Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Captain Silver Fist

A while back I read James Tormey's The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton’s Commodore James Barron and His Fleet. It's an inoffensive pop history, though there are few notes and even fewer primary sources. Entertaining, and a good introduction to a topic that has been little explored.
Throughout his book, Tormey drops references to a Virginia Navy captain nicknamed 'Silverfist:'
Virginia in early 1776 was on its way to creating a navy. It required men, ships and supplies. There were many capable leaders available among the sea captains and mates of its prewar mercantile seamen. One of the most unusual of these officers was Thomas Herbert, son of John Herbert, a ship builder from Hampton. Herbert had lost his left hand, which he had replaced with a prosthesis made of silver. Unsurprisingly, he also acquired the nickname "Silverfist."[1]
Tormey's citation for this includes a typo, but after tracking down the source I found it to include Herbert's role as First Lieutenant on the Virginia Navy schooner Liberty and nothing about his supposed nickname.[2] Such a superhero title (there is a comic book series about the American Revolutionary War called Pistolfist) struck me as unlikely. What a silly, pirate-esque thing to call someone in the eighteenth century. It seemed so ridiculously Robert Louis Stevenson that I simply couldn't countenance it.
I did a bit of digging around. Edward Park mentioned him in the Spring 2002 edition of the Colonial Williamsburg Journal, though without citation.[3] C. Leon Harris transcribed a number of primary source documents relating to 'Silverfist' on the Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters website, though he also doesn't state his source for that tidbit.[4] Similarly vague is Robert Armistead Stewart's use of the nickname in his 1934 book The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution.[5]

In the end, it was the immensely helpful Naval Documents of the American Revolution series that gave me the proof I needed. In an October 16, 1777 letter to Philip Stephens, Secretary to the Admiralty, Captain Richard Hughes of the 74-gun Centaur relayed intelligence he had gathered through interrogations of the crew from the American schooner Betsey. This mostly related to American ships in and around Nantes, France. Hughes' intelligence was of vital importance to the Admiralty as France was about to enter the war on the Americans' side. Among those vessels related by Captain Hughes was 'One Brig, Fitting as a Privateer, Captn Abbott-commonly call'd Silver Fist, expected to sail in a Fortnight.' Editor Michael J. Crawford corrects Captain Hughes in a footnote, denoting that 'Silver Fist' was Thomas Herbert. Perhaps Hughes misheard the American sailors pronunciation of 'Herbert' as 'Abbott.'[6]

This is further supported by post-war pension application records. Many of these were helpfully transcribed by C. Leon Harris, as mentioned above. Proof that Captain Hughes was referring to Captain Herbert comes from the Library of Virginia's Digital Collections, where a digital copy of the original 1791 petition is available.
Legislative Petitions of the General Assembly, 1776-1865, Accession Number 36121,
Box 65, Folder 22, Library of Virginia's Digital Collections
Herbert wrote 'that in the year 1777, your Petitioner Commanded the Brigg Liberty and Made a voyage to Nantz.'[7]
A newspaper advertisement offering a prize Herbert seized during his Nantes voyage.
Virginia Gazette, Purdie, August 21, 1778, page 1.

Further evidence comes from Patricia Holloway's family tree. She cites pension records in the Elizabeth City County Court dating to 1831, in which there are a couple references to the nickname: 'Thomas Herbert, deceased who was called "Silver Fist''' and "Thomas Herbert, who was usually called "Silver Fist."' I have not seen the originals from this pension record, but I also have little reason to doubt it. I will update this if I find the originals.

I was curious as to whether Captain Herbert's prosthesis was actually silver. Knowing nothing about silversmithing or the properties of silver, I turned to Steve Smithers of Stephen Smithers & Son Silversmiths and Restortation.
Though I have not heard of silver being used as a prosthesis before, my feeling is that it would be a very appropriate material for such a purpose. First, silver has excellent anti bacterial properties, and as such would be superb at preventing infection. This was known back in the 18th C. and before. Indeed, silversmith Paul Revere offered dentistry among his many services. And today, silver is used extensively in modern burn creams and antibiotic creams. Secondly, it is a very malleable substance, which can be formed by hammering and soldering into many complex shapes. I'm sure shaping a piece of silver in the form of a fist would be well within the capabilities of many a master silversmith.
It appears that Herbert's prosthesis did little to affect his dexterity. Timothy Abbott, who writes and maintains the Facebook page If I Recollect Right: Rev War Pension Narratives, provided me with more scans of original pension documents. Of particular interest is the one below:

Affidavit of Spivey Wyatt,-Knew Capt Thomas Herbert well, and is under the impression that he served during the whole of the Revolutionary War in the State Navy of Va. as a Captain: on one occasion was associated with him in the land service on a scouting party in Nansemond County, and there saw Capt. Herbert shoot one of the hands who was rowing the boat of a Tory & who was suspected of providing supplies to the enemy.
Every student of history should think critically about secondary sources, and follow the notes where they lead. Now and then you'll be surprised to find truth where you least expect it.

