbled themselves head foremost down into the boats ; and, as it was quite dark, they would unperceived get into the cuddy with their bedding, trusting to future circumstances for opportunity to use or secrete it.[7]
Samuel Kelly had less luck in saving his gear:
I had heard from several seamen that it was useless when captured to endeavour to save many clothes, as they were generally taken away on going on board the enemy. I therefore only filled a pillow-case and abandoned the rest, with all my bedding.[8]
In 1755, when thirty three seamen and officers of the Royal Navy were ordered by Commodore Keppel to accompany General Braddock on the expedition against Fort Duquesne, they were ordered 'to take with them their Hammacoes only, their Beds being too large & cumbersome.'[9] Even this proved too much, as the hammocks were abandoned after about fifty miles of marching when they were found to be 'difficult in loading' onto the wagons.[10]

Generally speaking, sailors slept on the tween decks. It could get quite crowded, and sometimes sailors had to get creative about where to sling their hammocks. The sailing master on Samuel Kelly's first voyage noted the poor young sailor's pitiful condition without a place to sleep, and:
ordered a hammock to be prepared and slung across, under the clews of the seamen's hammocks, and though this was athirt-ships, and not very comfortable, I had here some peace in the night.[11]

Disposition of his Majestys Ship the Bedfords Lower Deck, artist unknown,
circa 1775,* National Maritime Museum.
During the day, hammocks would be brought up and stowed on the bulwarks. Fox remembered:
The bedding and hammocks of the sailors were brought up from between decks ; the bedding placed in the hammocks, and lashed up in the nettings.[12]
Sailors had to be quick in getting their hammocks stowed, or the consequences could be unpleasant. When John Newton was disrated and turned before the mast, he learned this lesson the hard way:
On that memorable morning I was late in bed, and had slept longer, but that one of the mishipmen (an old companion) came down, and between jest and earnest, bid me rise; and as I did not immediately comply, he cut down the hammock, or bed, in which I lay: which formed me to dress myself.[13]
An exception to these generalities can be found on slave ships. Once guineamen arrived on the African coast, their carpenters were put to work converting them into floating prisons. This included the barricado that separated the main deck from the quarter deck and the wheel.[14] Crews would not sleep below decks. This space was reserved for the enslaved who were forced below. Conditions for the enslaved, it is probably needless to say, was far worse than it was for the common sailor on a merchantman or man of war.
Detail from Coupe interne de La Marie Séraphique, artist unknown, c.1772-1773,
Les abolitions de l'esclavage.
Sailors were moved behind the barricado for the duration of the Middle Passage. As you can see in the cutaway image of the French slaver Marie Séraphique, beds were arranged on either side of the after cabin, behind the barricado, which extends slightly past the bulwarks on the port and starboard side. This elevated the common sailors from their place as subordinates at the bottom of a social hierarchy on the tween decks, to a position of power by the captain's cabin and helm. Sailors were now, by the geography of the ship, placed on a level with their captain.

---
[1] 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 19.
[2] 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 76.
[3] 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 66-67
[4] Lacy, Female Shipwright, page 67.
[5] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 55.
[6] Spavens, Memoirs, page 67.
[7] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, page 89.
[8] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, page 47.
[9] Letter from Commodore Augustus Keppel to Captain Samuel Barrington of the Norwich dated March 13, 1755, on board the Centurion in Hampton Roads, Virginia, from 'IV. The Norwich: Letters,' in The Barrington Papers, Vol. 77, ed. D Bonner-Smith, London: Navy Record Society, 1937, pages 115-165, via British History Online, accessed January 5, 2018
[10] Gill, Midshipman Thomas, 'A Journal of the proceddings of the Seamen,' in Sargent, Winthrop, The History of an Expedition Against Fort Du Quesne, in 1755, Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1856, page 370.
[11] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman,, page 20.
[12] Fox, Adventures, page 62.
[13] Newton, John, The Works of the Rev. John Newton, Late Rector of the United Parishes of St. Mary Woolnoth and St. Mary Woolchurch Haw, London, Volume 1, New Haven: Nathan Whiting, 1824, page 26.
[14] For more on the construction of slave ships and the disposition of their crews, I strongly recommend Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History.
*According to the catalog entry for the Disposition of His Majestys Ship the Bedfords Lower Deck, the image above is circa 1790. This is in contrast to the (probably twentieth century) mark on the upper left corner that reads 'c. 1760.' The ship was launched in 1775, so I've decided to give this image that approximate date, but I'm certainly open to that date moving forward in history with new evidence or convincing arguments.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Midday Meal in the Cabin on the Ship Providence after the Cabin Table had been Broken by the Storm on the Night of April 15 to 16, 1776


