Monday, December 10, 2018

The Call of Nature

Sailors of the eighteenth century were just as human as the rest of us. That means they had to sleep, eat, drink, and relieve themselves.

Given both the personal and mundane nature of the subject, it isn't surprising that so few people wrote about how sailors, passengers, officers, and enslaved captives disposed of bodily waste. There are almost no references to how sailors 'eased' themselves in their memoirs and journals, and newspapers are similarly silent on the subject. Through archaeology and a few print sources, we can come at a better idea of how they dealt with it. There were five main avenues: the seats of easement or 'head', anywhere sailors damned well pleased, the piss-dale, chamber pots, and tubs. Each of these methods says something about the people who crossed the Atlantic World.

I want to thank maritime archaeologist and follower Brian McNamara for recommending the book Those Vulgar Tubes: External Sanitary Accommodations aboard European Ships of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries by Joe J. Simmons III. I rely on Simmons' short work throughout this post. I also want to thank Randy Sparks for helping me track down a particularly tricky source. Check out his Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives Across the Atlantic World and Where the Negroes are Masters: An African Port in the Era of the Slave Trade.

The Seats of Easement

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 2003
When it comes to answering the call of nature, most people with even a passing interest in maritime history know about 'the head.' Whether tossed into novels as evidence of a hard life at sea, or spoken by a museum docent for a surefire snicker from students on a tour, we all pretty much know what to expect.

This most well known of facilities inspired an eighteenth century passenger to verse, and provided Simmons the title of his book: 'Those more vulgar tubes that downward peep, near where the Lion awes the raging deep.'[1] N.A.M. Rodger penned this academic definition of 'the head' in his 2000 edition of The Memoirs of a Seafaring Life: The Narrative of William Spavens:
A triangular platform built over the bows and the base of the bowsprit, where situated the ship's company's latrines.[2]
Notably, Rodger inserted this definition into a glossary that Spavens wrote (and largely plagiarized) to pad out his memoir. Spavens did not include the term originally and probably chose not to both because it was a delicate topic and because the term 'head' was not used specifically in reference to sailors' toilets. I have not yet found a period source that uses the term 'head' in this way. In William Falconer's 1769 An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, he does not define 'head' as such nor does he include the facilities in his diagrams.[3] 
The lack of a toilet in Falconer's plans for the head are not entirely surprising. Simmons points out that for this period 'in the detailed construction plans available...there is a serious lack of diagrams of the hygienic facilities at the head,' perhaps because shipwrights 'knew how best to fit the facilities of the day to the vessels they built.' He suggested the term 'head' came to mean marine toilets with the rise of steamships in the nineteenth century.[4] Given that, I refer to them as other historians do: seats of easement.

Regardless of what it was called, the seat of easement was an unpleasant place to do one's business, particularly for those not used to the ways of the sea. In his A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, Stephen Berry translates and quotes a German immigrant who was forced to use the sailor's toilet:
Each one, when one wished to relieve oneself, must hold to the ship's rope with one hand, while with the other, hold one's clothes over one's head and let oneself be splashed by the brine whenever the waves ran high enough.[5]
Such a position would leave sailors and passengers vulnerable to the elements and to their fellow man. As I've written before, resistance was a constant facet of slavery. Guineamen were specifically designed to prevent and fight the frequent revolts on the Middle Passage with barricados, separate apartments for enslaved men, women, and children, and even the placement of the seats of easement. In this illustration of the French slaver la Marie Séraphique you can see one set of seats (presumably for the enslaved) and another further aft and behind the barricado for the sailors.[6]
Detail from Coupe interne de La Marie Séraphique, artist unknown, c.1772-1773,
Les abolitions de l'esclavage.
The image above emphasizes the sheer number of enslaved people held aboard. The four holes provided by the seats of easement must have been insufficient. There were alternative means of waste storage and disposal on slavers, as we shall see below, but four seat is still remarkably few.