[1] Tormey, James, The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton’s Commodore James Barron and His Fleet, 40-41.
[2] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, William James Morgan, ed., Volume 5, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970, page 1299, via Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[3] Park, Edwards, 'Virginia's Very Own Navy,' Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 2002, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[4] Harris, C. Leon, 'Pension Application of Thomas Herbert R15006,' Southern Campaigns Revolutionary War Pension Statements & Rosters, May 12, 2015, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[5] Stewart, Robert Armistead, The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution, Richmond: Mitchell & Hotchkiss, page 46-47, 201.
[3] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Michael J. Crawford, ed., Volume 10, Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1996, pages 916-917, via Naval History and Heritage Command, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.
[4] Library of Virginia Digital Collections, Legislative Petitions of the General Assembly, 1776-1865, Accession Number 36121, Box 65, Folder 22, accessed May 27, 2018, <>.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Advance Three Steps Backwards, 1779

Advance Three Steps Backwards, (Word of command the last War by Col._) or the Militia Heroes, published by Matthew Darly, 1779, American Antiquarian Society.
Advance Three Steps Backwards, or the Militia Heroes, published by Matthew Darly, c.1779, British Museum.
Advance Three Steps Backwards, (Word of command the last War by Col._) or the Militia Heroes, published by Matthew Darly, collection unknown.

Thanks to follower Phil Hosea for bringing my attention to this print. I was unable to find the source of the third image here, so if you happen to know where it is from, please let me know!

The rebellion in the American colonies was draining the British. With the entry of the French and Spanish in 1778, the war expanded across the globe and strained the Crown's resources. Threats of invasion of Britain saw a renewed emphasis on militia companies, but it appears that the printer Matthew Darly didn't think much of them.

In this cartoon, Darly skewers the ragtag companies of British militia as inept. Muskets are angled all over the place, and the men of the company are of all sorts of sizes and shapes. The fellow on the far right is a sailor.

He wears a round hat with an upturned brim over a bob wig. A white neckcloth is tucked into his single breasted jacket, which is orange/brown in one coloration, and blue with red cuffs in the others. His petticoat trousers are green in both colored prints, which I don't think I've ever seen before. Perhaps it was the same colorist for both copies, but it is the only consistent coloring aside from the red uniform coats with blue facings that the soldiers in the image wear.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A Disappointment - 'Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook'

I often recommend books here on British Tars, but today I'm taking a different tack. Here's a book you should avoid: Martin Dugard's Farther Than Any Man: The Rise and Fall of Captain James Cook.

Dugard's premise is solid enough. James Cook is a fascinating figure, and his voyages of exploration around the world are the stuff of legends. Sure, there's already plenty of biographies out there about Cook, but another popular history treatment of the man isn't necessarily going to be harmful.

I didn't even make it through chapter three.

Dugard commits wholeheartedly to myth-making and stereotypes of common sailors. Not once in the brief portion I read does he critically assess the tired tropes he so eagerly parrots, and citations are nonexistent.

Some of these are cosmetic, and of only indirect importance to the main subject. He states 'sailors often kept pigtails in place by applying a thin layer of tar. All this gooey, black pitch coating clothes and hair of the era earned the nickname Jack Tar,' and wore 'baggy breeches coated with tar to keep out the wet and cold.' There is no evidence that sailors of the era ever intentionally tarred anything for the purposes of weatherproofing, and it is a well documented fact that until the 1790's, sailors generally wore their hair short.

At times, there are puzzling assertions that it would take a simple Google search to disprove. Dugard argues that Cook was 'the first man in Royal Navy history to rise from the bottom of those ranks [common seamen] to an officer's commission and command.'[1] It is true that it was exceptionally difficult for sailors to rise to a commissioned rank, but to say that Cook was the first man to ever do so is either disingenuous or inexcusably ignorant.

In other cases, Dugard ignores key facts. At one point, he completed skips the idea that landsmen and ordinary seamen exist, jumping straight to able seamen. This is a very strange omission, and one that can only come from complete ignorance of the subject. It is possible, though unlikely, that Dugard intentionally ignored these classes, as it more readily supports his strange argument that 'real sailors' didn't occupy the lower decks. Not only is Dugard wrong, he is incredibly wrong. It would be impossible to sail a ship with nothing but inexperienced, untrained, and ignorant landsmen.

He seems committed to painting the world of the sailor as a terrible and oppressive place, populated by the dregs of society, but isn't committed to doing the research to prove this. When Dugard argues that sailors received an 'annual salary of just one pound sterling,' he's entirely wrong, or perhaps just making it up. For landsmen in the Royal Navy, one of the lowest paid positions one could hold in the Atlantic World, pay was over ten pounds a year.

When Dugard is right, it's by mistake. 'Sailors were surprisingly apathetic about God. They put more faith in omens and apparitions.' He's sort of right, but not totally, and for the wrong reasons. It is true that many observers at the time noted 'the only time a sailor began praying was when is his ship was in danger of sinking,' but this is probably due to the sailors' belief that they could still affect their fate. Only once they were in danger that was beyond their control, then they turned to God. To claim they were uniform atheists shows a profound misunderstanding of their world.

This kind of ignorance can only come from someone disinterested in their own story, or more interested in writing a novel without the need to develop characters, a plot, and dialogue by masking it as a history. Avoid this book.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Why They Went to Sea

Life as a sailor in the eighteenth century was dangerous and difficult. Death, corporal punishment, low pay, and press gangs were only some of the dangers facing the sailor afloat. It is little surprise that desertion was such an epidemic problem for the Royal Navy. Paul Gilje, writing in his book Liberty on the Waterfront, said 'many seamen would agree: aboard ship the work was arduous and they were often miserable.'[1]

In the words of Marcus Rediker:
The tar was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea: On one side stood his captain, who was backed by the merchant and royal official, and who held near-dictatorial powers that served a capitalist system rapidly covering the globe; on the other side stood the relentlessly dangerous natural world.[2] 
Why go to sea at all?