The Midday Meal in the Cabin on the Ship Providence after the Cabin Table had been Broken by the Storm on the Night of April 15 to 16, 1776, artist unknown, April 19, 1776, in The American Revolution, Garrison Life in French Canada and New York, Helga Doblin, trans., Mary C. Lynn, ed., Westport, Ct.: Greenwood Press, 1993, via John U. Rees, 'A wave struck the ship, the soup flew out of my bowl …': Food and Accommodations for Soldiers at Sea during the War for Independence, Courtesy of Eric Schnitzer.

Special thanks to John U. Rees for bringing this to my attention.

Julius Friedrich von Hille, an ensign in the Braunschweig Prinz Friedrich Regiment, was shipped to America to fight in the American Revolutionary War along with thousands of his German and British comrades. The vessel carrying von Hille was the Providence. On the night of April 15, she sailed into, as von Hille put it, an 'unusually agitated' sea. The heavy storm battered the vessel, and destroyed the table in the cabin where the officers shared their meals.

Depicting the tranquility of the sea mere days later, von Hille drew the German officers at mealtime making do without the table. Joining them is at least one mariner in the dress of a common sailor.


Resting his bowl on the seat of a Queen Anne style chair, this sailor wears what might be a linen cap, a loosely fit single breasted jacket with turned back cuffs (maybe a watch coat?), and petticoat trousers hanging down below the knees.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Homosexuality in the Royal Navy

Detail from The Guardian frigate, commanded by Lieutenant Riou, surrounded by
islands of ice in the South Seas, on which she struck 24th December 1789, in her
passage to Botany Bay, with the departure of the crew in the jolly boat
,
published by Carington Bowles, 1790, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library

Some time ago I posted a piece [link not safe for work] on the wildly popular eighteenth century erotic novel Fanny Hill, or Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. In that novel, the author John Cleland wrote an explicit scene were Fanny and a common sailor do the deed. There is a brief moment of alarm on Fanny's part when he
was not going by the right door, and knocking desperately at the wrong one, I told him of it:—'Pooh!' says he, 'my dear, any port in a storm.'[1]
By referencing the nearly accidental act of 'sodomy,' Cleland taps into the popular impression that sailors engaged in homosexuality. This is one of the few primary sources that directly addresses this impression.

Rictor Norton, at his website Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century Englandhas collected an impressive number of primary sources, though few reference sailors. Something that becomes clear in Norton's work is that there was little or no legal distinction at the time between those who engaged in a single same-sex act, those who were exclusively homosexual, and anyone who fell in between.

I stress that this was a legal designation. British society believed that a lack of access to women gave rise to homosexuality, and there was perhaps no place in the eighteenth century so exclusively male as the navy.

