|Detail from Voyage to Margate, Isaac Cruikshank, |
published by W. Hinton, 1786, National Maritime Museum
We have long since jettisoned the idea that common sailors were uneducated and incapable, but they were not gentlemen. Could common sailors rise through the ranks to command? In a word: yes. But there's a lot of caveats to that.
Historians agree that moving from a Jack Tar to a place of recognized prominence was not common or easy. In his book Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, Peter Earle writes:
Offices such as boatswain, gunner or second mate were within the range of any competent sailor but further promotion was more difficult, since the most senior positions required more education and more influence than the generality of sailors possessed.Denver Brunsman addressed the slim possibility of advancement with the navy in his The Evil Necessity:
The best most seamen could hope for was to climb one or two rungs above their station by becoming misdshipmen or warrant officers (the highest rank before Lieutenant). If not a true meritocracy, in sum, the eighteenth-century Royal Navy left open the possibility for some advancement based on seamen's abilities and performance.Both Earle and Brunsman were careful not to state it was impossible. Tracing the origins of prominent sea captains (both in the merchant and naval services) can be tricky. N.A.M. Rodger summed up the problem in The Wooden World:
There are not many people who can be said with certainty to have risen from foremastmen to senior officers, probably because there were not that many in fact, but also because they were not necessarily keen to advertise their origins.There was a certain stench to sailors who had risen up in a society that adhered to a strict hierarchy of class. 'The service was not only a highly honourable profession attractive to the nobility and gentry,' Rodger wrote, 'but also to a large degree a career open to talent wherever it might be found.'
Few men rose from the rank of common sailor to a position of command, but enough of them did to startle some of the gentry less secure in their own standing. In the words of Stephen Berry, the use of 'class conceptions to lock sailors at the bottom of the shipboard social hierarchy carried over to captains and mates, whose close connections to their vessels also polluted them in the eyes of passengers.'
Colonial Virginia planters, always nervous about how their social position was viewed across the Atlantic, were particularly attuned to the dangers of opening up the hierarchy to deserving laborers. George Washington had an affinity for the sea, borne of his voyage to Bermuda in 1751, but wrote virtually nothing about the sailors and officers who accompanied the Braddock Expedition with him in 1755. When Braddock and other officers praised Lieutenant Spendelowe of the Royal Navy, the usually prolific Washington afforded him only a brief mention in a single memorandum. Still, neglecting naval officers and merchant captains was better than lambasting them. Fellow Virginia planter William Byrd II tried to equate sea captains with a lesser race, gender, and species in 1737 when he wrote 'one may as soon tutor a monkey to speak or a French woman to hold her tongue as to bring a Skipper to higher Flights of Reason.' The rising middle class in Britain shared a disdain for the mariners' ability to move up the social ladder, however rare that might be. In Samuel Johnson's periodical The Rambler, a fictional squire humorously dismissed 'the sailor as a rude uncultivated savage, with little more of human than his form.' Those who felt more secure in their social standing, like General Edward Braddock, could afford to give credit to skilled mariners, even those with the taint of a humble origin.
There were some men who broke through the permeable barrier separating the tween decks and the quarterdeck, and a few rose to some of the highest positions of power within the British Atlantic world.
The most famous of these men was James Cook. Though Cook was not, as Dugard bizarrely asserts, 'the first man in Royal Navy history to rise from the bottom of those ranks to an officer's commission and command.' As a single example: Samuel Cornish had risen from the lowly position of a common seaman to command of the 90 gun Namur a full twenty-four years before Cook passed his lieutenant's examination, and was made a vice-admiral and a baronet four years before Cook's first fateful Pacific voyage.
Cornish was not alone in climbing from before the mast to the rank of admiral. In a more surprising case, John MacBride was pressed in Portsmouth by a gang from the frigate Garland in 1754. The Garland's muster shows his promotion to midshipman in April of 1756.
|ADM 36/5659, Garland muster book, April 1754-December 1756, f.251, photo by Alexa Price.|
|Captain John MacBride, Gilbert Stuart, 1788, Yale Center for British Art.|
"What department are you of?"Bowen had risen from abused captain's servant to mate on merchant voyages, and the navy gave him an opportunity to ascend further, to the point that he rubbed elbows with eighteenth century military legends like Wolfe and James Cook, even if he still bore the look of a common Jack Tar.
I said of the Marine Department.
I answered, "His Majesty's Ship Pembroke."
"What are you on board the Pembroke?"
My answer was "Acting Midshipman."
"Where is your uniform?"
I said, "I have none. I come from New England with a company of volunteers to serve His Majesty in the reduction of Canada."
