Monday, June 18, 2018


Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, John Greenwood, c. 1752-1758, Saint Louis Art Museum.
Shanties aren't really a thing in the eighteenth century.

Hear me out.

I love shanties. Back when I worked at the Maritime Museum of San Diego, I spent many a weekend singing from the bow of the Surprise and the poop of the Star of India, and attended more than my fair share of their Sea Chantey Festivals. Go to the next one on August 26, you won't regret it.

But we also have to understand that the eighteenth century is not the nineteenth, and that not all maritime traditions are as immemorial as we think they are.

There are many definitions and spellings of the term 'shanties.' Richard Runciman Terry gives a fairly narrow definition in his The Shanty Book:
Shanties were labour songs sung by sailors of the merchant service only while at work, and never by way of recreation.[1]
William Main Doerflinger in his 1990 Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman gives a more generous definition that allows for the inclusion of naval seamen and the use of shanties for recreation:
Shanties are the work songs of the sailor of square-rigger days.[2]
Gibb Schreffler is among the few academics to take a scholarly approach to the study of sea shanties. Earlier this year he published Boxing the Compass: A Century and a Half of Discourse About Sailor's Chanties, examining the discussions of and approaches to studying shanties. On a recent episode of the podcast Backstory Radio, Schreffler gave a much more specific and compelling definition of shanties:
Shanties are always call and response songs. They always have a leader and a chorus. The chorus is performed by all of the crew aside from the leader, and the leader performs as a soloist. And what this means is that the chorus is a fixed part of the song. All of the crew must know that part of the song, so that they can come in and sing it together. However, what the leader or the caller sings is completely optional to his whim, and therefore it’s typically improvised.[3]
While Schreffler's is probably the best definition, all these definitions have in common is the use of shanties to coordinate work at sea.

All of the surviving eighteenth century songs that I've examined (and sung) are of forms typical of the era at large and not a maritime working context specifically. Period songs with a maritime theme are often based on existing tunes that are not explicitly work songs. As George Carey pointed out in his introduction to A Sailor's Songbag, a transcription of fifty-seven songs collected by an American sailor in the 1770's, only six 'deal with the sea, a fact that dispels the sometimes stereotyped notion that sailors only sang about their profession.'[4] Further, no sailor of the eighteenth century writes of work songs, much less those with a call and response format. Stan Hughill in his 1961 Shanties from the Seven Seas makes mention of the lack of sources referring to shanties as such in the eighteenth century.[5] Doerflinger, in his Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, argues that shanties go much further back, but fell into 'comparative disuse during the wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.'[6] Paul Gilje, in his very entertaining To Swear Like a Sailor, also states that 'few commentators mentioned shanties until the 1830s. By then they seem to have become widespread.'[7]

I do not argue that there was no singing on the ship. Samuel Kelly suggests there was a time and a place for music in relating a humorous anecdote in which an army band took up their instruments at an inopportune time aboard a transport in 1783:
At daylight the [regimental] band assembled to play a tune on the quarter-deck (I imagine from custom, or regimental orders), this aroused the fury of our master (who probably had not yet forgotten the danger of the night, and being still near the rocks), was astonished at this inconsideration. He therefore with the speaking trumpet in his hand began to lay it on the heads of the musicians with great violence, which soon dispersed the harmony.[8]
Of course, those were not sailors, they were using instruments rather than their voice alone, and they violated the officer's domain of the quarter deck. Seamen were probably more attune to the appropriate time for singing.

