Monday, February 26, 2018

Superstition, Spirituality, and Religion

Detail from Admiral Hosier's Ghost, Charles Mosley,
1740, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
Our view of sailors in the eighteenth century is colored greatly by subsequent centuries. Richard Henry Dana's excellent memoir Two Years Before the Mast, published in 1840, details some of the superstitions held by sailors on a trip from Boston to California, including premonitions of death and the Flying Dutchman. Patrick O'Brian makes superstition an important part of his Napoleonic seafaring novels The Far Side of the World and The Hundred Days, which in turn were translated to a significant plot point in the 2003 movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. None of these take place in the eighteenth century, but their ideas of superstition are filtered back through mass media. The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise and the Revolutionary War based video game Assassin's Creed III both make sailors' superstitions and their belief in a relatively irreligious supernatural world part of their main themes.

Sailors in the mid to late eighteenth century did sometimes hold beliefs we would recognize as relatively secular superstitions, but more commonly they held a supernatural view of the world in which God directly intervened based on their personal actions.

In their memoirs and journals, sailors rarely mention explicit superstitions. When they do, it is often with an air of disdain. Samuel Kelly related the story of a pilot's belief that the ship's cat could predict (or perhaps effect) the weather:
Having got the pilot on board at Deal and some fresh provisions, we sailed for the river. Our pilot, seeing our cat frolicsome, who doubtless smelled the land, and was running in and out on the bowsprit, became exasperated against the poor animal; he being superstitious concluded her gambols denoted a heavy gale of wind, which actually came on and we rode out the storm in Margate Roads, but I do not think the manoeuvres of the cat were in any way connected with it.[1]
Sean M. Kelley, in his Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare, points to a form of superstition specific to mariners from the colony of Rhode Island: horoscopes.
By the mid-eighteenth century, the practice of astrology in England had declined to the point where it existed only in popular form among the rural and urban laboring classes. But for unclear reasons, it persisted in colonial America, and for reasons that are even murkier, all surviving maritime horoscopes come from Rhode Island.[2]
And there is evidence that others saw sailors as superstitious as well. In The Gentleman's Magazine for 1771, the author relates the tale of a Chinese visitor to Britain who sailed on the Grenville East Indiaman. 'Mr. Chitqua,' as the authors of the magazine called him, discovered that the common sailors were unaccountably prejudiced against him ; owing, probably, to his strange dress and appearance.' This was made worse, they wrote, to his falling overboard and nearly drowning. The sailors with 'superstitious those of Tarshish' turned against Mr. Chitqua and denounced him as a 'Chinese dog.'[3] How much of this was genuine superstition and how much was just base racism is a matter of speculation.

There is also evidence that sailors repeated superstitions, but didn't really believe them. William Spavens seemed to think that superstitions were harmless fun when he wrote of albatrosses 'we used to say they were old transmigrated pursers, &c.'[4] Kelly made game of a cabin boy by intentionally misleading him to believe Kelly possessed the power of telling the future:
One evening, sitting alone writing in the cabin, I heard a rat at work in the locker, when having looked therein, I saw a rat with one eye shut, eating the cork of an oil jar. Soon after I heard him again. I therefore called the cabin boy and told him to hold the candle that I might kill the rat he heard in the locker, and in order to make the boy be more afraid of doing anything amiss, I gave him to understand that I could discover many things, and as proof of it that I knew the said rat had but one yes. I then (with the poker) opened the locked an killed the rat, which I told the boy to examine, and he was not a little surprised at finding my report true.[5]
Though Kelly obviously didn't believe he had accurate premonitions, it was a common belief among sailors. Olauadah Equiano related a story in which his vessel's quarter gunner, John Mondle, woke from a nightmare 'in which he said he had seen many things very awful, and had been warned by St. Peter to repent.' Duly selling off his hard liquors, Mondle was rewarded when 'before Mr. Mondle had got four steps from his cabin-door, [a vessel] struck our ship with her cutwater right in the middle of his bed and cabin, and ran it up to the combings of the quarter-deck hatchway, and above three feet below water, and in a minute there was not a bit of wood to be seen where Mr. Mondle's cabin stood.' Equiano saw this 'as an awful interposition of Providence for his preservation.'[6]