The legal notion that one is either exclusively homosexual or heterosexual can be seen in the case of William Bailey. In his 1761 trial for 'sodomy' at the Old Bailey, William called numerous character witnesses to his defense who testified that he 'always behaved as one that had an affection to women,' was 'frequently in women's company,' and that 'he loves the company of women a thousand times more than men.' Today we would recognize these facts as irrelevant to the act itself, but in eighteenth century law, a single homosexual act was equated with being exclusively homosexual. The jury at Bailey's trial was not wholly convinced of his innocence, and he was sent to the pillory.[2] That same year, seaman George Newton was accused of committing sodomy with Thomas Finley aboard the Royal Navy vessel Princess Anne. Newton called several witnesses to attest to his healthy appetite for women, and testified 'that he was very drunk and that he did not know he had done any such crime.' This last line may well be true. When caught in the act, Newton declared 'he had got...cunt.' David Cordingly, in his book Women Sailors & Sailor's Women: An Untold Maritime History, argues that Newton's use of the word 'cunt' may show that he was 'driven by sexual needs to use the boy in the place of a woman.'[3]

N.A.M. Rodger argued in his book The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy that acts of homosexuality were not as common in the mid-eighteenth century Royal Navy as many assume:
There appear to have only been eleven courts martial for sodomy during the [Seven Years'] war, of which four led to acquittals, and seven convictions on lesser charges of indecency or 'uncleanliness'. This does not seem a remarkably large figure for a seagoing population which was for most of the war seventy or eighty thousand.[4]
Cordingly agreed with Rodger:
Considering that the navy cooped up thousands of young men for months on end without access to women, it is surprising how few homosexual incidents resulted in prosecution. When one looks through the massive leather-bound volumes in the Public Record Office that contain the summaries of naval courts-martial, one rarely finds case of 'unnatural crimes' among the multitude of other offenses.[5]
Examining a broader period and different service, Peter Earle echoed this assessment in his Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775:
Research by naval historians has...shown that such relations, though not unknown, were rare at sea...The research for this book tends to confirm these findings, just three references to sodomy having been discovered.[6]
Conviction meant death. The articles of war for the Royal Navy were very clear on this point, leaving no room for leniency, as is made clear in this printing from 1749:
Penalty of committing Buggery or Sodomy. XXIX. If any Person in the Fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable Sin of Buggery or Sodomy with Man or Beast, he shall be punished with Death by the Sentence of a Court-martial.[7]
Given this extreme punishment, Rodger argues that men of war were not suitable places for men to embrace each other:
The crime was...very difficult to conceal aboard ship where there was so little privacy. A Ship at sea was about the most difficult possible place to commit sodomy.[8]
Earle agreed that 'the crowded conditions of shipbord life made it difficult to conceal homosexual relations from other members of the crew.'[9]

In addition to the mortal punishment that could be meted out by a court martial, there was also a fear of a supernatural punishment in this world. Sailors believed in a God that would directly intervene, often immediately, based on the actions and morality of a given sailor. Early in the eighteenth century, the famous Puritanical preacher Cotton Mather made the connection between an intervening God and homosexual acts among sailors:
How much more abominable are the practices of the horrid Sodomites!...many a vessel has been lost in the Salt-Sea, because there have been Sodomites on board...God will have those dogs to be Drowned.[10]
Though rare, homosexual acts did occur. Homosexuality was often overlooked, covered up, or treated as the lesser criminal charge of 'uncleanliness' to avoid the death penalty. Rodger argues that officers preferred to sweep possible incidents of 'buggery' under the rug.

In support of Rodger's school of thought is this piece from Volume 31 of the Gentleman's Magazine, published in 1761 and forwarded to me by Casey Hill. It is the very same William Bailey whose trial I quoted above:
Wm Bailey stood on the pillory in Grace-church-street for sodomy; but by means of a press-gang, escaped without being pelted. A quarrel ensued between the press-gang and the butchers, in which the officer was terribly handled.[11]
This press gang showed no compunction about bringing a convicted 'sodomite' into the close confines of a man of war.

