Monday, February 11, 2019

Wherever the Wind May Take Them: The Universality of Maritime Labor

The Jovial Crew, Thomas Rowlandson, 1786, Royal Collection Trust.
In his book The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, N.A.M. Rodger wrote '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.'[1]

Among popular historians and in popular culture, sailors of the Atlantic World are usually perceived as existing in distinctly separate services. This is true, but only to an extent.

The experience of a common tar on a whaler was indeed very different from his mate on a Royal Navy frigate, and both were very distant from the daily life of a slave ship sailor. And these experiences are worth exploring in themselves. Rodger's Wooden World, Peter Earle's Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775, and Marcus Rediker's The Slave Ship: A Human History can and should coexist. But it is also important to remember that sailors generally didn't think of themselves as strictly belonging to a single type of service. Sailors didn't join the navy so much as sign on to a particular ship. Nor did sailors see signing on to an East Indiamen as an irrevocable career decision that destined them only to sail between Britain and India.

The willingness to move between different merchant and naval services is readily apparent in The Sailor's Memoirs Project. In a fairly typical example, Christopher Prince began his career on fishing vessels, and eventually took command of a merchantman from New England to Canada, where he was pressed into the service of the Royal Navy, then returned to America and enlisted in the Connecticut State Navy, and found his way back into the merchant trade.[2] More famously, Jacob Nagle bounced all over the earth on merchantmen and naval vessels: enlisting in the Continental Navy, leaving to sign aboard a privateer, briefly serving in the French navy, then the Royal Navy, and later in both American and British merchantmen.[3] Olaudah Equiano had an even more fascinating experience. An enslaved survivor of the Middle Passage, Equiano was held by various naval and merchant officers, and in their service sailed men of war, slavers, and merchantmen. After gaining his freedom, he continued in both the merchant and Caribbean and North American slave trades.[4] Nearly every entry in The Sailor's Memoirs project follows a similar path between the different maritime services.

By expanding our definition of sailor's lives, we can open up interesting opportunities in studying the Wooden World. A version of this expanded scope has been underway for quite some time in naval history. In writing his excellent The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, Sam Willis was explicit in his willingness to break down the arbitrary divisions made within naval histories of the past, Will made 'no distinction between navies operating on rivers and freshwater lakes and those on oceans. The contributions made by the former to this war are of equal significance to those by the latter. Naval historians tend to make a false distinction between "inland navies" and those that disputed "command of the sea," but contemporaries saw no difference. They simply talked of "command of the water," an excellent phrase that has sadly gone out of use.'[5] By expanding the examination of naval history to privateers, fresh water travel and battle, and other theaters, Willis was able to weave a much more complete narrative of the naval Revolution than any previous historian.

In their book Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail, Daniel Vickers and Vince Walsh take it even further. They make a strong case for expanding our understanding of sailor's lives to the shore as well. Then, as now, sailors spent most of their time on dry land. Ashley Bowen, typical in his freely changing maritime employment, is examined in depth by Vickers and Walsh, who find that 'for Bowen...merchant seafaring was less a specialized trade than a single element within a broader pattern of maritime employment' both afloat and ashore.[6]

Studies of daily life on warships, merchantmen, and slavers are valuable and helpful, but few sailors would have experienced those trades alone, and none would have joined them in a vacuum. Looking at sailors' lives between all services and within the British Atlantic World in which they were raised, can give us a much fuller understanding of the eighteenth century.

[1] Rodger, N.A.M., The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, New York: W.W. Norton, 1986, page 113.
[2] 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.
[3] 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.
[4] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003.
[5] Willis, Sam, The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, New York: W.W. Norton, 2015, page 7.
[6] Vickers, Daniel, with Vince Walsh, Young Men and the Sea: Yankee Seafarers in the Age of Sail, New Haven: Yale University Press, page 99.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Kyle,
    Marcus Redikers book, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” also touches on this fluidity of sea fairing lobourers. As they moved from ship to ship, trading a navel ship for piracy or smuggling, then back to merchant, or who ever paid the best. I check out those books. I don’t believe I have any of them yet. Thanks again interesting subject. John