In this anecdote we see an intersection between superstition and religion: a belief in the direct and immediate intervention of God (and Saint Peter) into the lives of sailors based on their behavior.
Detail from Poor Jack, Charles Dibdin, 1790-1791, British Museum.
To be clear, sailors do not appear to have been traditionally Christian. Church services for sailors at sea were rare, and sailors do not appear to have been particularly interested in keeping up with their daily prayers and reading the Bible. John Nicol fell away from his religious observance rather quickly when he first put to sea:
At first I said my prayers and read my Bible in private, but truth makes me confess I gradualy became more and more remiss, and before long I was a sailor like the rest; but my mind felt very uneasy and I made many weak attempts to amend.[7]
John Newton similarly lost his faith at sea:
I was exposed to the company and ill example of common sailors, among whom I ranked. Importunity and opportunity presenting every day, I once more began to relax from the sobriety and order which I had observed, in some degree, for more than two years. I was sometimes pierced with sharp convictions; but though I made a few faint efforts to stop, I never recovered from this declension, as I had done from several before: I did not, indeed, as yet, turn out profligate; but I was making large strides towards a total apostacy from God.[8]
Despite being raised in a strictly traditional Christian household in New England, Christopher Prince also lost his religious habits after a short time afloat:
I soon began to neglect my morning and evening prayers which I had strictly attended to for five years.[9]
Samuel Kelly later expressed regret over not attending church when he had the opportunity to:
Instead of frequenting a place of worship on Sundays to return thanks for the numberless mercies I had experienced during my voyage, I spent the Sabbath in wandering about and in paying visits.[10]
Ebenezer Fox would also later 'regret that I did not spend the Sabbath on board of the Flora,' where he would presumably read his Bible and pray, but was instead 'carousing at a public house on shore.'[11]

The gunner of the Wager, a sailor named Bulkeley, was quoted by Brian Lavery in his Royal Tars: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875-1850, echoed the lack of regular religious services at sea:
The duty of public prayer had been entirely neglected aboard, though every seaman pays fourpence per month towards the support of a minister; yet devotion, in so solemn a manner, is so rarely performed that I know but one instance of it during the many years I have belonged to the navy.[12]
The lack of religious ceremony, ritual, and prayer afloat does not appear to have always been the case. Peter Earle wrote 'that religious observance was not unusual on merchant ships, though regular prayers may well have been commoner in the seventeenth than in the eighteenth century.'[13]

Marcus Rediker, in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 put it this way:
The ship was an environment where work, activity, and self-help necessarily took precedence over religious mediation or supplication. Religious belief and practice had to be broadly congruent with the imperative of work and survival. This necessity, reinforced by the ship's isolation and distance from religious institutions, joined with long-standing plebian traditions of skepticism and anticlericalism to make sailors one of the most notoriously irreligious groups of the early modern period.[14]
John Nicol typified this attitude when he wrote:
The Portuguese are the worst sailors in the world in rough or cold weather, and we had plenty of both, but worse than all we had a black fellow of a priest on board to whom the crew paid more attention than the captain. He was forever ringing his bell for mass and sprinkling holy water upon the men. Whenever it blew harder than ordinary they were sure to run to the quarterdeck to the black priest. We were almost foundered at one time by this unseamanlike conduct.[15]
To Nicol, the Portuguese praying with a priest and engaging in the sacraments instead of working to change their fate was 'unseamanlike conduct.'

Sailors were irreligious in the traditional Christian sense, but that doesn't mean they were agnostic or atheistic. They did still believe that God (or providence, or a similar permutation) would directly and immediately intervene and punish or reward them for their actions. Once a situation was out of the control of sailors, they then resorted to prayer. Kelly thought this attitude understandable, but fickle:
I have read somewhere that seamen are neither reckoned among the living nor the dead, their whole lives being spent in jeopardy. No sooner is one peril over, but another comes rolling on, like waves of a full grown sea. In the Atlantic one fright after another undermines the most robust constitution and brings on apparent old age in the prime of life. No trouble softens their hard obdurate hearts, but as soon as the danger is past they return in the greatest avidity to practice wickedness and blaspheme their Maker and preserver.[16]
William Spavens reflected this same thought when he observed:
I have somewhere seen it observed, that when sailors are in such distress that they have scarcely any hopes of saving their lives, they will curse the elements, go to prayer, and make the most solemn vows of amendment, which are generally forgotten as soon as the tempest is over; but, to the honour of my brother tars, I can truly assert that I have met with many humane and worthy characters in the service, who I have reason to suppose were neither wanting in their duty to their God nor their fellow creatures.[17]
Spavens did not deny that sailors acted in a fashion seen as irreligious for their time, nor did he deny that they would drop to their knees in prayer when disaster threatened only to revert to their old ways immediately afterward. Still, he defended them as 'humane and worthy characters.' This is completely in line with the sailors' view of the direct and immediate intervention of God based on their actions.