Historians have firmly come down on one primary motivation: money. As N.A.M. Rodger wrote in The Wooden World, 'The main part of the answer is undoubtedly economic necessity, or opportunity.'[3] Peter Earle echoed this sentiment among non-naval mariners in his Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, 'Gain was clearly important to many. Sailors were not badly paid and there was a good chance of promotion for the competent. Such a chance to move up in the world was not easily available in other occupations open to the poor. Economic motivations were strongest in wartime when competition from the Royal Navy always forced the wages of merchant seamen up to very high levels and drew many young men away from their previous landbound lives.'[4]

As Earle suggested, there were secondary motivations, such as the ability to rise in the social hierarchy of the Atlantic World. 'Gain, adventure, a desire to see the world, were among the more positive reasons for going to sea,' Earle wrote, 'for others, the decision was very much a pis aller. They took refuge in a ship because the land had nothing to offer or was positively dangerous, the sea providing a convenient bolthole for many a runaway apprentice, deserting husband, debtor or fugitive from justice.'[5]

More prominent was the thirst for adventure and a distaste for life ashore. Gilje writes that

Some sailors rejected the limits and regularity of work ashore. Others were restless. Often, beyond the thrill of the sailing vessel's bow cutting through the spray of salt water, men who went to sea sought a certain kind of freedom. On the waterfront a sailor might act out his fantasies and enjoy excesses of liberty; at sea he experienced a different freedom that came from the vast expanses of the ocean and the fact the he had the whole world to explore.[6]
The words of the seamen themselves, gathered through my Sailors Memoirs Project, reinforce the historical consensus. Adventure and economics were the two primary motivating factors for pursuing a life at sea. A third theme also becomes apparent in the words of seamen: love. Interestingly, the sailors generally prioritize adventure over economics. We have reasons to doubt the words of the seamen I have examined here, but nearly all of them undoubtedly hold a kernel of truth. Sailors were motivated by both wages and the rare ability to see the world. Love is, predictably enough, more complicated.

As I will be focusing on the reasons sailors chose to go to sea, I will be omitting force from this post. Press gangs, enslavement, crimps, and all other forms of forced servitude are not addressed here.

It is also important to note that these were the reasons given by the men and women who went to sea, and were written mostly for an audience to consume. Again, their true reasons for going aboard may have been different from what they published.

Further, I have not distinguished between various merchant, privateer, and naval services. As Rodger states, 'Men joined a King's ship or a merchant's as opportunity or preference suggested, and they moved easily from one to another...there was no identifiable class of man-of-warsmen, there were simply seamen working at the moment for one particular employer.'[7]


Great Encouragement for Seamen, E. Russel, 1775,
Library of Congress American Memory 
The most common stated motivation for going to sea was a need for adventure. John Wyatt signed aboard the York man of war out of 'having a great Desire to see the World.'[8] John Nicol conveyed the jubilation he felt at going to sea, even while acknowledging that the pressed hands didn't share his enthusiasm:
To me the order to weigh anchor and sail for the Nore was the sound of joy. My spirits were up at the near prospect of obtaining the pleasures I had sighed for since the first dawn of reason. To others it was the sound of woe, the order that cut off the last faint hope of escape from a fate they had been impressed into much against their inclination and interest. I was surprised to see so few who, like myself, had chosen it for the love of that line of life. Some had been forced into it by their own irregular conduct but the greater number were impressed men.[9]
It is worth noting that press gangs could only legally seize men 'who use the sea' and landsmen were undesirable on a man of war. The men forced into Nicol's ship were old hands who had long before chosen the life of a sailor, and their initial motivations are lost to us.

William Spavens was another who dreamt of a life on the open sea:
Some years after I lived with a farmer at Clee Thorps, where frequently having a view of Ships sailing by on the Humber, I thought Sailors must be happy men to have such opportunities of visiting foreign countries, and beholding the wonderful works of the Creator in the remote regions of the earth; I considered not the perils and hardships they are sometimes exposed to; I thought of nothing but pleasant gales and prosperous voyages, and indulging a curiosity which seemed implanted in my nature.[10]
The call to adventure was even felt strongly by those who were old hands. Olaudah Equiano, as an enslaved boy, had no choice but to go to sea as his occupation, but it still called to him after years afloat: 'I longed to engage in new adventures, and to see fresh wonders.' Given the chance to remain ashore and make his living there, Equiano would not yet settle. He described himself as 'of a roving disposition, and desirious of seeing as many different parts of the world as I could.'[11]

Dull life ashore, when compared to adventure at sea, could convince former seamen to return to their trade. Christopher Hawkins, despite a difficult, short lived, and nearly fatal career as a privateer, found life ashore working a farm unbearable:
One day in the haying season, being at work mowing grass, with two men who were stout and active, and my scythe not being in the best order I could not keep my end up with them. This provoked me to such a degree that I threw my scythe into a brush heap-the two men (Daniel Clark & Stephen Scott) who were fellow labourers with me, on observing me leave the field inquired of me where I was going and whether or not I was angry. I answered that I was not pleased with my scythe, and that I was going to sea-upon this they raised a laugh though I had by this time got some distance from them towards the house.[12]
This sense of adventure sometimes had a political angle to it. Ebenezer Fox claimed that the first time he put to sea was with a group of friends inspired by the American Revolution's rhetoric:
We made a direct application of the doctrines we daily heard, in relation to the oppression of the mother country, to our own circumstances; and thought that we were more oppressed than our fathers were. I thought that I was doing myself great injustice by remaining in bondage, when I ought to go free ; and that the time was come, when I should liberate myself from the thraldom of others, and set up a government of my own; or, in other words, do what was right in the sight of my own eyes.[13]


