Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Shore Party Armaments: The Cutlass

'Figure of Eight' Naval Cutlass, c.1740-1750, Colonial Williamsburg.
I recently received an inquiry regarding the carrying of cutlasses. Follower Brian McNamara, a maritime archaeologist and historian, noticed that a lot of reenactors portraying naval seamen were wearing blades:
As I pour through images I find very little evidence of a sailor wearing baldric or scabbard, even if they do happen to have a cutlass in hand. In the instances where they do, it is often in a political piece where the author is clearly taking artistic licence. In what situation if any would a before-the-mast common sailor ever be granted such leeway to carry arms? 
In this post, I will approach two main questions: how were cutlasses carried, and by whom?

MacNamara is right that most images from the period show sailors with naked cutlasses. This is particularly notable in the numerous portrayals of the British Tar at Omoa. In each of these a common sailor is portrayed storming the fortifications of Omoa bearing at least one cutlass, and the image often includes background characters also armed with naked blades, but not a single scabbard or baldric among them.

Primary source artwork is of limited use here. There are many images of sailors with sword or cutlass, but most of these are cartoons and not illustrated by mariners familiar with the customs of the sea. Of the cartoons and other images collected there, it's a pretty even split between waistbelt and baldric, or no method of carrying cutlasses at all. Not exactly illuminating.

Even those pieces that are illustrated by mariners are not necessarily reliable or helpful, as is the case with this detail from East India Company mariner William Gibson. The figure on the right holds a sword, but has no visible belt or baldric for sheathing it.
Courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum and Park, Newport News, VA
Detail from Earl of Cornwallis Bound to Bengal, William Gibson, 1783
This would support the notion that sailors aboard were issued cutlasses only when necessary, and so did not need scabbards, baldrics, or waistbelts to haul them around. Certainly cutlasses and other weapons were stored aboard ship for easy access in an emergency, and not intended to be carried for long periods of time. When a press gang boarded the Boston merchantman Hawke in 1741, a young Ashley Bowen had to distract the Royal Navy midshipman who 'examined our small arms and missing some of our cutlass and pistols out of their places...began to examine our bulkheads' in search of the shipmates that presumably held those arms to resist.'[1] John Nicol, serving during the Revolutionary War, wrote: 'I was one of the boarders. We were all armed, when required, with a pike to defend our own vessel should the enemy attempt to board; a tomahawk, cutlass and brace of pistols to use in boarding them. I never had occasion to try their use on board the Proteus, as the privateers used to strike after a broadside or two.'[2] John Iver, 'mate of an East India Ship,' in a letter written to his wife and published in Jackson's Oxford Journal, resorted to an extreme measure to carry his cutlass when the ship caught fire and Lascar sailors tried to escape on the only boat available. Ordered by the captain to save the 'save him and the rest of the Europeans,' Iver 'took a cutlass in my mouth, and directly jumped overboard.'[3]
Aboard ship, sailors had little need of a scabbard. Ashore was a different story.

Sometimes this was for ceremonial occasions. James Wyatt, a privateer writing in his The Life and Surprizing Adventures of James Wyatt in 1753 mentions the carrying of swords for a midshipman's funeral ashore: 'Every one had a Pair of Pistols stuck in his Belt, a Hanger by his Side, and there were Swords cross'd on the Coffin Lid.'[4] Again, he says nothing about precisely how the blades were slung.

Gabriel Bray is perhaps the only artist to give us a reliable image of a sailor carrying a cutlass ashore. Bray, unlike most artists I examine on this website, was a naval officer and focused on daily life at sea during his 1774 voyage aboard the frigate Pallas to Africa. In one piece entitled Military Figure Leaning on a Pile of Bales (possibly created shortly before the Pallas voyage) a common seaman is in the background hauling casks.
​He wears all the paraphernalia of a boarding party: pistols tucked into a belt, at least one vambrace to protect the forearm in close combat, boarding helmet reinforced with (presumably) iron bands, and a cutlass in a scabbard.[5] There is no shoulder slung baldric so it must hang from his waistbelt. Given Bray's background, and the other pieces he has painted, I think we can reasonably conclude this is a slice of life depiction, rather than a metaphorical piece using visual shorthand as in cartoons of the day. The curators of the National Maritime Museum state 'it has been suggested he [the figure in this illustration] may be connected with anti-smuggling operations.'