Once a sailor became a midshipman, preferment was still key. Midshipmen required a reliable, powerful patron to help them get ahead. This was likely the case for James Alms, another man to rise from the tween decks to post captain. As a teenager, Alms was wrecked on the flagship Namur (the same ship that Cornish had once commanded) on the Coromandel Coast and was one of only 23 or 26 survivors out of a crew of hundreds. Both the captain of the Namur and Admiral Edward Boscawen were providentially ashore and escaped the catastrophe. According to the Gentleman's Magazine, 'immediately after this disaster, [Alms] was promoted to be lieutenant of the Syren.' With hundreds of men wiped out in a single moment, but the powerful commanders spared, Alms likely fell into patronage.
Naval men near the top of the social ladder took an interest in the advancement of their lowliest subordinates. Such was the case when the shattered remnants of the naval detachment to Braddock's 1755 expedition finally limped back to the Royal Navy. Commodore Augustus Keppel wrote a letter of introduction to the Admiralty for midshipman Thomas Haynes who 'behaved with great Bravery...I cant help begging you would be please to lay his case before their Lordships that he may receive the Rewards due to his Meritt, Losses & Fatigue.' Keppel also recommended boatswain's mate Henry Kelsey of the Centurion be promoted to boatswain.
It may have been easier to rise through the hierarchy on merchant vessels. Samuel Kelly made the transition from before the mast to the captain's cabin, and left a memoir of his time at both ends of the ship. Both the naval and merchant services still required a degree of social connection. New Englander Christopher Prince, who would lead a very eventful life at sea during the American Revolution, came from a family of mariners: 'All my father's brothers had been seafaring men and ship masters, and stood high in the estimation of merchants as able commanders of vessels, all of which obtained property.' The Prince family's connections ran throughout maritime New England. Ashley Bowen served as a mate beside Prince's uncle and namesake in 1751. Christopher's tie to the shining reputation of the Prince family name was certainly an advantage to him as he wound his way through a turbulent career.
This was true for slave ship captains as well. Marcus Rediker wrote in his book The Slave Ship: A Human History that:
Family connections often guided the way to the captain's cabin, but only after considerable experience at sea. On average, the first command of a slaver came at age thirty in Liverpool and thirty-one in Bristol. The path to the ship was similar among captains in the Rhode Island slave trade, although American masters were less likely to specialize in it.It was possible for enslaved men to become captains of small vessels in the American colonies. In his Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, W. Jeffrey Bolster wrote about 'patroons.' Patroons were enslaved American captains who 'had considerable amounts of time without white supervision, substantial freedom of movement, and independent income from petty trading.' This freedom carried a definite risk for the enslavers:
Like drivers in the fields, they had to balance competing interests between masters and other slaves to secure their positions, although it is clear that many used their positions to convey unauthorized slaves from place to place and to nourish slaves' illicit market in stolen goods. This workaday resistance flared into open rebellion during the chaos of the American Revolution, when maritime slaves piloted British invasionary forces intent on destroying their masters.Prior to the Revolution, whites feared the ability of black sailors gaining power at sea. Enslaved sailor Olaudah Equiano wrote about his attempts to learn navigation from his captain: 'But some of our passengers, and others, seeing this, found much fault with him for it, saying, it was a very dangerous thing to let a negro know navigation; thus I was hindered again in my pursuits.' Certainly a good deal of this fear was derived from the knowledge that enslaved sailors could escape to freedom if they knew how to navigate, but navigation was also a path toward command, and enslaved skippers upended societal norms.
With the American Revolutionary War, the Royal Navy embraced this inversion of colonial maritime hierarchy to an astonishing degree. They welcomed patroons and black pilots to their fleet in the Chesapeake and southern colonies, all the way through the Siege of Yorktown.
|'London, at Sea, October 29, 1781 extract of letter from Rear-Admiral Graves,' |
The London Chronicle, November 27, 1781, page 1.
Perkins is an exception. For most black sailors, there was no chance of such advancement. Charles Foy of Eastern Illinois University analyzed his massive Black Mariner Database (BMD) and found:
Among the 1300 identified black naval seamen in the BMD there are only seven officers. Nor did the Continental Navy promote blacks into its officer ranks. Thus, although during the 18th century berths on ships offered blacks opportunities for meaningful employment often not available on land, progress up the maritime hierarchy was frequently very limited for most black seamen in the Atlantic.Social mobility works both ways. Christopher Prince, despite his pedigree and undeniable skill as a sea captain, entered the Connecticut State Navy ship Oliver Cromwell as a landsman in late 1776. Prince explained his decision to enter as the absolute lowest possible rank on a warship in his memoir decades later as motivated in part by his attachment to an unskilled friend:
It is a long time since I have been before the mast, and if I entered as a seaman, I might remain in that situation as long as I continued on board, and should deprive you of my company, both on deck and mess. But if I shipped as a landman I was sure of promotion, and take you with me as I went along, which has now proved to be true, for I have gone from a landman to a seaman, and did not stop there, for you see I am captain of this top, which is nearly as honorable as a midshipman, and I shall not stop here.