Christopher Hawkins, many decades later, remembered crewing an American privateer schooner as she chased down a fat British brig in 1777:
The second Lieut. took the helm and seemed in command-ordered the boatswain after trimming the sails and the great part of the crew to be seated aft and attend to the singing of some of the crew, (Capt. of Marines).[9]
When Hawkins' crew was later captured by the Royal Navy, they defied the British in song:
Our crew were full of vigour and entertained the crew of the frigate with a number of our patriotic songs. Although entertained the loyalists were by no means pleased. The singing was excellent and its volume was extensive-and yet extremely harsh to the taste of the captors. The guard frequently threatened to fire upon us if the singing was not dispensed with, but their threats availed them not. They only brought forth higher notes and vociferous defiance from the crew. The poetry of which the songs were many of them composed, was of the most cutting sarcasm upon the British and their unhallowed cause. I recollect the last words of each stanza in one song were," For America and all her sons forever will shine." In these words it seemed to me that all the prisoners united their voices to the highest key, for the harmony produced by the union of two hundred voices must have grated upon the ears of our humane captors in a manner less acceptable than the thunder of heaven. For at the interval of time between the singing of ever song the sentinels would threaten to fire upon us and the officers of the frigate would also admonish with angry words. "Fire and be damn'd" would be the response from perhaps an hundred voices at the same instance. The singing would again be renewed and louder if possible. In this manner the first night was spent.[10]
Hawkins is prone to exaggeration, and this anecdote does give me pause, but music was certainly present in the population of American seamen captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. As mentioned above, Timothy Connor, held at Forton Prison from 1777 through 1779, kept a collection of songs numbering fifty seven in all.[11]

British mariners were also fond of music. When John Nicol visited Hawaii in 1785, one of his shipmates earned a place of respect through his singing:
We had a merry facetious fellow on board called Dickson. He sung pretty well. He squinted and the natives mimicked him. Abenoue, King of Atooi, could cock his eye like Dickson better than any of his subjects. Abenoue called him Billicany, from his often singing 'Rule Britannia'. Abenoue learned the air and the words as near as he could pronounce them. It was an amusing thing to hear the king and Dickson sing. Abenoue loved him better than any man in the ship, and always embraced him every time they met on shore or in the ship, and began to sing, 'Tule Billicany, Billicany Tule,' etc.[12]
There is a difference between songs, shanties, and chants. When it came to working tunes, chants appear to have been the choice.

Ebenezer Fox, a young man who served aboard a privateer and was held aboard the prison ship Jersey during the Revolution, referred to work chants in his memoirs. He wrote of the sailors using 'yo-hoi-ho heave' in tossing a young sailor into the water for a swim, and in specifically referencing use of the windlass 'We then weighed anchor, for the last time, with a joyful "Yeo-a-hoi," and set sail for our native land.'[13]

Fox's memoir must be read critically, as he was writing many decades after the event, and there are inconsistencies in his text. The latter quote, however, falls in line with another primary source.

William Falconer's 1769 An Universal Dictionary of the Marine was a seminal work, and though he does include fanciful fabrications, his book is very helpful. In Falconer's entry on 'Windlass' (an identical entry in his 1780 edition is included below) he writes that when sailors are using handspikes in the device to weigh anchor, 'the sailors must all rise once upon the windlass, and, fixing their bars therein, give a sudden jerk at the same instant, in which movement they are regulated by a sort of song or howl produced by one of their number.' Taken with Fox's account of weighing anchor, these sources corroborate each other.
William Falconer, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, The Strand (London) T. Caddell, 1780,
page 338, University of California Libraries via Internet Archive.
Falconer also included an entry in his appendix on French terms for 'UN, deux, trois' which relates the use of a chant of sorts to coordinate work, including a simple English variant.
William Falconer, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, London: T. Caddell, 1769,
page 491, Library of the Marine Corps via Internet Archive.
Notably, none of these sources suggest verses between the chants, which would constitute a shanty.

The closest we might come is an anecdote related by the American Reverend Ammi Robbins, who experienced that familiar frustration of not being able to get a song out of his head:
The boatmen sing a very pretty air to 'Row the boat, row' which ran in my head when half asleep, nor could I put it entirely out of mind amid all our gloom and terror, with the water up to my knees as I lay in the boat. My difficulty was one passage I could not get.[14]
It is not positively a shanty, but Reverend Robbins does say there was 'one passage I could not get,' which implies different passages broken up by the short chorus of 'row the boat, row.'

Reverend Robbins alone gives us evidence of what we might think of as shanties. It is widely agreed that there was a strong African influence on the creation of shanties, particularly by the enslaved people of the New World, and the permeation of their influence took time. As I quoted Gilje earlier, shanties really took hold in the 1830's. Schreffler explains why:
The development of the shanty genre was happening at precisely the same time as the blackface minstrel genre of music was developing in the United States. We know that the minstrel music was at that time the middle of the 19th century I’m talking about. Kind of starting in the 1830's, having its first peak actually in a year. We can pinpoint 1843 and then continuing from there the minstrel genre was the most popular genre of music in the United States, and eventually spread globally. And this would have been popular music with all of the sailors. Whether the sailors were white or black, they were interested in this type of music. It was the popular music.[15]
There has also been some projecting backward, which is very common in the study of maritime history. A belief has run throughout history that sailors don't really change. Whether it is in their religious beliefs, language, or dress, people then and now often imagine sailors are slow to change, and that traditions of the sea are immemorial. As such, ballads and songs that existed at the time are cast as sea shanties when that was not their intention.