An excellent example of this was related by Olauadah Equiano:
While I was in this ship an incident happened, which though trifling, I beg leave to relate, as I could not help taking particular notice of it, and considering it then as a judgment of God. One morning a young man was looking up to the fore-top, and in a wicked tone, common on shipboard, d----d his eyes about something. Just at the moment some small particles of dirt fell into his left eye, and by the evening it was very much inflamed. The next day it grew worse; and within six or seven days he lost it.[18]
John Newton similarly saw God's hand in choosing who lived and who died:
I have been told, that he was overtaken in a voyage from Lisbon with a violent storm; the vessel and people escaped, but a great sea broke on board, and swept him into eternity. Thus the Lord spares or punishes according to his sovereign pleasure![19]
Christopher Prince thought God chose to spare his vessel and its entire crew because of Prince alone:
The kind interposition of Divine Providence brought to my mind many others that had brought me within a hair's breadth of death: and one was in a voyage once to St. Lucé, where I fell from the upper deck of a large brig into the bottom of the hold, one tier of hogsheads excepted, in a dark night, and all hands asleep. There was a protecting hand of the Almighty which saved me from death, although I was in the arms of death for some time.[20]
Kelly also saw the hand of God in his preservation ('What a mercy it is that an elect sinner cannot lose his life till he has experienced the grace of effectual calling') and in the punishment of sinners ('As my uncle was a very moral, prudent man, I cannot account for his losses as anything so much as from the property being obtained in the slave trade').[21]

Sailors could also influence the Almighty and ask for His intervention. John Harrower, a servant being shipped to America in 1773, related an incident that straddled the line between superstition and religious practice in supplications to Christ:
This morning a young lad, one of the servts being verry ill with the Fever and Ague, he begged me to apply to Mr. jones the Cheif Mate, and told me he cou'd give him something that would cure him; Mr. Jones first desired me to give him a Womite and then wrote the following lines on a slip of paper and after folding it up gave it to me, to see it tyed up int he corner of his handkirchif or Cravat and wear it at his breast next his skin with strick charge not to look at it himself nor let any other person see it or look at it untill it was got wel. The words are as follows When Jesus saw the Cross he trembled, The Jews said unto him why tremblest thou, You have neight got an Ague nor a fever. Jesus Answered and said unto them I have neight got an Ague nor a fever But whosoever keepth my words Shall neither have an Ague nor a fever. Mr. Jones told me when he gave me the above copy it a sertain cure for the fever and Ague, the patient being first womited and then wearing the lines as above directed, But if they show it to any or look at it themselves it will have no effect.[22]
A similar intersection of religion and superstition came from the belief that Friday was an ill omen, as it was this day that Christ was crucified. Christopher Prince, writing after he had left the sea and became a religious reformer, believed he had proof against it:
We arrived safe at New London, only eight days absent, and brought Mr. Mumford not less than $40,000 worth of property, equal to silver and gold. The success throwed away the superstition of many about a vessel sailing on a Friday.[23]
Sean M. Kelley points to Rhode Island sailors' practice of casting horoscopes as another example of the mutual existence of superstition and Christianity:
While most clergy would have frowned upon astrological conjuring, practitioners often found ways to reconcile it with formal religion. The system was open enough to allow practitioners to elide any conflicts.[24]
It is worth noting that Olauadah Equiano, Christopher Prince, and John Newton, all men who served as common sailors and later wrote memoirs, became active religious reformers when they retired from the sea. Samuel Kelly likewise went on to become a fervent traditional Christian, though you might not know it from reading his published journal. As Stephen R. Berry related in his A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World:
The nearly unanimous conception of sailors as irreligious sometimes downplayed contrary evidence, to the point of excising religion from texts. The early twentieth-century editor of mariner Samuel Kelly's journal expunged the "disease" of "psalm-singing" and moralizing from the diary, acting on the conviction that these traits had little to do with life at sea. For Kelly, however, those things had everything to do with the sea.[25]
The memoirs of Kelly, Equiano, Prince, and Newton are all colored by their later religious fervor, and conformity to a terrestrial Christianity that may not have been as prominent at sea. Or, as Berry argues, it may have 'had everything to do with the sea.'

Ultimately, the line between religion and superstition is a blurry one. The very root of superstition is in the Latin word meaning 'prophecy, soothsaying; dread of the supernatural, excessive fear of the gods, religious belief based on fear or ignorance and considered incompatible with truth or reason.'[26] This definition is broad enough that it can be imposed by any religious belief onto another. Sailors were irreligious in the eyes traditional terrestrial Christianity. Whether that translates to superstition is dependent very much on your own religious belief.