A lack of seats of easement appears to have been a habitual problem afloat for slave ships and other similarly crowded craft. Simmons points to the example of the fabled Victory which had 'only six formal sanitary accommodations forward for the roughly eight hundred-man complement of this first-rate.'[7]

Anywhere They Pleased

Given the discomfort, vulnerability, and lack of traditional seats of easement, some sailors avoided them or sought an alternative. In a 1763 case heard before the Maryland Court of Vice Admiralty, two slave ship seamen swore against their captain, who beat a sailor 'for pissing out of the gun hole.'[8] In William Wiliams' semi-autobiographical novel Mr. Penrose: Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman, he wrote of a fight between Spanish sailors and their English prisoners. He later learned it was caused by careless urination:
In the foretop was a small Hurricane house for the Captain of the Top to sleep in. In this place was a Model of a Ship, in which some of our people through laziness watered. Unfortunately for us she had a small hole in her bottom, and the urine ran down on the Hoopsticks as [the Spanish sailors] were at prayers. But the whole things blew over next day as we all declared none intended it as an insult.[9]
The Admiralty considered such 'laziness' to be a hazard. To address this, they updated the Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea to include a specific order 'that all necessary Precautions be used, by placing proper Centinels, or otherwise, to prevent Peoples easing themselves in the Hold.'[10]
Regulations would never be enough to prevent the filthy conditions that a group of young hypermasculine men could degrade to. In 1798, Aaron Thomas wrote in his journal about a sailor improvising a tool for waste disposal: 'Asked the cause of the Speaking Trumpet smelling so strong, said it was caused, by reason that [an officer] had been using it, as a Pissing Machine to carry his Urine from his body, off the Quarter Deck, through one of the Ports, into the Sea.'[11]

The Piss-Dale

For the more considerate sailor, there was the piss-dale. 
Reconstructed piss-dale on HMB Endeavour, © State of NSW DET
A simple metal urinal, the piss-dale was such an integral part of sailors' lives that Edward Ward chose to include it on the very first page of his description of common sailors in the satirical The Wooden World Dissected:
He crawls upon the deck, to the piss-dale, where, while he manages his whip-staff with one hand, he scratches his poop with the other.[12] 
The piss-dale was located near the ladder to the quarterdeck, as illustrated in the widely reproduced 1728 engraving 'A Ship of War of the Third Rate'[13]:
Being made of metal, a handful of these have survived to be excavated by maritime archaeologists.
Piss-dale from the Invincible, 1758 [14]
Piss-dale from the Henrietta Marie, 1700 [15]
Piss-dale from an unknown wreck [16]

Chamber Pots

Numerous wrecks of the eighteenth century turn up chamber pots. In the archaeological report of the Swift, a sloop that wrecked in 1770 off Argentina, archaeologists stated 'three ceramic chamber-pots were found prior to the intervention of the PROAS team, and so have no provenance. But since chamber-pots were not used by ordinary seamen, it is very probable that they belonged to officers.' Chamber pots are very common artifacts from the eighteenth century, found at pretty much every major domestic site. The archaeologists found 'there are clear differences in quality between the three pots: one is plain and coarsely-made, another is plain but of high-quality creamware, and the third is salt-glazed with relief decoration in blue, and probably imported from the Westerwald district of the Rhineland (cf. Hume 1982: 280–1).'[17]

Simmons also concluded that sailors were less likely to use chamber pots:
According to the technologies of a particular period, easily portable collection containers of wood Chamber pots were probably employed more often by officers and privileged passengers than by members of the crew, who used the cruder forms of collection containers.[18]
The number of surviving chamber pots in eighteenth century shipwrecks supports these conclusions. Though a relatively small vessel, the Swift boasted a crew of 125 officers, men, and marines when she was commissioned in 1763.[19] Were chamber pots a more common mode, we would expect to see more than three for such a crew.
Chamber pot from Invincible, 1758 [20]
The idea that chamber pots were primarily for the officers is reinforced by the excavation of the 1758 Invincible wreck. As a seventy four gun ship of the line on active service, she boasted between 650-700 officers, men, and marines.[21] John H. Bingeman isn't entirely clear in his The First Invincible (1747-1758): Her Excavations (1980-1991), but it appears the chamber pot pictured above was the only one found among the wreckage.[22]

I found no reference to chamber pots in reports of the privateer Defence, gunboat Philadelphia, or sloop Boscawen.[23] All of these are small ships of war operating in American waters.