Sailors did sing. When we use the term 'shanties,' we imply a specific musical tradition of work songs that was not yet fully formed in the Atlantic world.

[1] Terry, Richard Runciman, The Shanty Book: Sailor Shanties with Lyrics and Music, ebook: CreateSpace, 2014, page 10
[2] Doerflinger, William Main, Songs of the Sailor and Lumberman, revised edition, Glenwood, Illinois: Meyerbooks, 1990, page 1.
[3] Schreffler, Gibb, "Songs of the Sea," BackStory Radio, "Thar She Blows Again," October 12, 2018, transcription, accessed October 19, 2018, <>.
[4] Timothy Connor, A Sailor's Songbag: An American Rebel in an English Prison, 1777-1779, George C. Carey ed., Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1976, page 16.
[5] Hughill, Stan, ed., Shanties From the Seven Seas: Shipboard Work-songs and Songs Used as Work-songs from the Great Days of Sail, London: Routledge & Kegen Paul, 1961, page 5.
[6] Doerflinger, Songs of the Sailor, page xiv.
[7] Gilje, Paul A., To Swear Like a Sailor: Maritime Culture in America, 1750-1850, New York: Cambridge University, 2016, page 170.
[8] 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 78.
[9] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, page 14.
[10] Ibid., pages 63-64.
[11] A Sailor's Songbag.
[12] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 83.
[13] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, pages 190 and 224.
[14] Robbins, Rev. Ammi R., Journal of the Rev. Ammi R. Robbins: A Chaplain in the American Army, in the Northern Campaign of 1776, New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1850, page 18, Library of Congress via the Internet Archive.
[15] "That She Blows Again," Backstory Radio<>.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Untitled Print, 1762

Untitled print, Paul Sandby, 1762, British Museum.

Thanks again to follower Adam Hodges-LeClaire for pointing this piece out to me.

The curators of the British Museum, in the catalog entry for this piece, believe this to be Sandby's reply to William Hogarth's cartoon The Times. The public debate around the peace negotiations to end the Seven Years War got hot in the press, and Hogarth's Times was copied and answered several times by other artists. Sandby's is possibly the most artistically sophisticated of these responses.

There's a lot going on here, and for more on the political message and the various figures, I do strongly recommend reading the curators' catalog entry.

As always, I'm going to focus on the tars in this cartoon. In the frame on the left and out of frame on the right sailors bookend the piece.
Clutching a broken anchor and covered in cobwebs, a sailor and a grenadier stand atop the scroll outside the left frame of the cartoon. They are juxtaposed against a Scotsman beating a legless man with his own wooden leg on the right scroll. The broken anchor is obvious enough, but the cobwebs suggest disuse, which is hard to argue for the Royal Navy in the final year of the Seven Years War. Fighting a war on multiple continents meant that even with the French Navy shattered by the numerous victories of 1759 the British fleet was stretched across the globe and constantly sailing from one ocean to the next. Perhaps Sandby intended this to be a warning of things to come?

This sailor wears a reversed cocked hat with a narrow brim over his bob wig. His handkerchief is worn over the jacket, but the style is indiscernible. The jacket itself is tucked into his wide legged trousers, and may be intended as a frock, as I can't make out any opening on the front. In any case, the jacket ends in slash cuffs. To emphasize his poverty, the sailor has a patch over his left knee. The trousers end about the bottom of the calf.
According to the curators: 'At the extreme right, Edward, Duke of York, Admiral of the Blue, wearing sailor's trousers, and followed by another naval officer, climbs over a blank inn-sign of the Patriot Arms to come to the assistance of his uncle Cumberland.'