Arthur Gilbert, in his paper 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,' agreed that officers avoided accusing their comrades of engaging in homosexuality. This fact makes it 'impossible to judge the incidence of buggery in the military.' He makes a convincing argument that naval courts martial 'reveal a ferocity towards morals offenders far beyond that of civil society.'[12] Gilbert showed:
Buggery was as serious as murder and mutiny when we use capital convictions measured against total number of cases tried. While the conviction rate for buggery was less than for all other crimes except murder, those convicted of buggery were far more likely to receive death sentences than men charged with mutiny or murder. Further, only mariners charged with desertion to the enemy during wartime or striking an officer were as likely to be sentenced to death as men on trial for buggery.[13]
This meant that skilled sailors and good officers could and did hang. For what can be seen as a victim-less crime (at least in cases of consensual homosexual acts) officers would understandably be reluctant to prosecute seafarers.

An additional difficulty for the researcher is the reluctance of people in the period to speak about homosexuality. Suzanne J. Stark states the problem succinctly in her Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail:
The English had such antipathy to sexual acts between men that even naming such an act was avoided when at all possible, and a great variety of strong adjectives were used to describe the crime or sin: foul, unnatural, detestable, horrid, abominable. This was true over a period of at least seven hundred years.[14]
Rodger and Gilbert agree that records are sparse, but differ in the official approach to homosexuality. Rodger argues that homosexuality and homosexual acts were almost entirely absent in the navy and treated with indifference, while Gilbert believed it to be uncommon but undeniably present and treated with draconian brutality. As Thomas Foster summarized the differing schools of thought (albeit for the American colonies and New England in particular) in his book Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America:
The absence of a very large number of sodomy cases...has led to two very different interpretations. Were there few cases because the population thoroughly embraced the official revulsion of to same-sex behavior? Or, was it because many managed to either avoid detection or were not actively taken to court by a sympathetic network of kin and community?[15]
Pointing to the remarkably few cases of 'buggery' brought to court during the Seven Years' War, Rodger believed that 'if senior officers were concerned about it, they gave no hint of the fact in their correspondence. Everything suggests it was an insignificant issue.'[16] 

Gilbert, meanwhile, argued that there was a general fear of perceiving the Navy as rife with homosexuality. He believed that fear of being painted as a homosexual institution motivated officers to be overzealous in punishments when they were forced to confront them in court. He argued that 'while it is difficult to determine whether or not the fear of sodomy was more acute in this period than in earlier times, there is certainly evidence to suggest that the phobic reaction to it reached a highwater mark during the eighteenth century' and that this is the cause of the harsh punishments meted out to all who were convicted.[17] Stark agrees with Gilbert: 'Englishmen, unlike other European men, did not approve of any show of affection between men,' because 'a male homosexual was a threat to the very concept of maleness. He undermined the comforting belief that men, by their very nature, were profound, virile, strong, and direct. A homosexual was stereotyped as effeminate; he, like a woman, was superficial, perverse, weak, and devious.'[18]

In short, Rodger believes that homosexuality was so inconsequential that it barely registered in the minds of officers. Gilbert and Stark, on the other hand, thought that officers feared a perception by the general public of the Royal Navy as an inherently homosexual institution.

Christopher Hawkins wrote that sailors could curse as much as they please, provided they did not use one particular word: 'bo-g-r.'[19] Hawkins' anecdote supports Gilbert's argument that homosexuality was widely feared in the Navy, but is the only reference I've come across yet that even implies homosexuality throughout the course of the Sailors' Memoirs Project. Such an obvious absence from even sensationalized works, like Hannah Snell's memoir, supports Rodger's perspective.

Both Gilbert and Rodger agree that homosexual acts were treated as a crime that carried an unusually harsh punishment, and for this reason was sometimes overlooked. This makes the task of exhuming the prevalence of, and attitudes toward homosexuality exceedingly difficult and sometimes, in the words of Gilbert, 'impossible.'

What can be said based on our current understanding of period sources is sailors of the time did not speak much of it. Whether out of indifference or fear, homosexuality was largely an absent or taboo topic for eighteenth century sailors.