[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, pages 159-160.
[2] Kelley, Sean M., Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016, page 46.
[3] The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 41, 1771, page 237, University of Michigan via HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed January 7, 2019, <;view=1up;seq=285>.
[4] 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 72.
[5] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, page 141.
[6] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page
[7] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 28.
[8] 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 18.
[9] Prince, Yankee Mariner, page 15.
[10] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, page 130.
[11] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, page 213-214.
[12] 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, 1987, page 169.
[13] Lavery, Brian, Royal Tars: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy, 875-1850, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010, page 176.
[14] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, page 138.
[15] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 105.
[16] Nicol, Life and Adventures, page 148.
[17] Spavens, Memoirs, 26
[18] Equiano, Interesting Narrative, page 
[19] Newton, Works, page
[20] Prince, Yankee Mariner, page 92
[21] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, pages 88 and 133.
[22] Harrower, John, "Diary of John Harrower, 1773-1776," in The American Historical Review, Volume 6, No. 1, October 1900, page 75, via Internet Archive, accessed February 3, 2018, <>.
[23] 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 160.
[24] Kelley, Slave Ship Hare, 48.
[25] Berry, Stephen R., A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, page 89.
[26] 'superstition, n,', Online Etymological Dictionary, accessed February 22, 2018, <>.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Naval Sailors in Outlander

Last time, I wrote about the portrayal of merchant sailors in the Starz television series Outlander. Today I'll be looking at their portrayal of common naval sailors.

In the Wooden World there was a common pool of labor from which all vessels drew. Many sailors, like Ashley Bowen, William Spavens, and Samuel Kelly, sailed on merchantmen and naval vessels. Christopher Prince and Jacob Nagle served on both American and British warships during the Revolution, as well as merchantmen. Olauadah Equiano sailed on merchantmen, naval vessels, and slavers.

The costumes of Outlander create a false distinction between the lower decks of merchantmen and men of war. Their material worlds are arbitrarily divided, creating a sense of different cultures. There were distinctions between the culture of merchantmen and men of war, but there were more similarities than the series suggests.

This inaccurate dichotomy is why I split the review of Outlander into two parts. Interestingly, the naval seamen are portrayed more accurately than the merchant seamen.
That's not to say it is without problems. As I've written before, sailors wore their hair short for most of the eighteenth century. In this series we see a lot of long hair and pigtails, and not a bob wig or bob style haircut in sight.
I don't usually talk about marines, but there's basically nothing about this uniform that is even remotely right, except that he's wearing red.
This guy is at least ballpark. His leather cap is just a fantasy item, but his blue jacket is decent. His sleeved waistcoat is buttoned weirdly, but bonus points for it peeking out from the cuffs of his jacket. His petticoat trousers are striped, which is not common, but also not unheard of, and the broad fall fly is correct for the period. His shirt is open and a black handkerchief hangs around his neck. Generally speaking, sailors wore their handerkchiefs over the collars of their shirts. Overall, he looks way better than most depictions of sailors from the period.
The officers are also only kind of correct. This midshipman's clothes hang like a potato sack, and he wears bizarre white canvas gaiters for some reason. The officers coats are clearly based on the original uniform in the collection of the National Maritime Museum for the 1748-67 regulations for officers uniforms, so it did come from a primary source. The problem is that this is 1766, and those long loose skirts and giant cuffs are no longer in fashion.
Captain Sir Edward Vernon, Francis Hayman, 1753-1756,
National Maritime Museum
As a counterpoint, you can see that Vernon wears his breeches tightly fitted, the cuffs are significantly shorter, and this was still ten years before Outlander takes place. Naval uniform fashion did not freeze for a generation. At least they went to an original source.

There is a tendency in mass media to portray sailors as unchanging. Sailing traditions of the nineteenth century are projected far back through the age of sail. Such is the case with the stitch through the nose.
When sailors died and were sewn into their hammocks, the last stitch was supposedly passed through the nose of the dead tar just to be sure he actually was dead. I have never seen a reference to this practice in the eighteenth century.

There are bright spots. The actual burial scene was done pretty well. I really enjoy that they included a working class woman in the lower decks of the Porpoise. Not only was the presence of women aboard men of war a fact of the eighteenth century, but it undermines the tired notion that women were bad luck at sea, which does not appear to have been a belief at the time. Overall, the material world is much better than in the previous episode.
But seriously, does nobody own a pair of stockings on this ship? Sure, sometimes sailors went barefoot, but this is ridiculous.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Merchant Sailors in Outlander

It has been a while since I dug into portrayals of eighteenth century common sailors in mass media. This is largely because there hasn't been much recently in the way of mass media that includes common tars. That changed last year with the third season of the Starz time-travel-costume-drama-bodice-ripper Outlander.