Detail from The Human Passions, Thomas Sanders, 1773,
Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
While adventure was the reason most often given by the sailors themselves, a need for money was probably the primary reason men went to sea. The New England sailor Christopher Prince met a Captain Shaw (an army captain, not a sea captain). Shaw asked Prince to take him to sea, stating:
I am a stranger to everybody and every part of the world. I was born in the country, and a part of my days brought up on a farm, and served my time at the Saddler's trade, and could not get my living there at that trade. I have left my father's house to earn my own living some how, and I am willing to see what I can do on the ocean, and that is your occupation. I wish you would accept of me as a companion.[14]
Sailors might return to sea or change their trade while on a voyage by the influence of economics. William Spavens deserted from his vessel in the hope of earning more money on a much riskier trade:
Our intent was to have procured a passage to Calcutta, and there engage in country ships, which are trading vessels navigated by lascars, with only a white Captain, Boatswain, and Gunner, who are allowed a stipulated quantity of private property on board, as private trade or venture, in augmentation of their wages, which presented us with a view of accumulating fortunes and being great.[15]
Economics could be overcome by other factors, as related by Jacob Nagle who was offered the chance to go privateering against his fellow Americans:
The Stag privateer of Liverpool of 26 guns came in, wanted hands, and six or eight went with him. He wanted me verry much to go, but I could not think of fighting against my country, though I learnt afterwards they fared better than we did They took several prizes, sent them into St. Thomases, sold them, and got their prize money and went home to Philadelphia in American ships, while the remainder of us was laying in jail.[16]
Ebenezer Fox lost his affinity for adventure during the American Revolution, but returned to sea despite that so that he might help his family in a time of distress:
Though unwilling to leave her in her affliction, I felt the necessity of exerting myself, that I might contribute something to the maintenance of the family, who were left very destitute. I knew of no way in which there was a prospect of my being so useful to them, as that of engaging for another cruise.[17]


Bachelors Fare, Carington Bowles, 1777,
British Museum.
Sometimes sailors went to sea out of love, or at least professed that they did. When John Nicol joined the First Fleet to Australia he, like many others, fell in love with a convict. They were forced to part, and for years afterward he continued trying to find his way back to her, taking voyages that would get him closer: 'With a joyful heart I set sail for London to look out for an Indiaman that I might get to Bombay and inquire for Sarah, for she was still the idol of all my affections.'[18]

Romance could pull a sailor to far shores, or shove them from their native land. Mary Lacy fled her town and eventually signed aboard a ship to avoid the pain of a jilted love:
My mind became continually disturbed and uneasy about this young man, who was the involuntary cause of all my trouble, which was aggravated by my happening to see him one day talk to a young woman: the thoughts of this made me so very unhappy, that I was from that time more unsettled than ever. As short time after, a thought came into my head to dress myself in men's apparrel, and set off by myself.[19] 
Notably, another woman who disguised herself as a man and put to sea named Hannah Snell also claimed that love (or at least obligation) drove her to it. Her husband, a sailor named James Summs who 'turned out the worst and most unnatural of husbands' abandoned her. After some time Snell 'thought herself privileged to roam in quest of the man who, without reason, had injured her so much, for there are no bounds to be set either to love, jealousy, or hatred in the female mind.'[20]

Women chasing men to sea was a trope repeated in fiction and may have been leveraged by Snell's biographer to legitimize her stepping out of her proper sphere. As Suzanne J. Stark puts it:
By far the most frequently given reason for a women enlisting the navy or marines, and the most patently absurd, was that she was seeking her male lover who had either run off to sea or been forced on board a ship by a press gang. This ubiquitous motif, which I call the lost-love theme, is found wherever women seamen are mentioned.[21]
In Stark's Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, she argues that a variety of factors motivated women to take on the masculine role of Jack Tar, including economic opportunity, identification with men, and the restricted role of women in society that could be shed by assuming a male identity. 'It is unlikely,' Stark writes, 'that [Snell] ever had a husband named Summs.'[22]

In the end, a variety of factors motivated men (and women) to put on slops and climb aboard. Money, the call of adventure, and even love could all play a factor in their choice to join a dangerous trade. Historians over the past three decades have argued this, and the words of the sailors themselves reinforce this. Economics were probably the most important factor, but the need for adventure is undeniably near the center of their 

[1] Gilje, Paul A., Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2004, page 66.
[2] 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 5.
[3] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 114.
[4] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 15.
[5] Earle, Sailors, 16.
[6] Gilje, Liberty on the Waterfront, 68.
[7] Rodger, Wooden World, 113.
[8] Wyatt, James, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of James Wyatt, London: W. Reave, 1753, page 8.
[9] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 26.
[10] 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 23.
[11] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, pages 85, 171.
[12] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, pages 60-61.
[13] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, page 18.
[14] 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 114.
[15] Spavens, Memoirs, page 75.
[16] 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 50.
[17]  Fox, Adventures, 79.
[18] Nicol, Life and Adventures, 152.
[19]  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 62-63.
[20] 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, pages 4-5.
[21] Stark, Suzanne J., Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996, page 98.
[22] Stark, Female Tars, page 102.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018


Detail from Admiral Hosier's Ghost, Charles Mosley,
1740, John Carter Brown Library.
Today I'm taking a very quick look at what historians have to say about mortality rates among common sailors.