---
[1] Cleland, John, The Memoirs of Fanny Hill, London, 1749, via Project Gutenberg, accessed December 26, 2017, <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/25305/25305-h/25305-h.htm>.
[2] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 08 January 2018), October 1761, trial of William Bailey (t17611021-35).
[3] Cordingly, David, Women Sailors & Sailor's Women: An Untold Maritime History, New York: Random House, 2001, pages 139-141
[4] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 80.
[5] Cordingly, Women Sailors, page 145.
[6] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 102.
[7] 'An Act for amending, explaining, and reducing into One Act of Parliament, the Laws relating to the Government of His Majesty's Ships, Vessels, and Forces by Sea,' 1749, Casey Hill collection.
[8] Rodger, Wooden World, page 80. Of note, Roger's The Wooden World had a serious influence on Patrick O'Brian, the famous novelist. O'Brian's character Jack Aubrey expresses this sentiment in The Commodore, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 247-248.
[9] Earle, Sailors, 102.
[10] Mather, Cotton, The Sailor's Companion, Boston, 1706, quoted in Daniels, Bruce C., New England Nation: The Country the Puritans Built, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012, page 202.
[11] Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 31, 1761, page 532, via the HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed January 8, 2018, <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=inu.30000080773926;view=1up;seq=556>.
[12] Gilbert, Arthur, 'Buggery and the British Navy, 1700-1861,' in History of Homosexuality in Europe & America (Studies in Homosexuality), Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen Donaldson, ed., New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, page 132, via Google Books, accessed December 26, 2017, <https://books.google.com/books?id=y8_Ya2s3zN8C&dq=it+is+impossible+to+judge+the+incidence+of+buggery+in+the+military&source=gbs_navlinks_s>. Gilbert's piece, though criticized by Rodger in The Wooden World, is immensely influential. It is cited in To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850 by Paul A. Gilje, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age by Marcus Rediker, and in Rodger's own Command of the Oceans: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815, notably without comment.
[13] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 141.

[14] Stark, Suzanne J., Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996, page 118.
[15] Foster, Thomas A., Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America, New York: New York University, 2013, page 3.
[16] Rodger, The Wooden Worldpage 80.
[17] Gilbert, 'Buggery,' page 148.
[18] Stark, Female Tars, page 118.
[19] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 39.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Frying Watches

In the waning years of the American Revolutionary War, Samuel Kelly was witness to an odd revelry in British occupied Charleston, South Carolina:
The Peacock returned here from a cruise, and the seamen, having received some prize-money, purchased several watches, and in a drunken frolic, they determined to fry the woks on the fire, and were highly entertained to hear such a number of them ticking in the frying-pan.[1]
When I first read these words, I took them to be a singular, drunken extravagance not to be repeated. It's such a bizarre and silly thing to do that it was something I took note of, but did not expect to be something I'd find anywhere else.
Detail from Sailors Carousing and Frying Watches,
Julius Caesar Ibbetson, date unknown, Yale Center for British Art
Turns out I was wrong. Though it is likely that the above work of art (also featured in Spreading Canvas: Eighteenth-Century British Marine Painting) is later than my period of study, it clearly shows sailors doing precisely what Kelly described in 1782. This drawing was probably a study for the later painting now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum.
Detail from Sailors Carousing, Julius Caesar Ibbetson, 1802,
National Maritime Museum
There is no fire beneath the pan, and they do not appear to be in a rush to light one. Perhaps this was a ceremonial celebration of prize money, a ritualized 'frying' of the watches.

The earliest reference I could find to frying watches comes from the British vessels Active and Favourite taking the Spanish Hermione in 1762. With such an abundance of prize money coming from the capture, the sailors spent lavishly. Lloyds Evening Post And British Chronicle reported that three sailors of the Active met at a tavern:
Lloyds Evening Post and British Chronicle, January 24-26, 1763, page 2.
Afterwards these two jolly Tars met with one of their Mess-mates at a publick-house, the Landlord of which not having any thing they liked for dinner, one of them ordered in a frying-pan and a large lump of butter, declaring he would stand Cook, when they came to a resolution, nem. con.[2] to fry their watches.
This story was widely reported in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, which must have spread the frying of watches as an image of the carefree sailor flush with cash.[3]