Based on the books by Diana Gabaldon, Outlander follows a 1940's woman in an eighteenth century world. A few episodes are drawn from Gabaldon's novel Voyager, in which the protagonists go to sea in the year 1766, sailing from Scotland to the West Indies in a merchantman. The main character, Clare Frasier, is pressed into service as a surgeon on a man of war during the passage.

One reason this flew under my radar is that Outlander is written for female audiences. I've never read the books, but many (probably most) of my female friends have. The television series has stirred up quite a lot of controversy over their costuming decisions, much of which revolves around female dress. The writers over at Frock Flicks have spent quite a lot of time sifting through the debates.

Today I'm going to look at their portrayals of maritime material culture and life among merchant sailors.

The first we see of the Wooden World is at the end of episode eight, when a young boy is kidnapped by Portuguese sailors. The sailors themselves are only seen at a distance through a spyglass, but we do get a good look at the Portuguese ship. I gotta say, they did pretty well.
Vascello di Secondo Rango Portoghese Tenente Generale Salutando con Canone e alla Voce,
artist unknown, 1780, National Maritime Museum
I've seen far worse. The high stern with overly ornate cabin windows gives the vessel the feel of an earlier age of shipbuilding, and the rigging hangs too loose. The ship is also remarkably drab, with brown saturating everything. It is not clear to me whether they intended the ship to be unpainted, which would be even worse. But for a prop that is on screen for a total of fourteen seconds, it's not as bad as it could be.

In episode nine, the series really puts to sea. We are introduced to the brig Artemus, and here is where the production team starts running into problems. Filming at sea is very difficult and very expensive. Steven Spielberg stated he was 'naïve' to shoot the 1977 film Jaws at sea, even though he was happy with the results. Even the most historically accurate age of sail film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World only did a few shots at sea, and most of the shooting on sound stages and in water tanks. The crew of Outlander had to build ships with green screens to stay on schedule and in their budget.

The Artemus shows the compromises the crew made in constructing a vessel of the period.
She is boxy and looks a bit like the Lego pirate ships I had as a kid. She's pierced for guns along the weather deck, but is just sheer walls of wood along the aft cabin. Her bulwarks are high for a merchantman of the period. Probably this was so that the crew could film on-deck shots without having the worry as much about the background, reducing the cost and time involved in creating a CGI seascape.
The sailors on the merchantman are less than impressive. Some wear odd shawls, there's lots of brown and beige, and almost no blue in their slop clothes. Few of them wear trousers or petticoat trousers. Most wear loose fitting breeches. Boots abound, as do cocked hats made of straw, neither of which appear on sailors of the mid-eighteenth century in sources I have found. These merchantmen look more like a costumer's compromise between Hollywood pirate films and Peter Weir's Master and Commander. Also, what's up with that leather jerkin? And why does nobody button up their damned waistcoats?
Perhaps the strangest choice was to equip a sailor in these odd leather wraps around the forearms. They don't seem to have any purpose other than looking olde-timey.

Bigger issues come with the plot. The sailors are portrayed as superstitious because someone didn't touch a horseshoe that was hastily and sloppily nailed into one of the bitts by the mainmast. The crew are so convinced that they are cursed that a riot breaks when they attempt to murder the man they believe responsible. I'll be writing soon about sailors' superstitions and religious beliefs, but I've never read anything like this for the period. A relatively secular form of superstition did exist, but its power was negligible, and it was not nearly so widespread as Hollywood would have you believe.

The sailors are portrayed as ignorant and dirty. Their clothes hang loose, and when the common sailor gets to speak, he is usually shouting some poppycock about curses. I was entirely unimpressed by their portrayal of the lower decks.

Thankfully, as we will see next time, they do a bit better with naval seamen.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Executioners of Their Friends: Impressment and the Revolution

Detail from The Press Gang, John Collet, c.1760's,
from The Foundling Museum
Representatives of the thirteen rebellious British colonies in North America famously listed their grievances with the Crown in the Declaration of Independence. From the dissolving of assemblies to the use of German mercenaries, the Founders laid out every major offense to the liberty of Americans. The Declaration of Independence is known to every American school child. The assertion that 'all men are created equal' is arguably the cornerstone of American political philosophy.

What is little explored and little known is the argument that the King:
has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.[1]
Their argument was the culmination of decades of anger over the kidnapping of American sailors, and colonial resistance (both of the legal and violent varieties) to a controversial system.