The actual occurrence of death at sea was not uncommon, but how present it was depended widely on what trade a sailor was engaged in. In examining logbooks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Peter Earle came to the conclusion that 'well under one per cent of sailors died on any voyage in European water or on voyages to the northern American colonies or to the Arctic to hunt whales.' These percentages go up considerably for sailors working the routes to South America and the West Indies, and especially those sailing on East Indiamen.[1]

Denver Brunsman points to the high death rates in the West Indies as one of the motivations for employing press gangs in those waters. It was widely recognized at the time that, in the words of a Parliamentarian, 'the West Indies has been a sink where our seamen have perished.' Brunsman also states (truthfully) that 'the mortality rate on ships in the West Indian naval campaigns could approach 50 percent from disease alone.'[2] Fifty percent mortality from disease in the West Indies is an outlier, but it was a possibility.

Mortality rates aboard men of war were comparable to those in the merchant service, as N.A.M. Rodger demonstrated in his book The Wooden World:
In the 1740s Bristol merchantmen were losing only slightly more than average (5.5 per cent a year against 4.5) on voyages to the West Indies, and it has been calculated that at the same period British men-of-war in those waters were losing about 6 per cent of their authorized complements a year dead from all causes. Allowing for the usual turnover of ship's companies, the mortality as a percentage of the population exposed would have been lower.[3]
By far the most deadly trade for a sailor was the slave trade. As Marcus Rediker related in The Slave Ship: A Human History:
In surveying crew mortality for 350 Bristol and Liverpool slavers between 1784 and 1790, a House of Commons committee found that 21.6 percent of sailors died, a figure that was in keeping with Thomas Clarkson's estimates at the time and is consistent with modern research. Roughly twenty thousands British slave-trade seamen died between 1780 and 1807. For sailors as for African captives, living for several months aboard a slave ship was in itself a struggle for life.[4]

[1] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 130.
[2] Brunsman, Denver, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-century Atlantic World, University of Virginia, 2013, page 106.
[3] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, page 99.
[4] Rediker, Marcus, The Slave Ship: A Human History, New York: Viking, 2007, page 244.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Claim’d as a Slave: The Short Career of William Stephens in the Royal Navy

Today's guest post is written by Dr. Charles R. Foy. Dr. Foy is Associate Professor Early American & Atlantic History at Eastern Illinois University. His scholarship focuses on 18th century black maritime culture. A former fellow at the National Maritime Museum and Mystic Seaport, Dr. Foy has published more than a dozen articles on black mariners and is the creator of the Black Mariner Database, a dataset of more than 27,000 18th century black Atlantic mariners. He is completing a book manuscript, Liberty’s Labyrinth: Freedom in the 18th Century Black Atlantic, that details the nature of freedom in the 18th century through an analysis of the lives of black mariners.

Claim’d as a Slave: The Short Career of William Stephens in the Royal Navy

On December 8, 1758, Vice Admiral Francis Holburne, Port Admiral at the Portsmouth Naval Yard, notified the Admiralty he had 'inquired into the case of William Stephens on board his Majesty’s Ship the Jason, who is claim’d as a Slave, the property of a Person in Maryland…'(Figure 1).
Figure 1. Letter of Vice Admiral Francis Holburne, Dec. 8, 1758,
The National Archives, Kew, United Kingdom (“TNA”), ADM 1/927.
As naval regulations prohibited slave naval seamen, one might have assumed, as does N.A.M. Rodger, that the navy was 'a little piece of British territory in which slavery was improper.'[1] Thus, Stephens’ case raises questions as to slaves’ service in the Royal Navy, the scope of slavery in the British empire and the movement of Black seamen in the Atlantic. As I will detail below: Stephens’ Royal Navy service, while hardly commonplace, was not rare; the Royal Navy, while taking steps to keep slaves off its ships, also took measures that supported slavery; and Black seamen, both free and enslaved, moved about the Atlantic with regularity.

As is true with regards to most eighteenth century black mariners, we know very little about William Stephens. With the vast majority of Blacks of this time period being illiterate, there are few contemporaneous accounts of Black seamen’s lives.[2] However, by utilizing the Black Mariner Database ('BDM'), a dataset of information on than 27,000 black mariners and maritime fugitives, we can contextualize Stephens’ career to better understand his and other Black seamen’s maritime careers.[3]
Figure 2 HMS Jason Muster, 1758-59, TNA ADM 35/5889.
Stephens voluntarily entered HMS Jason at Portsmouth, England on October 27, 1758 (Figure 2) as an able bodied seaman. To be classified an able bodied seamen, Stephens would have had to been at sea for at least three years. According to the Jason's captain, Stephens had gained his sea legs working as a slave 'in a Sloop coastways in America for five or six years.' Just how closely Stephens was questioned when he entered the Jason about his maritime background or whether he was a slave is uncertain. What can be said is that a slave in the Americas working on a coastal sailing vessel for five years was not uncommon. Olaudah Equiano’s time working on various ships between North America and the West Indies helped him purchase his freedom.[4] Equiano and a considerable portion of the black population in England during the second half of the eighteenth century had been seamen in the Americas.[5] Merchants in Rhode Island, New York, Virginia, South Carolina, and throughout the West Indies regularly employed enslaved Black seamen on their ships.[6] In doing so, owners calculated that the wages and prize monies the men could earn would more than offset the risk owners might lose their property. Given the prevalence of this practice throughout the Western Atlantic, by both small slave owners and rich slave merchants, such as Henry Laurens and Aaron Lopez, it appears to have been generally profitable to send enslaved Blacks to sea.