In 1794, the idea of frying watches was even used as a sort of celebratory rallying cry: 'Now loyal, fry their watches, for King George.'[4]

Digging deeper into this odd trend, I found that the idea of sailors frying watches extends well into the nineteenth century. In 'A Tale of a Tar,' published in The Rover in 1845, the fictional character Jack explains:
In Carlisle Bay they [his shipmates] broke up and fried two or three hundred watches in frying-pans that they bought in Bridge Town and a good many of them are [eating] bank-notes between soft tack.[3]
Several other nineteenth century sources mention sailors frying watches and eating bank-note sandwiches, some American and some British. I have seen no reference to eating bank notes in the eighteenth century. Whether frying watches was still in actual practice in the nineteenth century is beyond me, but it does prove that the idea of sailors frying watches was still in the Anglo-American mind.

Perhaps the seamen of the Active inspired sailors over the next century to demonstrate their prize money through either a real or ceremonial frying.

---
[1] 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 54.
[2] nem. con. - 'nemine contradicente' meaning 'no one contradicting'
[3] Boston Evening Post, October 10, 1763, page 1; Maryland Gazette, June 2, 1763, page 1; The Georgia Gazette, August 4, 1763, page 1; The Providence Gazette and Country Journal, page 1-2
[4] Pindar, Peter, Celebration: Or, the Academic Procession to St. James's; an Ode, London: John Walker, 1794, page 6, via Google Books, accessed January 4, 2018.
[5] 'A Tale of a Tar' in The Rover, edited by Lawrence Labree and Arthur Morrell, volume 4, New York: S.B. Dean & Co., 1845, page 294, via Google Books, accessed January 4, 2018.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Literacy Afloat

Sketch between Decks, May 75, Gabriel Bray, 1775, National Maritime Museum.
The first thing we have to recognize in examining literacy among common sailors of the eighteenth century is that literacy is a spectrum. We should be careful not to conflate being literate at the time as translating to both reading and writing. As Tamara Plakins Thornton wrote in her excellent Handwriting in America: A Cultural History:
Because reading and writing were understood to serve entirely different ends, instruction in one was divorced from instruction in the other. Reading was taught first, as a universal spiritual necessity; writing was taught second, and then only to some.[8]
Thornton was writing about Americans, with a focus on New England, but the point still holds that the ability to read or write was not mutually inclusive or exclusive.

To teach reading as religious education was seen as a basic need. Olaudah Equiano, enslaved aboard a naval vessel, made friends with a captain's servant named Daniel Queen who 'taught me to shave and dress hair a little, and also to read in the Bible.'[9] There does not appear to have been any objection to enslaved Africans like Equiano learning to read, though he does state that some objected to his learning navigation as such a skill could be directly applied to escape.[10] This implies that reading was not seen as having the same value toward freedom as other skills. More to the point, other sailors on Equiano's ship were competent enough in reading that they could teach others.

As N.A.M. Rodger stated in his The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy:
How many men would or could read is difficult to say. Many were undoubtedly illiterate, probably more than the average of their class, but there are chance references to men off watch reading in their hammocks, and very likely it was common.[1]
Historians agree that some degree of literacy was present in a majority of sailors. There is no foolproof system for examining this, but the most commonly used framework for getting a ballpark estimate of  literacy is through examining documents that sailors had to sign. If a sailor made his mark, rather than a signature, it is taken as a possible sign of illiteracy. N.A.M. Rodger does this in The Wooden World. Marcus Rediker, in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, argues for a high literacy rate among sailors:
As many as three-quarters of the sailors employed in the merchant shipping industry between 1700 and 1750 were literate if judged by the standard of the ability to sign one's own name...All captains, mates, and surgeons were literate, but, at best, only two of three common seamen could even sign their name.[2]
There are many documents with signatures that one can use to measure potential literacy. For example, I've been examining the wills left behind by sailors killed on the Braddock Expedition, or those who died shortly thereafter. Midshipman Thomas Gill, and able seamen Nathaniel Gee and Alexander Frazier all signed their name by their own hands, but carpenter Jonathan Hill and boatswain's mate John Cain only left a mark.[3] Rodger and Rediker both work with far larger sample sizes than this, but merely for the sake of example this would indicate that 60% of the detachment was literate.