My guess (and I stress it is a guess) is that the sailor was part of a shore party along with the officer who stands as the central figure of the piece, and that the party was dressed and accoutered for close combat in case something went wrong. This would make sense in an anti-smuggling mission.

Certainly merchantmen kept bladed weapons as well. As quoted above, Ashley Bowen served on a merchantman in which cutlasses were stored ready for the crew. Merchant captains also personally owned hand weapons for their personal protection and likely that of their crew. In examining the probate inventories of landowners in colonial London Town, Maryland, Mechelle Kerns revealed just such evidence. Captain Anthony Beck’s estate inventory lists both a pair of pistols and a cutlass among his possessions, just as Captain Richard Jones’ inventory mentions three guns, and Strachan’s lists a 'parcel of old sward blades.'[6]

So how common were cutlasses on non-naval vessels compared to men-ofwar?

Archaeology can be of some help here. Looking through archaeological reports for non-naval vessels the General Carleton (merchant), Defence (American privateer), and Philadelphia (American gunboat) made no mention of recovered swords, cutlasses, or associated leather gear.[7] Matthew Keagle, curator at Fort Ticonderoga, weighed in on the collection drawn from the sloop Boscawen. 'Somewhat to my surprise I don't believe there were any cutlass parts or belting recovered from the wreck. To a certain extent this doesn't surprise me, as it was built and manned largely by army personnel.' The Boscawen was even commanded by an infantry officer from the 77th Foot.[8] Interestingly, these vessels all have surviving artifacts of and related to flintlock small arms.

Naval vessels don't always turn up cutlasses themselves, but the associated gear does reliably appear. Perhaps the lack of swords and cutlasses had more to do with the crew taking those weapons with them than their lack aboard prior to sinking.The 1791 wreck of the Pandora turned up some leather scabbard fragments.[9] The 1798 wreck of the DeBraak, though after my period of study, provides the most complete surviving set of cutlass leather gear. Follower Andrew Lyter of the Zwaanendael Museum in Lewes, Delaware (which displays some of the artifacts recovered from the DeBraak) was kind enough to provide some photographs of the remarkably intact gear.
Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, Department of the State, photographed by Andrew Lyter, Zwaanendael Museum, Lewes, Delaware.
Maritime material culture historian Matthew Brenckle pointed out that some of the buckles recovered from the 1770 wreck of the naval sloop Swift are remarkably similar to that on the belt of the DeBraak.[10]

Almost certainly, shore parties were equipped for what their commanders thought would be most useful and appropriate for the occasion. The thirty three officers and men of the Royal Navy dispatched on the Braddock Expedition in 1755 were armed with bright barreled sea service muskets, cartouche boxes, and bayonets, and no cutlasses (much less belts, baldrics, or scabbards).[11] Braddock's Expedition was a long term campaign and the officers in charge anticipated traditional restricted warfare of the eighteenth century style, with the occasional stand up fight brought on through ambush. Bray's men apparently anticipated close in fighting ashore.
"Figure of Eight" Naval Cutlass, c.1740-1750, Colonial Williamsburg.
All of this suggests that cutlasses were more common on naval vessels than any other sort.

Whether naval seamen carried cutlasses ashore depended very much on the particular situation. The sailors of the Braddock Expedition were on a very different mission than the sailor portrayed by Bray. How precisely they carried these implements requires more research than I've given you here. If you know of artwork I've missed, existing baldrics or waist-belts from the period, or primary source accounts that shed more light on this topic, feel free to share them and shed light on this topic.