How Stephens got to Portsmouth is unclear. Was he assisted, as had been Abraham Santvoord’s slave Tony, by a ship captain? In Tony’s case, the ship captain went so far as to  transfer the runway onto a second ship at sea so the bondsman could get to England.[7] However Stephens got to England, he hardly was the only slave from the Americas who reached England during the Seven Years War. Some, such as John Incobs, escaped their slave masters and appeared to have reached English soil by service on a ship. Others, such as Olaudah Equiano and Emmanuel Carpenter, were brought to England by Royal Navy officers.[8]

Two months after Stephens entered the Jason his owner knew enough about the bondsman’s whereabouts to notify the Admiralty. Was his owner in England or did he learn of Stephens’ whereabouts through social or mercantile connections? We don’t know. But what is clear is the relative information imbalance between Stephens and his slave master. While his owner was able to find him more than 3,000 miles from Maryland, Stephens, despite being an experienced sailor, could not hide himself from his master. In the British empire, one’s former status as a slave left a person vulnerable to re-enslavement. Vice-Admiralty courts regularly presumed that Black seamen were slaves who could be sold as prize goods. This resulted in Patrick Dennis and considerable numbers of other captured free Black mariners being enslaved in the Americas.[9] Admiral James Douglas, Commander of the Royal Navy’s Leeward fleet, purchased such captured enemy Black sailors for service on his private man of war.[10]

Like John Incobs, who having fled his slave master found himself discharged in New York from the Royal Navy for 'being a slave,' Stephens and other former slaves could never feel completely safe from the Royal Navy returning them to their former masters. Even during the American Revolution, when the Royal Navy often proved to be a haven for runaways, those who fled to the Navy from Loyalist slave owners could find themselves 'returned to [their] owners.' Thus, in 1779, when HM Galley Scourge docked at Port Royal, South Carolina, January, August, Ben and six other former slaves were discharged to the custody of their former owners. Similarly, in 1783 Dublin and four other Black seamen were discharged at St. Augustine from HM Galley Arbutnot for 'being a Slave.'[11] (Figure 3) In returning runaways to their former masters, the Royal Navy provided support to the institution of slavery.
Figure 3 HM Galley Arbutnot Muster, 1783-1786, TNA ADM 36/10426.
With an economy largely based on the cultivation and sale of agricultural commodities such as tobacco and wheat, the stereotypical image of slavery in the Chesapeake is of slaves using hoes to tend to such crops. And most slaves were so employed. But, as an insert in the 1775 Jeffreys map of Virginia and Maryland demonstrates, considerable numbers of enslaved peoples worked on the region’s wharves making hogsheads and loading the large barrels onto ships (Figure 4). Blacks, free and enslaved, also worked on a variety of vessels that moved such commodities to regional, continental and Atlantic markets. The BMD contains data on more than 1,000 Black mariners from Virginia and Maryland. Advertisements for the sale of slaves who were 'used to the sea' or had worked as sailors were commonplace.[12] Slaves were employed in the Chesapeake region as baymen, ferrymen, canoemen, seamen on ocean-going ships, and even as captains on small boats.[13] During wartime, when maritime labor was particularly valued, scores of free blacks and enslaved individuals served on both British and American naval vessels. For example, when HM Galley Cornwallis left Virginia for Charleston in 1780 among its forty seamen were Dick, Joe, Andrew, Ceaser, Thomas Cooper, Peter, and Hamden, slaves hired to the Royal Navy by Virginian Loyalist slave masters.[14] Like William Stephens, these Chesapeake seamen ultimately did not have a choice as to whom they worked for. Whereas Stephens found himself returned from England to enslavement in Maryland, the seven Black seamen on the Cornwallis were instead sold as prize goods in Porto Rico.
Figure 4 Jefferys 1775 Map of Virginia and Maryland
The Chesapeake region, with its large bay, numerous rivers and regular influx of ocean-going vessels, offered enslaved individuals numerous opportunities for flight via the sea. The persistence and scale of maritime flight can be seen both in the regularity of fugitive slave advertisements for such runaways and the often futile efforts governmental authorities and slave masters made to stop maritime fugitives. During the eighteenth century there were not less than twelve hundred Chesapeake maritime fugitives.[15] As did Stephens, these runaways sought to use maritime employment as a means to quickly put distance between themselves and their slave masters. The same year William Stephens was returned to slavery in Maryland, Tom escaped from Elk-Ridge Furnace. Described as 'formerly accustomed to go by Water' and having worked for a ship captain on the Chester River, the young slave was thought to have attempted to 'escape that Way,' i.e., by obtaining a ship berth.[16]

When William Stephens fled his Maryland slave master he did not merely join a group of experienced Black seamen seeking to cross the Atlantic. At the same time, many Chesapeake runaways lacking maritime experience fought freedom via the sea. They included a Maryland runaway who in 1763 stole a canoe in an effort to seek freedom and Will Baker, who in 1762 sought to 'get on board some vessel that may want Men.' They and other maritime fugitives understood that canoes, small boats, skiffs and pettiaugers could serve as the first leg in a multi-legged maritime race to exceed their slave master’s grasp.[17] Stealing such vessels also enabled new African slaves, whose their unfamiliarity with English made flight on land difficult, to more easily evade detection. Slave masters considered maritime fugitives 'cunning Rogue[s]' who could not be trusted.[18]