I argue that the Revolution did not end the troubles of impressment, but exacerbated them. This was largely because the Americans themselves relied on the British tradition of impressment to man their ships. Such a clearly hypocritical action (and one that many Americans were clearly uncomfortable with) undermined and eroded their argument until it was no longer a viable point to stand on.

I'm not the first to make this argument. Tim McGrath mentioned American impressment in his 2014 book Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea. Mark Strecker mentions it in the introduction to his 2014 book Shanghaiing Sailors: A Maritime History of Forced Labor, 1849–1915 and makes the same argument that I do concerning the hypocrisy created by this act. William M. Fowler Jr. also addressed it as far back as 1974 in his paper 'The Non-Volunteer Navy' published in the United States Naval Institute Proceedings, and again in his 1976 book Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution.

Americans detested naval impressment. In the 1765 case of the the Rhode Island guineaman Ospray, whose sailors were pressed by the Royal Navy frigate Maidstone, the people of Newport were so angered that they rioted. As Timothy Abbott relates in his blog 'Another Pair Not Fellows,' when the Maidstone's tender Saint John sent a boat ashore to retrieve a deserter who may have been a pressed man:
Pelting the sailors with stones, the large crowd injured a number of the men in Saint John's boat and took a midshipman hostage. Then some of the mob took up muskets and pursued the retreating longboat back toward the Saint John in a sloop. Before the end of the affair, the colonial gunners at the Fort George on Goat Island even fired cannon (one shot allegedly piercing her Mainsail) at Saint John.
Five years before the Boston Massacre, a full decade before Lexington and Concord, Americans fired on a Royal Navy vessel over naval impressment.

One reason the British did not more aggressively pursue suppression of American resistance to impressment was the tricky legal situation it placed British commanders in.

An example of the complicate legal scene can be found in the affair of the Pitt Packet. Sailing into Boston in 1769, she was stopped by the frigate Rose. The sailors, believing themselves to be protected from impressment by law, barricaded themselves in the Pitt Packet's forepeak and fought back against a press gang led by Lieutenant Henry Panton. John Adams later wrote that the sailor Michael Corbet drew a line with salt across the deck, and warned Lieutenant Panton
If you step over that line, I shall consider it as a proof that you are determined to impress me, and by the eternal God of Heaven, you are a dead man.” “Aye, my lad,” said the lieutenant, “I have seen many a brave fellow before now.” Taking his snuff-box out of his pocket, and taking a pinch of snuff, he very deliberately stepped over the line, and attempted to seize Corbet. The latter, drawing back his arm, and driving his harpoon with all his force, cut off the carotid artery and jugular vein, and laid the lieutenant dead at his feet.[2]
John Adams, future founding father, made the interesting argument that naval impressment was justifiable, but so too was violent resistance to impressment:
I think that Impresses may be allowed to be legal, and yet Corbit might have a Right to resist. To be more particular, when I say Impresses may be legal, I mean that the Lieutenant or other officer who Impresses, may not be liable to any Action of false Imprisonment at the suit of the Party, or to any Indictment at the suit of the Crown, for an Assault, or Riot. The Custom may be admitted to extend so far, and yet it will not follow, that the Seaman has not a Right to resist, and keep himself out of the officers Power, if he can.[3]
Adams hadn't even finished his closing argument before the court abruptly adjourned, and reconvened hours later with the hasty decision to release the accused as having committed a justifiable homicide.

In America, the face of resistance was common sailors and lawyers. In Britain, the face of resistance was female. This was made apparent by the Falkland Island crisis of 1770. As Denver Brunsman related in his The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World, to prepare for a possible war with Spain, King George III's 'navy impressed seamen on a massive scale.'[4]
Detail from The Press Gang, or English Liberty Display'd,
artist unknown, 1770, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
Detail from The Press Gang, artist unknown, 1770,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library
Satiric cartoons printed in Britain illustrated the injustice of impressment as men were hustled off by sailors, while their wives wept at the feet of uncaring naval officers.

Tugging at the heart strings was one way to resist, but women were also willing to directly confront press gangs and challenge their courage and manhood. Many newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic reported the appearance of 'the famous Hannah Snell' in confronting press gangs.

April 11, 1771, The Maryland Gazette, page 2
Hannah was not bluffing when she dared them to 'take Brown Bess on your Shoulder, and march through Germany, as I have done; Ye Dogs, I have more Wounds about me than ye have Fingers.' As a younger woman, she disguised herself as a man, served in the marines, and was wounded in battle.

Resistance to impressment was present throughout the British Atlantic World, and so when the Continental Congress included a condemnation of impressment after the outbreak of hostilities, they were likely to find a receptive audience among the British.