[1] Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 38.
[2] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 37.
[3] Jackson's Oxford Journal, January 6, 1759, pages 1-2.
[4] Wyatt, James, The Life and Surprizing Adventures of James Wyatt, London: W. Reave, 1753, page 12.
[5] Boarding helmets are rarely mentioned, and even more rarely researched. William Gilkerson did briefly examine them in his Boarder's Away: With Steel - Edged Weapons & Pole Arms, Lincoln, Rhode Island: Andrew Mowbray Publishing, 1991, pages 104-106.
[6] Kerns, Mechelle, London Town: The Life of a Colonial Town, unpublished master’s thesis, UMBC: 1999., page 244, 311, 347.
[7] Litwin, Jerzy, et. al., The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785, Gdansk: Polish Maritime Museum, 2008; Shelley Owen Smith, The Defence: Life at Sea as Reflected in an Archaeological Assemblage from an Eighteenth Century Privateer, doctorate dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1986; Switzer, David C., "The Excavation of the Privateer Defence," Northeast Historical Archaeology, Volume 12, 1983, pages 43-50, via Binghampton University, The Open Repository,  <>; Bingeman, John H., The First Invincible (1747-1758): Her Excavations (1980-1991), Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010.
[8] ; Campbell, Janet and Peter Gesner, 'Illustrated Catalog of Artefacts from the HMS Pandora Wrecksite Excavations 1977-1995,' Memoirs of the Queensland Museum, Volume 2, Issue 1, Brisbane: Queensland Museum, 2000, page 88, accessed July 31, 2018, <;dn=888899821801914;res=IELHSS>.
[9] Personal e-mail communication with the author.
[10] Dolores Elkin, et al., “Archaeological research on HMS Swift: a British Sloop-of-War lost off Patagonia, Southern Argentina, in 1770,” The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, Volume 36, Issue 1, March 2007.
[11] Keppel to Barrington, March 17, 1755, 'IV. The Norwich: Letters,' in The Barrington Papers, Vol. 77, ed. D Bonner-Smith, London: Navy Record Society, 1937, 115-165. British History Online, accessed July 31, 2018, <>.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Pets Afloat

Middle-Deck of the Hector, Man of War, Thomas Rowlandson, 1782, National Maritime Museum.

Thomas Rowlandson took a tour from his studio in London to the wreck of the Royal George in 1782. He completed an album of twenty-seven images documenting his vacation. Two of these images portray the Hector, a 74 gun man of war. Rowlandson's depiction of the gun deck of a third rate as she sits idle in port is telling. The Hector has taken on the appearance of a rounded community, almost like a village ashore. Unlike the almost universally male society of a warship at sea, there are women scattered throughout the scene. In this scene we see a telltale sign of domesticity in the terrestrial mode: pet dogs.
In his The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, N.A.M. Rodger states it very clearly: 'Every ship had animals of many kinds aboard.' Most common were the pests like rats, followed by livestock, and finally pets.[1] For the sake of this post, I'm defining pets as animals that provided companionship, and were not intended to be eaten.

Sailors, like their brothers ashore, kept pets. Dogs were certainly among them. During the 2005-2006 excavation of the sloop Swift, a Royal Navy vessel that went down off Argentina in 1770, archaeologists recovered an intact metal dog collar.[2]
Photo by D. Vainstub, 2006 [3]
Drawing by N. Ciarlo, 2008 [3]
Dogs were common enough be included in (arguably) high art. William Hogarth's painting depicting Lord George Graham in the cabin of his 24 gun Bridgewater includes two dogs: Graham's spaniel and Hogarth's pug named Trump.
Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin, 1745,
William Hogarth, National Maritime Museum.
As well as being companions, dogs could also serve diplomatic purposes. When Jacob Nagle accompanied a colonizing expedition to Norfolk island in 1790, both the Europeans and Pacific Islanders exchanged gifts of dogs:
They brought two small dogs as a great present, but so vicious that they had to gag them, which was excepted of, through friendship, and in return the Dutch capt gave them a hound slut, which they seemed to adore. They tied a string round hur neck and danced round hur with great joy and led hur up to the town.[4]
Dogs could also intimidate. When the cooper John Nicol was having trouble getting work done while surrounded by Hawaiians, 'the captain, seeing from the deck my disagreeable situation, hailed me to set Neptune, our great Newfoundland dog, upon them, saying he would fear them more than fifty men.'[5]

If things got difficult, dogs could also become a food supply. In his entry for February 8, 1774, gunner's mate John Marra of Captain Cook's Resolution was matter of fact about it: 'Ships head N. by W. This day roasted the lieutenant's dog for the gun-room.'[6]