The chaos of war provided the best opportunities for maritime flight. Being more concerned with a potential recruit’s muscle and expertise than his complexion or status as a bondsman, many commanders of merchant and naval ships willingly hired runaways. Often fugitives were employed as officer’s servants – the BMD contains data on more than 100 Black servants on Royal Navy vessels. They include men such as Quashie Ferguson, who escaping his Rhode Island slave master, entered HMS Rose as a Captain’s servant, and the  unnamed negro servant of Captain Robert Jennys of HMS Amity’s Assistance, who two years after Stephens was returned to enslavement, found the Royal Navy not to his liking and fled the Amity’s Assistance.[19]

In the face of maritime flight by slaves whites did not sit idly by. Government officials took steps to limit slaves’ access to shipping and to ensure that slaves 'largely stayed put.' Virginia and Maryland slave codes required slaves to carry passes when traveling off their master’s property. With slave masters receiving compensation for slaves convicted of criminal offences, violence as a tool to regulate slave behavior was central to eighteenth century justice in the Chesapeake. For example, in 1737 Maryland made it a capital offense for any person to aid in the stealing of 'any Ship, Sloop or other Vessel.'[20] These official efforts were supplemented by searches of vessels and slave masters warning others not to 'harbor, conceal or employ' their runaway slaves. In attempting to ensure that ship masters and captains did not hire their runaways, Chesapeake slave masters regularly forewarned them 'from carrying them off at their peril.'[21] Forty-four percent of fugitive slave advertisements for Chesapeake maritime fugitives contained such warnings. Thomas Reynolds and other slave owners requested that 'all Masters and Skippers to search their Vessels' for their bondsmen before they sailed.[22] While the efficiency of such requests cannot be determined they appear to have had little effect. There are very few dispatches in colonial newspapers indicating either that a maritime fugitive was returned to his slave master or that a ship captain was prosecuted for carrying away, harboring or employing such a runaway. More common were dispatches about 'runaway negroes' being seen on ships at sea.[23]

Stephens’ choice to flee to England needs to be understood within the context of the choices slaves had when running away. The primary attraction of maritime flight was it provided a quick means to flee and offered a reasonable possibility of permanent freedom, albeit, as noted above with a continual threat of re-enslavement. The attractiveness of maritime flight was hardly limited to those seeking to escape enslavement in the Chesapeake. The BMD contains more than 5,000 maritime fugitives from throughout the Americas.[24] In fleeing to England Stephens and other maritime fugitives found a respite from the threat of re-enslavement that continually threatened sailors of African ancestry in the Western Atlantic. The boast of white seamen that 'they would make their Fortunes' by selling fugitives who during the Revolution flocked to Chesapeake merchant ships may have been bravado, but it contained a kernel of truth. Black sailors such as Philip Johnston found themselves sold by ship captains and shipmates for 'what reasons [they] could not tell.' Although Philip asserted he had been 'born free' he was unable on his own to escape enslavement.[25] Free black seamen, such as Anthonio Gonsaloes and Francisco Gonsaloes, found themselves subject of white mariners attempts to sell them in the Chesapeake for profit.[26] Philip’s and the Gonsaloes’ stories were not unusual --- white sailors even financed their return home during war by stealing a ship with Black seamen, selling the Black tars and using the proceeds. In contrast, the Royal Navy may have been 'brutally pragmatic' in its employment of Black seamen, and discriminatory in its pay and promotion practices. It did not, however, countenance the kidnapping and selling of Black mariners.[27]

Black mariners such as William Stephens were not only commonplace in British American colonies but were critical to both its naval and commercial successes. Moving across the Atlantic they provided both the muscle and maritime expertise necessary to move the military forces and commodities upon which Britain’s imperial might was based. However, throughout the eighteenth century Black tars found themselves at risk of being kidnapped, captured and sold as prize goods or returned to their former slave masters. In the last quarter of the century British naval officers may have taken steps to assist runaways, particularly after the Somerset decision in 1772 holding that slave owners in England could not coercively force their bondsmen to leave English soil.[28] And the Navy was instrumental in Equiano, David King, Prince Prince and scores of other Black sailors reaching England where they were able to live independent lives. However, Naval personnel continued to return ex-slaves to their former owners and treat Black sailors on enemy ships as prize goods.[29] The result was that for most Black tars, including William Stephens, independent lives as a mariner in the Western Atlantic was fragile.

