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.

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