Sadly, this argument was almost immediately undermined. The Continental Navy, America's new and tiny maritime force, was chronically undermanned and undersupplied. To solve the former problem, sometimes press gangs were employed.

The impressment of sailors by American ships at first targeted British sailors and exempted Americans. A ship's carpenter recalled that when he and his mates were taken prisoner by the Americans in 1776, they were well treated 'and had Passes given us to protect us from being impressed by the American Sea Officers.'[5] Another British prisoner in 1776 recalled the use of impressment against British sailors: 'About the 20th of October, the Boston, a 30 gun frigate, came round from Newbury to Boston, to fit out under the command of Capt. M'Neil; she was navigated by thirty English sailors, whom they impressed for that service only.'[6]

Still, the Americans tried to practice what they preached about naval impressment. Writing to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Continental Army general Horatio Gates mentioned a seaman named William Beard among prisoners (soldiers and sailors) taken by his command. Beard, wrote Gates, 'appears to be an Impress'd Man, on board of a Man of War, at Hampton in Virginia; he may also have his Liberty at Worcester.'[7] The Americans were fighting a war of liberation, and if they could free British subjects from the oppression perpetrated by their own government, it would underline the moral justice of their cause.

Their moral fortitude was not to last. As the Americans became desperate, principles gave way and captains began pressing American sailors. The most notorious incident involved Captain James Nicholson, commanding the frigate Virginia in Baltimore, Maryland. Nicholson was ordered by the Marine Committee in 1777 to 'be particularly attentive to collect as many Seamen as possible, not only what may be necessary for the Virginia, but as many as you can bring to assist in manning the rest of our Navy.'[8] Given that Baltimore was a vibrant privateer port, there were few sailors willing to take on the low pay of a Continental Navy vessel. Nicholson ran a press in Baltimore and infuriated the Marylanders.

Governor Thomas Johnson scolded Nicholson in a letter demanding he cease impressment and discharge all men forced into his service. Johnson adopted the rebels rhetoric in reminding Nicholson of the responsibility that came with authority:
It is the Office of Government to protect every Subject in his Liberty and his Property, nor shall we, who are honored by our Country with the highest Department, be idle Spectators of the Oppression of any Man in it.[9]
When Nicholson persisted, Johnson wrote to the Continental Congress and implied that the captain was becoming something of a tyrant with unchecked powers:
I am sorry the Congress did not at once say what Capt Nicholson should do by way of Concession and appoint some Body to discharge the Men there's an indelicacy in saying what any shall do by a Man to himself.[10]
Nicholson was not the only Continental Navy officer to practice impressment. The legendary John Paul Jones was accused of pressing privateersmen, provoking a protest that was sent directly to Congress:
The Owners of the Privateer Schooner Eagle request that you will present to Congress, and support with your good Influence, the inclosed Memorial and Protest, relative to the Conduct of Capt. Jones, Commander of the Ship Alfred, in impressing a Number of Hands from the Said Schooner, maltreating the Officers, and breaking up her Cruize.[11]
Impressment was also practiced by Captain Webb of the Pennsylvania State Navy, Captain Isaiah Robinson of the Continental brig Andrew Doria, and Captain John Burroughs Hopkins of the Continental ship Warren.[12]

With the entry of France into the war, Britain's already strained resources were pressed even further. Impressment was used, as it had been throughout the century, to man the Royal Navy, and certainly on a much broader scale than the Americans were. In a telling political cartoon published in 1779, James Gillray used the language of the American rebels to protest impressment.
The Liberty of the Subject, by James Gillray, 1779, National Portrait Gallery (UK)
Gillray shows women violently resisting the gang, pulling their hair and swinging sticks. The term 'Liberty' is front and center. Gillray was using the Americans' vocabulary of Revolution to call out unjust practices in the mother country, but the Americans still failed to live up to their rhetoric. In 1781 Jacob Nagle, an American citizen, was targeted for impressment by a Continental Navy warship.
The Confederacy frigate sent her boat on board and took 4 men out, and expecting more to be stowed away below, but could not find us. They left three midshipmen on board with a brace of pistols and cutlashes each.[13]
The Declaration of Independence bore a strong argument against naval impressment that would have resounded with British sympathizers. In failing to follow the high ideals of the new nation, the Continental Navy drained that argument of its effectiveness. Despite the role of press gangs in provoking colonials toward rebellion, it failed to find a place among the American pantheon of British injustice, like quartering troops, dissolving legislatures, taxation without representation, and hiring German armies to fight in America.