Merchantmen also carried chamber pots for personal use. In the excavation of an unidentified late eighteenth century merchantman off Lewes, Delaware 'at least two chamber pots' were recovered.[24] In the mingled 1788 wrecks of the French Boussole and Astrolabe another chamber pot was excavated.[25]

Any treatment of chamber pots in archaeological wrecks for my period of study would be incomplete if I failed to include the strange and unique use of chamber pots on the General Carleton wreck of 1785. Joanna Dąbal wrote:
Those discovered on the wreck were most probably not used for their standard purpose. Their number (eleven in total), as well as traces of usage in the form of numerous scratches on the inside and soot stains on the outside of the vessels suggest that they were used in the preparation and consumption of meals on the ship (Fig. 6).[26]


From the Middle Ages, wooden tubs were used to store human waste afloat. Simmons defined one method of tubs, and one that draws an uncomfortable similarity to the chamber pots of the General Carleton:
Steep-tubs were wooden barrels, and half-barrels, generally understood to have been used to steep, or humidity and partly desalinate, salted meats - a staple for crews of sailing ships from at least the fourteenth century to well into the nineteenth century. An alternative has been suggested as well: that of external sanitary accommodations.[27] 
Beginning in the early seventeenth century, tubs were gradually phased out for sailors and passengers as toilets with the rise of alternate and more sanitary means.[28]

Among enslaved Africans on the Middle Passage, tubs continued to be the main depository of human waste. With the exception of chamber pots, all other accommodations were constructed so that they would swiftly carry waste out of the ship and drop it into the sea. Tubs were vessels of collection, and contributed to the horror of the slave ship. Olaudah Equiano remembered his survival of the Middle Passage in his Interesting Narrative:
The air soon became unfit for respiration, from a variety of loathsome smells, and brought on a sickness among the slaves, of which many died. The wretched situation was again aggravated by the chains, now unsupportable, and the filth of the necessary tubs, into which the children often fell, and were almost suffocated. The shrieks of the women, and the groans of the dying, rendered the whole a scene of horror almost inconceivable.[29]
Former slave ship captain turned abolitionist John Newton testified before Parliament against the slave trade. When he remarked that slave ships could be 'uncomfortable' below decks, a politician asked him 'In what respect chiefly does it deserve this epithet?' Newton echoed the atmosphere Equiano conjured in his book, and also emphasized the role of necessary tubs in the suffering of enslaved people:
Their being kept constantly in irons; crowded in their lodging; and often in bad weather, almost destitute of air to breathe; besides what they suffer from the ship's motion in their irons, and the difficulty in the night of getting to their tubs, which are sometimes overset.[30]

Marcus Rediker argued in his The Slave Ship: A Human History that Guineamen were constructed both for the physical task of transporting African captives to the New World and as a factory to transform those human beings into commodities.[31] Part of this was subjecting them to a dehumanizing terror, and the use of tubs rather than more effective means of waste disposal may have been an intentional part of that.

By studying universal aspects of the human condition, we can explore the past. Looking at what we eat and how, the ways we grieve over death, how we sleep, and even how we dispose of bodily waste, it is possible to draw conclusions about class, race, labor, and culture. Seats of easement are simple proof of the danger and discomfort of life at sea. The paucity of chamber pots touches on divisions between officers and men (permeable though that barrier may have been). The continued use of tubs on slavers illustrates how very different that trade was from the rest of the merchant and naval maritime world, and how integral suffering was to the slave trade.