Rodger acknowledged this rough system in measuring literacy is of limited use:
How many of those who could sign their names were functionally literate for everyday purposes one cannot say, but a proportion must certainly have been.[4]
Rediker similarly cautions:
There is reason to suspect that the actual proportion of the literate may have been considerably smaller, because not all who could sign their names could read and write.[5]
Ira Dye, in his paper 'Early American Merchant Seamen' in The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, looked at later generations of sailors, but used the same method for examining literacy. Dye worked under the assumption that being able to sign one's name was 'midway between the capacity to read and the capacity to write.'[6]

The assumption that signing one's name was an indication of a broader literacy was one that existed at the time. Jacob Nagle was called by the captain on a naval vessel to answer for a cup he had written on:
I trimbled, though I new I got the cup onestly. I went aft, where the capt was sitting by a small table, and the purser giving him the cup, "Is this your cup?" "Yes, Sr." "Is this your righting?" "Yes, Sire." He calld his steward and desired him to bring up pen, ink, and paper. When it was brought, he desired me to right. I asked hime what I should right. He made the answer, "What was on the cup." I rought, "Jacob Nagle, Born in the Town of Reading, Berks County, Pennsylvania State, N. Amrice." With my fright and trimbeling I did not right it half so well, but he saw it was the same hand. "You must act as ships steward under the purser," the capt replyed. I made answer that I did not now my own allowance. He replied, "What is the pusser for, but to give you instructions and books."[7]
Given that Nagle wrote more than just his name, we might even assume that the captain made a broader judgment than he would for sailors who could only sign their names. This assumption was not misplaced, despite Nagle's creative phonetic spelling.

Mary Lacy, who disguised herself as a man and went to sea as a carpenter's apprentice, felt guilty for leaving her family. She related this telling anecdote of trying to seal a letter to her parents:
I observed the people now on board were employing themselves in writings letters to their friends; which put a thought into my head to write to my mother, to inform her where I was; which I knew would be a great satisfaction to my parents; I could write but very indifferently; and to entrust any person with my thoughts on this occasion I imagined would be very improper. At last; I resolved to write myself; but, after having wrote my letter, I had nothing to seal it with; and thinking a bit of pitch would do, I went to the pitch-tub for some, which, when I thought I had got, it proved to be tar; so that with using it I soiled the letter very much. I was now greatly perplexed to contrive a method to seal it up. At length, one of the men, who observed I had been writing, gave me a wafer, which did completely.[11]
Not only were multiple common sailors ('the people') engaged in writing, they possessed material culture specific to the act of writing letters: sealing wafers.

Focusing on those sailors who could read and write should not distract us from the fact that illiteracy was undeniably present. Both John Nicol and Hannah Snell, sailors whose recollections were compiled and sold as memoirs, were incapable of writing and relied on others to pen their stories.[12]

In short, I don't have a good answer as to how present the ability to read or write was among common sailors of the eighteenth century. Literacy rates are quite probably much higher than is commonly assumed, while illiteracy was still a common condition.

---
[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 45.
[2] Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989, page 158.
[3] PROB 11/826/161, 11/821/148, 11/821/151, 11/820/386, 11/823/229.
[4] Rodger, Wooden World, page 45.
[5] Rediker, Between the Devil, page 158.
[6] Dye, Ira, 'Early American Merchant Seafarers,' The Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Volume 120, No. 5, October 15, 1976, page 340.
[7] 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 60.
[8] Thornton, Tamara Plakins, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996, page 5.
[9] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 92.
[10] Equiano, Interesting Narrative, pages 122-123.
[11] 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 72-73.
[12] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997; 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.