Sailors harbored an incredible affection for cats. When the American sailor Ashley Bowen took ill in 1746 as a prisoner in Hispanola, he found 'my cat was the greatest means of my recovery of my health.'[7] Henry Fielding was shocked at just how deep mariners' care for cats was during a voyage to Portugal in 1754:
While the ship was under sail, but making as will appear no great way, a kitten, one of four of the feline inhabitants of the cabin, fell from the window into the water: an alarm was immediately given to the captain, who was then upon deck, and received it with the utmost concern and many bitter oaths. He immediately gave orders to the steersman in favor of the poor thing, as he called it; the sails were instantly slackened, and all hands, as the phrase is, employed to recover the poor animal.
The cat was eventually saved by the boatswain, who stripped and swam to the stricken creature, carrying it back aboard in his mouth. Fielding wrote in his journal that some sailors were disappointed at the survival of the kitten, as 'the drowning of a cat was the very surest way of raising a favourable wind.'[8] As much as sailors' superstitions are overplayed, the belief that cats were somehow connected to the winds appears to be genuine. Samuel Kelly remembered just such a case in 1788:
Having got the pilot on board at Deal and some fresh provisions, we sailed for the river. Our pilot, seeing our cat frolicsome, who doubtless smell the land, and was running in and out on the bowsprit, became exasperated against the poor animal; he being superstitious concluded her gambols denoted a heavy gale of wind, which actually came on and we rode out the storm in Margate Roads, but I do not think the manoeuvres of the cat were in any way connected with it.[9]
Kelly appears to be wrong. Cats may indeed react to changing barometric pressure. Obviously, cats do not affect the weather, but they are affected by it. No less a literary figure than Johnathan Swift commented on this phenomenon when he published his 1710 poem 'A Description of a City Shower' in The Tatler:
Careful observers may foretell the hour
(By sure prognostics) when to dread a shower:
While rain depends, the pensive cat gives o'er
Her frolics, and pursues her tail no more.[10]
There is a key difference between the belief that Kelly's pilot held in cats predicting the weather, and Fielding's crew who believed that cats controlled the weather.

Christopher Hawkins many decades later related a fanciful and probably apocryphal tale of an unnamed British frigate captain during the Revolution that held a 'natural antipathy' to the ship's cat. While around it he was 'uneasy.' Either this captain was no lover of felines, or held to the belief around cats' control of the wind. In any event, Hawkins wrote that a sailor had been condemned to flogging by the cat-of-nine-tails, but escaped punishment by presenting the captain with this ditty:
Exotic pets were also sometimes acquired, especially by sailors in tropical climes. Peter Earle, in his book Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775 found that a sailor named 'Thomas Marshall excused his desertion in St Kitts in 1738 by claiming he had only gone ashore to search for his parrot, while the British consul in Lisbon related in 1724 that some wreckage was known to be from a ship from Brazil because of the parrots and monkeys washing ashore.'[12] When sailing from Florida in 1785, Samuel Kelly served on a vessel that was a positive menagerie. He slept near 'two small white face monkeys' named Jacko and Caesar. Among his passengers 'The Colonel had also a racoon on board and each of the young ladies had a lap dog.'[13]

[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, pages 69-70.
[2] Ciarlo, Nicol├ís C., Horacio De Rosa, Dolores Elkin, and Phil Dunning"Evidence of use and reuse of a dog collar from the sloop of war HMS Swift (1770), Puerto Deseado (Argentina)" Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology, Volume 6, 2011, pages 20–27, accessed August 15, 2018, <>.
[3] Ibid., page 21.
[4] 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 136.
[5] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 87.
[6] Marra, John, Journal of the Resolution's voyage: in 1772, 1773, 1774, and 1775, London: F. Newbery, 1775, page 127, via University of Michigan, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, accessed August 30, 2018, <;view=fulltext>.
[7]  Bowen, Ashley, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813), edited by Daniel Vickers, Ontario: Broadview Editions, 2006, page 54
[8] Fielding, Henry, The Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon, London: A. Millar, 1755, page 88, via Internet Archives, accessed August 15, 2018, <>.
[9] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, pages 159-160.
[10] Swift, Jonathan, 'A Description of a City Shower,' in The Tatler, Volume IV, George A. Aitken, editor, New York: Hadley & Mathews, 1899, via Project Gutenberg, accessed August 17, 2018,  <>.
[11] Hawkins, Christopher, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins, edited by Charles I. Bushnell, New York: Privately Printed, 1864, pages 154-155, via Internet Archive, accessed August 16, 2018, <>.
[12] Earle, Peter, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, London: Methuen, 2007, page 95.
[13] Kelly, Eighteenth Century Seaman, pages 124-125. 