[1] Simmons III, Joe J., Those Vulgar Tubes: External Sanitary Accommodations aboard European Ships of the Fifteenth through Seventeenth Centuries, Texas A&M University, second edition, London: Chatham Publishing, 1997, page 58
[2] N.A.M. Rodger in 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 232.
[3] Falconer, William, Plate IV, An Universal Dictionary of the Marine, London: Printed for T. Cadell, 1769, Plate IV, Trove, National Library of Australia, accessed December 2, 2018, <>.
[4] Simmons, Vulgar Tubes, page 58.
[5] Quoted in Berry, Stephen, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life & Atlantic Crossings to the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015, page 57.
[6] 'Coupe interne de La Marie Séraphique,' c.1772-1773,Les abolitions de l'esclavage, Ministère de la Culture, accessed January 22, 2018, <>. Link now dead.
[7] Simmons, Vulgar Tubespage 59.
[8] Henry Edwards and others v. The Snow Hannah Edward Priscott Commander, Transcription of "Admiralty Court--Minutes (1754-1775)", Maryland State Archives, David R. Owen and Michael C. Tolley editors, accessed December 1, 2018, <>.
[9] Williams, William, Mr. Penrose: The Journal of Penrose, Seaman, introduction and notes by David Howard Dickason, afterward by Sarah Wadsworth, Indianapolis: University of Indiana, 2013, pages 46-47.
[10] Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea, ninth edition, London, 1757, page 200, via Google Books, accessed December 1, 2018, <>. This order is not present in the 1734 regulations.
[11] "Monday 30th July 1798," Aaron Thomas: The Caribbean Journal of a Royal Navy Seaman, University of Miami Library, Elizabeth H. Locke editor, page 55, accessed March 1, 2018, <>.
[12] Ward, Edward, The Wooden World Dissected: In the Character of a Ship of War, seventh edition, London, 1760, page 56, via the HathiTrust Digital Library, accessed December 1, 2018, <;view=1up;seq=9>.
[13] "A Ship of War of the Third Rate," 1728, University of Wisconsin Madison via Wikimedia Commons, accessed December 1, 2018, <>.
[14] Piss-dale, inv.280-2, Invincible collection, The Historic Dockyard Chatham, accessed December 1, 2018, <>.
[15] Henrietta Marie Pissdale Tube 86.08.1888, Mel Fisher Maritime Museum via Sketchfab, accessed December 1, 2018, <>.
[16] Pissdale (12A07), © The Ships Project (Shipwrecks and History In Plymouth Sound), accessed December 1, 2018, <>.
[17] 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, page 50.
[18] Simmons, Vulgar Tubespage 4.
[19] Harrison, Simon, 'British sloop 'Swift' (1763)' Three Decks, accessed December 2, 2019, <>.
[20] Chamber pot, inv.354-2, Invincible collection, The Historic Dockyard Chatham, accessed December 1, 2018, <>.
[21] Harrison, Simon, 'British Third Rate ship of the line 'Invincible' (1747)' Three Decks, accessed December 2, 2019, <>.
[22] Bingeman, John H., The First Invincible (1747-1758): Her Excavations (1980-1991), Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2010, pages 172-173.
[23] Bratton, John Raymond, The Continental Gondola Philadelphia, doctorate disseration, Texas A&M University, 1997; Erwin, Gail, Personal Possessions from the H.M.S. Boscawen: Life on Board an Eighteenth-Century Warship During the French and Indian War, master's thesis, Texas A&M University, 1994; 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,  <>;
[24] Underwater Archaeological Investigation of the Roosevelt Inlet Shipwreck (7S-D-91A), Volume 1: Final ReportDelaware Department of State Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, April, 2010, page 135, accessed December 5, 2018, <>.
[25] Staniforth, Mark, Material Culture and Consumer Society: Dependent Colonies in Colonial Australia, Springer Science & Business Media, 2012, via Google Books, accessed December 5, 2018, <>.
[26] Dąbal, Joanna, "An attempt to recreate the ceramic vessel selection," The General Carleton Shipwreck, 1785, Archaeological Research of the Polish Maritime Museum, Volume 1, Waldemar Ossowski editor, Gdańsk: Polish Maritime Museum, 2008, pages 226-227.
[27] Simmons, Vulgar Tubespage 34.
[28] Ibid., 52.
[29] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003.
[30] Newton, John, testimony in Minutes Of The Evidence Taken Before A Committee of the House of Commons, Being A Select Committee, Apointed on the 23d Day of April 1790, To take the Examination of the several Witnesses ordered by the House to attend the Committee of the whole House, to whom it is referred to consider further of the Circumstances of the Slave Trade, 1790, in House of Commons Papers, Volume 73, University of Cambridge, page 142. Special thanks to Randy Sparks for helping me dig up this reference. 
[31] Rediker, Marcus, The Slave Ship: A Human History, New York: Viking, 2007.