[1] N.A.M. Rodger, Wooden World: an Anatomy of the Georgian Navy(Annapolis, 1986), 160.
[2] While slaves in colonies north of Delaware had literacy rates approaching 10%, most North American slaves were illiterate. Antonio Bly, “Pretends he can read”: Runaways and Literacy in Colonial America, 1730–1776,” Early American Studies 6, no. 2 (Fall 2008): 269-271.
[3] The BMD contains 53 fields of data: age, ethnicity, place of birth, ships served on, etc. It includes references from ship musters, court records, fugitive slave advertisements, newspaper dispatches, merchant and governmental records, as well as a wide variety of miscellaneous documents from more than thirty archives across the Atlantic. The database can, as was done in the “Global Seafarers” display in Merseyside Maritime Museum’s recent “Black Salts” exhibit, demonstrate the global movement of black mariners. It also enables historians to detail the lives of individual Black sailors and the employment patterns of such men. See e.g., Michael Bundock, The Fortunes of Francis Barber (New Haven, 2015), 85, 235n14; Charles R. Foy, “Black Seamen at Scarborough, 1748-1756,”; Charles R. Foy, “Compelled to Row: Blacks on Royal Navy Galleys During the American Revolution,” Journal of the American Revolution,; Charles R. Foy, “The Royal Navy’s Employment of Black Mariners and Maritime Workers, 1754-1783,” International Maritime History Journal, 28, no. 1 (Feb. 2016): 6-35. 
[4] Vincent Carretta, Equiano The African: Biography of a Self-Made Man (Athens, GA, 2005), 119-34.
[6] Examples include: Welcome Arnold Papers, John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI; Aaron Lopez Papers, Center for Jewish History, New York, NY; Henry Laurens Papers, X, 241n;  Samuel Gilford Papers, New-York Historical Society, Box 3, Folder 1; Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake & Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998), 239; David Barry Geggus, Bondmen & Rebels: A Study of Master-Slave Relations in Antigua (Baltimore, 1999), 297n51 .
[7] Joyce Goodfriend, Before the Melting Pot (1992), 124. Not all ship captains were so supportive of runaways. See e.g., Harry Gandy 4 Aug. 1796 Letter, Granville Sharp Papers, D3549/1/G2, Gloucester Records Office (Captain put stowaway to work on his ship, then had the runaway imprisoned in Bristol and subsequently attempted to compel the unfortunate bondman to be returned to his Dominica slave owner).
[8] HMS Garlands Muster, 1764, TNA ADM 36/7390;  Carretta, Equiano The African, 71-91; Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: the Life of James Forten (New York, 2002),  54.
[9] Charles R. Foy, “Eighteenth-Century Prize Negroes: From Britain to America,” Slavery and Abolition 31:3 (Sept. 2010): 379-393.
[10] Rodger, Wooden World, 159-60.
[11] HM Galley Scourge, Muster, 1779-1785, TNA ADM 36/10427; HM Galley Arbuthnot, 1783-1786, TNA ADM 36/10426. 
[12] See e.g., Maryland Gazette, Apr. 30, 1752, Oct. 29, 1762 and Mar. 10, 1774. As the BMD contains few entries from Chesapeake planters’ or merchants records this number undoubtedly undercounts Chesapeake Black mariners.
[13] See e.g., Maryland Gazette, June 10, 1762, Sept. 20, 1764, May 5, 1768,  June 25, 1795 and July 4, 1799.
[14] HM Galley Cornwallis Musters, 1777-1782, TNA ADM 36/10259; Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Nicholson), Richmond, Mar. 3, 1781.
[15] These have been identified from a review of Virginia and Maryland fugitive slave advertisements and a random sampling of Royal Navy musters. While this review understates the number of maritime fugitives it does provide a sense of their not inconsiderable numbers. It is an attempt to provide greater specificity to which slaves fled via the sea and their numbers. As Cassandra Pybus has demonstrated, white Southerners often exaggerated the numbers of slaves fleeing to British forces. Cassandra Pybus, “Jefferson’s Faulty Math: The Question of Slave Defections in the American Revolution,” William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 62, no. 2 (Apr. 2005), 244-45. 
[16] Maryland Gazette, Aug. 3, 1759. 
[17] Maryland Gazette, Aug. 12, 1762, Nov. 30, 1763.  
[18] Virginia Gazette (Rind), Williamsburg, Oct. 31, 1771; Maryland Gazette, Aug. 2, 1779.
[19] HMS Rose, Muster, 1775 TNA ADM 36/7947; South-Carolina Gazette (Timothy), Oct. 3, 1761.
[20] Morgan, Slave Counterpoint, 254. 
[21] See e.g., Virginia Gazette (Purdie), Aug. 1, 1766; Pennsylvania Gazette, Dec. 18, 1766; Virginia Gazette (Nicolson & Prentis), Oct. 25, 1783;  Pennsylvania Packet or General Advertiser, Oct. 28, 1783.
[22] Maryland Gazette (Annapolis), Jul. 26, 1762. 
[23] See e.g., Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, Nov. 6, 1797. One of the few examples of a successful prosecution for employing a maritime fugitive was in 1725 when Captain Moffet was fined for not barring a slave from stowing away on his ship.  New England Weekly Journal, April 24, 1724.
[24] For example, between 1766 and 1790 one Saint-Domingue newspaper published more than 200 advertisements regarding maritime fugitives. 
[25] 4 Sept. 1788 Petition of Philip Johnston, David Library of the American Revolution; Carol Wilson, Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865 (Lexington, KY, 1994), 95-96. 
[26] David R. Owen and Michael C. Tolley, Courts of Admiralty in Colonial America, The Maryland Experience (Durham, NC,1995), 316.
[27] Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 9, 899; Norwich Packet, Jan. 23, 1781; Simon Schama, Rough Crossings (London, 2005), 13 and 168; Foy, “The Royal Navy’s Employment of Black Mariners and Maritime Workers, 1754-1783,” 6-35.
[28] Charles R. Foy, “‘Unkle Somerset’s freedom: liberty in England for black sailors,” Journal for Maritime Research 13:1 (Spring 2011): 21-36.  
[29] Our Lord the King v Twenty-Eight Negroes, 2 Feb. 1795, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, United Kingdom, CAL 127; Cassandra Pybus, Black Founders: The Unknown Story of Australia’s First Black Settlers (Sydney, 2006), 50.