His uniform is decidedly that of an officer, and the trousers may be intended to make his affiliation with the sea apparent. I disagree with the curators assessment of the man standing behind him. The handkerchief over his jacket and the stick in his hand are the marks of common seamen, not officers. Neither of these objects are present on the Duke of York himself. The sailor also wears a bob wig.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

A Revengeful Stick

Detail from British Resentment or the French fairly Coopt at Louisbourg,
Louis Pierre Boitard, 1755, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
There are a lot of things I didn't expect when I started this website back in 2014. When studying depictions of sailors' slop clothes, I was surprised by the number of open cuffs, bob wigs, cocked hats worn reversed, and the variety of handkerchief styles. Among the most prolific accouterments of the sailor in artwork of my era is the stick.

A question arose from seeing so many representations of sailors and sticks: why? What purpose does the sailor's stick serve?

Now that I have combed through court records, memoirs, and especially period newspapers, it is my belief that the primary purpose of the sailor's stick was as a weapon.

That is not to say the sailor only ever used his stick as a weapon. Mariners are often depicted dancing with sticks.
Detail from Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, John Greenwood, c. 1752-1758, Saint Louis Art Museum.
Detail from The Sailor's Fleet Wedding Entertainment,
M. Cooper, 1747, Yale University Lewis Walpole Library.
Detail from The Wapping Landlady, engraved from the Original Painting in Vaux Hall Gardens,
published by Carrington Bowles, 1743, British Museum.
Deatil from Greenwich Hill or Holyday Gambols,
William Humphrey, 1770's, British Museum.
Just as often, sailors are depicted bearing sticks in courtship. Including the very not safe for work print that accompanied a 1770 edition of the erotic novel Fanny Hill. Tame examples of sticks present in courtship are depicted below.
Detail from Jack on a Cruise, M. Darly, 1781, British Museum.
Detail from The Modern Harlot's Progress, or Adventures of Harriet Heedless,
Carington Bowles, 15 May 1780, British Museum.
Jack got safe into Port with his Prize, Robert Sayer, 1780, British Museum.
However, I have not yet found any written evidence of sticks being used for any purpose other than violence. This may simply be because sticks were common enough to pass without mention unless there was an exceptional circumstance that required they be mentioned, though the startling lack of any other source is stark. Further, sailors are very rarely depicted carrying sticks at sea or aboard ship, and this absence may be explained by that tool being primarily a weapon, and therefore discouraged or unnecessary afloat.