A generation later, naval impressment reemerged as a wedge in American-British relations, and led directly to the War of 1812.

[1] 'Engrossed Declaration of Independence,' The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Record Group 360: Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, 1765 - 1821, accessed January 25, 2018, <>.
[2] John Adams, 'The Indamissable Principles of the King of England's Proclamation of October 26, 1807,' The Works of John Adams, Volume 9, Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1854, page 312.
[3] 'Adams' Argument and Report, Special Court of Admiralty, Boston, June 1769' in Legal Papers of John Adams Volume 2, Massachussetts Historical Society, accessed January 25, 2018, <>.
[4] Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth Century Atlantic World, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013, page 244.
[5] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William Bell Clark, ed., volume 4, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1969, page 1115.
[6] Naval Documents, volume 7, page 299.
[7] Naval Documents, Volume 3, page 601-602.
[8] Naval Documents, volume 8, page 297.
[9] Maryland State Archives, Journal and Correspondence of the Maryland Council of Safety, January 1-March 20, 1777, Maryland Archives Online, Volume 16, page 277, accessed January 26, 2018, <>.
[10] Naval Documents, volume 8, page 966.
[11] Naval Documents, volume 7, page 357.
[12] Naval Documents, volume 8, pages 459, 381, and 1044.

[13] 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 25.

Monday, February 5, 2018

More Than Rum

Detail from The Scourge of India Captains Taking His Usual Regale,
W. Wells, 1781, Wellcome Library.
Continuing my occasional theme of 'rum, sodomy, and the lash,' today I'm taking a quick look at rum. It's an easy assumption to make: sailors loved their rum. They did, but they loved a lot more than rum, and rum was not the sole staple of the sailors' diet of alcoholic beverages.

Sailors could lay in their own stores of alcohol. John Fray, a sailor on the Maryland merchantman Rumney & Long in 1747/8 bought twelve gallons of wine, two gallons of brandy, fifteen gallons of cider, and twelve and a half gallons of rum. All told, alcohol cost him four pounds and seventeen shillings, nearly a quarter of all his expenses for the voyage.
Maryland State Archives, SC 1065, Rumney & Long ledger book, f.14
Vessels carried their own stores of alcoholic beverages as well. In the return from the 60 gun Centurion in early 1755, about the time that she sailed in convoy to North America with the 50 gun Norwich, we see how many tons of beer and water each vessel carried for the voyage across the Atlantic.
The National Archives (UK), ADM 4/180, f.499
In these two examples alone we see wine, brandy, cider, and beer, as well as rum. Beer was the primary alcoholic ration of the Royal Navy, but given regional availability, it was often substituted. N.A.M. Rodger, in The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, transcribed a table of equivalences for substituting rations. A gallon of beer could be substituted by a pint of wine, or a half pint arrack, rum, or brandy.
On long passages and on foreign stations men drank watered wine (in the proportion of 8 to 1) or watered spirits (in the proportion of 16 to 1), but in home water they drank beer alone, and the length of time a ship could stay at sea was effectively measured by how long her beer would last.[1]
Beer was so important, the the ability to brew it made sailors valuable. The cooper John Nicol spent much of his time at sea as a brewer of spruce beer. At least once he was recruited into a profitable voyage for that very skill:
At once I made myself clean and waited upon Captain Portlock. He was happy to see me, as I was an excellent brewer of spruce-beer, and the very man he wished, but knew not where to have sent for me. I was at once engaged on the most liberal terms as cooper, and went away rejoicing in my good fortune.[2]
Samuel Kelly related the drinks of choice for the upper and lower decks of an American vessel:
The American officers appeared sober men, as they generally drank water mixed with the bottled porter, though some of the crew had broached a pipe of Madeira wine in the between decks, and cut up the cheese which they fried in the pan to eat.[3]
Mixing drinks, as we have seen, was common. Generally this was watering down, which includes the famous sailors' rum drink grog. Grog was a very simple drink, as Francis Grose defines it in the 1785 edition of his A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue:
Grog was certainly present on eighteenth century vessels. William Spavens, Jacob Nagle, and Samuel Kelly all write of receiving an allowance of grog.[5] Notably, many sailors don't mention grog at all.

Eighteenth century sailors were figuratively awash in liquor. Alcohol formed an important part of maritime culture. That drinking culture was host to a diverse range of drinks, and not defined solely by rum.

[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 90-92
[2] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 77.
[3] 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 49.
[4] Grose, Francis, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, London: S. Hooper, 1785, via Google Books, accessed January 26, 2018 <>.
[5] 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; 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 20 and 66; Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, pages 101-102.