Prince thought that he could easily advance up the ranks (which turned out to be true) and that he could advance another along with him, mimicking the preferment system that the Royal Navy operated under. Probably he also entered as a landsman to secure a degree of anonymity and establish his seafaring credentials before it was revealed that he had served the British (albeit unwillingly) in Canada. When Captain Coit of the Oliver Cromwell asked Prince where he had learned his seafaring skills, 'I did not want to tell him at once all my experience, and in particular, of my being in the English Navy for twelve months...for it might bring some jealous feelings on his mind.' Or, he leaves unsaid, it might have brought reprisals.
Others were forced before the mast. As punishment for desertion, Royal Navy midshipman John Newton was 'degraded from my office, and all my former companions forbidden to show me the least favour, or even to speak to me. As midshipman, I had been entitled to some command, which (being sufficiently haughty and vain) I had not been backward to exert. I was now, in my turn, brought down to a level with the lowest, and exposed to the insults of all.'
As the eighteenth century advanced, the porous divide between officers and men began to solidify. Rediker writes in his Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea:
Upward mobility in the British merchant service seems to have declined as the industry's growth slowed in the first half of the eighteenth century and as merchant captains increasingly secured their positions by kinship and other connections to merchants, rather than by promotion through the ranks.
The same was true in the Royal Navy. Brunsman relates:
In a study of social mobility in the navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, Michael Lewis found that a regular seaman had only a 1-in-2,500 chance of becoming a commissioned officer; of those lucky few, only 30 percent rose higher than lieutenant.For most of the eighteenth century, the sea offered an opportunity for social advancement, even for those at the very bottom of the otherwise rigid hierarchy in the British Atlantic world. This does not mean it was easy, nor that most sailors would advance, only that it was possible. One can see why merchant and naval vessels were so attractive to the countless servants and enslaved men who ran away to them. The sea provided a degree of mobility that was virtually impossible ashore, and though the route to the top was treacherous and unlikely, it was still there.
 Dugard, Martin, Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook, New York: Washington Square Press, 2002, pages 32-33.
 Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 43.
 Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World, University of Virginia, 2013, page 165.
 Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 268.
 Rodger, Wooden World, 273.
 Berry, Stephen R., A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, page 91.
 “Memorandum, 30 May–11 June 1755,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified April 12, 2018, accessed April 24, 2018, <http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-01-02-0147>. [Original source: The Papers of George Washington, Colonial Series, vol. 1, 7 July 1748 – 14 August 1755, ed. W. W. Abbot. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983, pp. 293–298.].
 “Letters of Colonel William Byrd 2d, of Westover, Va.” Virginia Historical Magazine, Vol. 9, No.3, January 1902, page 249, via Google Books, accessed September 29, 2017, <https://books.google.com/books?id=twc1AAAAIAAJ&source=gbs_navlinks_s>.
 Johnson, Samuel, "The Rambler," Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 22, 1752, page 71, via HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed April 23, 2018, <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015009221634;view=1up;seq=91>.
 Dugard, Farther Than Any Man, 11.
 Rodger, Wooden World, 268; 'Sir Samuel Cornish,' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed April 23, 2018, <http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-6334>; Harrison, Simon, "British Second Rate ship of the line 'Namur' (1729)," Three Decks - Warships in the Age of Sail, accessed April 23, 2018, <https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_ship&id=90>.
 Brunsman, Evil Necessity, 164; ADM 36/5659, Garland muster book, April 1754-December 1756, f.99.
 Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 72.
 "Obituary of considerable Persons; with Biographical Anecdotes," The Gentleman's Magazine, 1791, Volume 2, page 681, via HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed April 24, 2018, <https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015014709904;view=1up;seq=97>; Harrison, Simon, "British Third Rate ship of the line 'Namur' (1746)" Three Decks - Warships in the Age of Sail, accessed April 24, 2018, <https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_ship&id=11058>.
 Letter from Augustus Keppel to John Cleveland, October 30, 1755, ADM 1/2009, f 18-20, transcribed by David L. Preston, author of Braddock's Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution.
 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 19.
 Bowen, Autobiography, 60.
 Rediker, Marcus, The Slave Ship: A Human History, New York: Viking, 2007, page 190.
 Bolster, W. Jeffrey, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, Cambridge: Harvard University, 1997, page 23-24
 Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 123.
 Rodger, Wooden World, 272.
 Foy, Charles R., 'Black Mariners on Martin Luther King Day,' Uncovering Hidden Lives: 18th Century Black Mariners, January 20, 2015, accessed April 24, 2018, <https://uncoveringhiddenlives.com/2015/01/20/black-mariners-on-martin-luther-king-day/>.
 Prince, Autobiography, 127.
 Ibid., 128.
 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 23.
 Rediker, Marcus, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, page 295.
 Brunsman, Evil Necessity, 164, referencing Lewis, Michael A., A Social History of the Navy, 1793-1815, London: Allen and Unwin, 1960, pages 47-48.