A hint of the purpose of sticks is in the memoirs of Olaudah Equiano. He faced the usual dangers that accompanied a life at sea: drowning, fire, death in battle, corporal punishment, and the like. As a black man sailing Caribbean and North American waters, Equiano was also subject to racial dangers like attempted kidnapping:
One day, while I was a little way out of the town of Savannah [Georgia], I was beset by two white men, who meant to play their usual tricks with me in the way of kidnapping. As soon as these men accosted me, one of them said to the other, 'This is the very fellow we are looking for that you lost:' and the other swore immediately that I was the identical person. On this they made up to me, and were about to handle me; but I told them to be still and keep off; for I had seen those kind of tricks played upon other free blacks, and they must not think to serve me so. At this they paused a little, and one said to the other—it will not do; and the other answered that I talked too good English. I replied, I believed I did; and I had also with me a revengeful stick equal to the occasion; and my mind was likewise good. Happily however it was not used; and, after we had talked together a little in this manner, the rogues left me.
Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, London: T. Wikins,
1789, pages 72-73, University of Michigan via HathiTrust Digital Library.
Equiano's use of the stick was for self defense, and he was far from the only one. When an unnamed sailor from the Hastings was accosted by a highwayman, the blustering tar declared 'that he expected some Broadsides before he surrendered' and later struck the highwayman 'on the Head with his Stick, which so stunned the Fellow, that he fell from his Horse.'
The Derby Mercury, January 20, 1748, Page 4.
The use of the stick for personal defense is alluded to in a print depicting the murder of a midshipman from the Wager during the sailors' difficult time ashore after their vessel wrecked. As Captain Cheap shoots Midshipman Henry Cozens, a small group of sailors charges toward the sound of the pistol, sticks in hand.
Detail from A Representation of Capt Cheap, Commander of the ship Wager, Shooting Mr. Cozens his Midshipman, artist unknown, published 1745 in A voyage to the South-seas, and to many other parts of the world, from 1740 to 1744, by an officer of the fleet.
In another case, two sailors jumped a third on the road and attempted to rob him. Both attackers resorted to striking their victim 'with a bludgeon' and 'a stick.' Despite the onslaught, 'by his Knife and Walking Stick, he defended himself so bravely, that they retreated with great precipitation, without their booty.'
The Derby Mercury, November 17, 1749, page 3.
In the above anecdote we see sailors using the stick both for offensive and defensive purposes, but the sources available lean heavily toward the stick as an offensive weapon. In 1758, a sailor used his stick to beat his wife for infidelity, a shocking crime for which he was incarcerated.
Jackson's Oxford Journal, August 12, 1758, page 1.
The use of sticks in domestic violence is echoed in a possibly apocryphal tale from 1790, a sailor saves his unfaithful wife by beating her lover with 'a large oak stick.'
The Public Advertiser, July 30, 1790, Page 3.
This scene is repeated in the comic opera Thomas and Sally, and so depicted in this print that accompanied the score of that play.
Plate from 'Thomas and Sally or, the Sailor's Return. A musical entertainment in two acts and in verse,'
author Isaac Bickerstaffe, artist unknown, 1770, Internet Archive.
On a larger scale, seamen would use their sticks in riots and brawls. In a trial at the Old Bailey in 1761, a number of sailors produced sticks in a tavern.
Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 05 June 2018),
October 1761, trial of Stephen Dane (t17611021-30).
In October of 1763, a riot broke out in Shoreditch, and the sailors in the mob struck at the soldiers called to suppress them 'with their sticks.'
"The Late Riot in Shoredtich," The Beauties of All Magazines Selected for the Year 1763,
Volume 2, London: T. Waller, 1763, page 509, via Google Books.
Sailors are also depicted as wielding sticks in the riot on the Strand in 1749.
Detail from The Mob attempting to pull down Peter Woods house, Unknown Artist, 1749, British Museum.
The sailor in Philip Dawe's Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man is also armed with a stick, and is one of the most prominent figures in the American mob depicted there.
Detail from The Bostonian's Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering,
attributed to Philip Dawe, published by Sayer and Bennett, 1774, John Carter Brown Library.
The rioting mess of shipmates who rescue the woman of ill repute from the law in John Collet's A Rescue, or Tars Triumphant also bear sticks.
A Rescue, or the Tars Triumphant, John Collet, 1767, Open Art Collection.
At times the violence that sailors wrought with their sticks was celebrated. Increasingly during the Seven Years War and especially during the American Revolutionary War, sailors were used as personifications of Britain. And so their sticks came to have political meaning as well. When sailors forced their way onto the field in their enthusiasm to engage the French during the Battle on the Plains of Abraham, the story was repeated in several newspapers. These Georgian journalists were particularly impressed that the sailors were so eager despite 'some having cutlasses in their hands, others sticks, and some nothing at all.'
"Behaviour of the brave Tars at Quebec." The Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. VI,
March 1762, page 135, via Google Books.
In 1781, a Mr. Churchill penned a metaphorical ballad in which the sailor's 'trusty oak stick' was used to beat down the French and those that would shelter them.
"Song 421. Written by Mr. Churchill." The Vocal Magazine; or, Compleat British Songster, London: Harrison and Co., 1781,  page 112, New York Public Library via HathiTrust Digital Library.
The theme of the sailor striking at personifications of Britain's enemies is quite present in cartoons of the latter half of the eighteenth century. A pair of sailors bearing sticks have struck a hard blow against a stereotypical Spaniard in Cruikshank's 1790 Political Sparring.
Detail from Political Sparring, Isaac Cruikshank, 1790, British Museum.
William Wells drew a sailor strangling a personification of the Dutch in 1783.
Detail from Proclamation of Peace, William Wells, 1783, British Museum.
And in a poorly engraved cartoon by Thomas Colley, a British sailor watches over his French prisoners while brandishing his stick.
Detail from The Ville de Paris, sailing for Jamaica, or Rodney triumphant,
Thomas Colley, 1782, British Museum.
For attack and defense, the sailor carried a stick with him ashore. As a symbol of violence borne by the personification of Britain, it became an extension of Britain's might. In reality, it was used for the sort of nasty brawling that sailors were (rightly or wrongly) notorious for.