Friday, October 5, 2018


The name Jack Tar comes from sailors' tarred clothing. There is no evidence, as yet, that garments were intentionally tarred for waterproofing, but sailing was an inherently dirty business. As a teenager, Ebenezer Fox found himself coated in tar:
I ascended the side of the ship, and, finding no one on deck, I lay down in my wet clothes, and putting my hat under my head, slept soundly all night. When I awoke in the morning, I found that I was unable to move in consequence of my clothes adhering to the pitch, which the heat of the climate caused to ooze from the seams in the deck.[1]
Recently Paul White raised the question: how did sailors do their laundry afloat?
Adam Hodges-LeClaire demonstrates laundry aboard the French frigate L'Hermione
While ashore sailors generally relied on women to do laundry. David Cordingly in his book Seafaring Women points to the role of sailors' wives in doing laundry for the maritime community, including no less lofty a figure than Frances Boscawen, well connected wife of the Admiral Edward Boscawen (albeit for her own household and not to make a living).[2] Samuel Kelly remembered joining a ship in the 1780's and mentioned the role of women doing laundry while still in port:
In the evening I was called into the cabin to sign Articles, where I found the captain's wife and his sister at work, ironing some washed clothes.[3]
At sea, sailors were largely responsible for their own laundry. Perhaps they did their laundry together in each mess, having a designated washer or rotating the responsibility among themselves. Hannah Snell (who disguised herself as a man and went to sea as a marine in the 1740's) made herself amenable to the crew partly by taking on the regular task of laundry that usually fell to the men at sea:
As she was very tractable, sprightly, and wiling, she soon was caressed by her messmates, for whom she would very readily either wash or mend their linen, or stand cook, as occasion required.[4]
Traditionally feminine tasks like sewing, cooking, and laundry often fell to men afloat. Entire ships were often completely devoid of women. It has been suggested that sailors' hypermasculinity and strongly avowed aversion to the idea that homosexuality was rampant afloat was in part a reaction to the requirement that they be competent in tasks outside their gender sphere.[5]

This is not to say women were not present at sea at all, nor that they did no laundry when they were. Suzanne Stark, in her book Female Tars: Women at Sea in the Age of Sail says this is the case, and that women on men-of-war sometimes used fresh water to launder shirts for the sailors (for a price) because salt water tended not to dry out. She suggests that laundry was expected to be done with salt water. Stark quotes Admiral John Jervis, 1st Earl of St. Vincent: 'the women, who still infest His Majesty’s ships in great numbers, will have water to wash, that they and their reputed husbands may get drunk with the earnings.' In 1796 he instructed his captains to reprimand the women of the fleet for wasting fresh water.[6]

The actual mechanics of laundry at sea are one of those details that were so mundane as to go unrecorded in most sources. However, by taking a look at this menial and routine task, we can reflect something about attitudes toward women at sea. While not bad luck, women could be seen as a nuisance by naval commanders, even when assisting with essential tasks. But the common sailor might welcome women (and women posing as men) if they could take on a traditionally feminine task that the sailors themselves bore only out of necessity.

[1] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, pages 215-216.
[2] Cordingly, David, Seafaring Women: Adventures of Pirate Queens, Female Stowaways, and Sailors' Wives, New York: Random House, 2009, pages 244 and 246.
[3] Kelly, Samuel, Samuel Kelly: An Eighteenth Century Seaman, Whose Days Have Been Few and Evil, edited by Crosbie Garstin, Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925, page 72.
[4] 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, page 10.
[5] For the life of me I cannot find the paper in which this idea was put forward. The idea is not my own. It is hinted at by Stephen Berry: Berry, Stephen, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, page 161.
[6] Stark, Suzanne, Female Tars: Women at Sea in the Age of Sail, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2017, pages 56-57.