Wednesday, April 4, 2012

That Romantic Age Of Sail


Punishment on board ship, from the Journal of a Cruise on the USSCyane, 1842-43, by William H. Myers, Gunner

Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous.
-- Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast
No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.
-- James Boswell, Life of Johnson
In movies, on television, and in novels, shipboard life in the Age of Sail is often portrayed as very romantic. Swashbuckling action, hard drinking and shanty singing, tropical islands with exotic women; these are the images often brought to mind by popular media. The truth is, life on board sailing ships could be very harsh but, as some have pointed out, this was a time when life ashore could be very harsh as well.

Impressment. Writer Rupert Taylor notes in understated fashion that “[because] of the possibility of drowning, dying of disease, or being shot through with a cannonball, England’s Royal Navy often found itself short staffed.” The answer was the press gang, in which men from the Navy would search taverns and other gathering places ashore in what amounted to an on-the-spot draft. Sometimes a Navy vessel would stop a merchant vessel at sea and impress men from that vessel into Navy service. The impressment of American seamen by British ships was one of the causes of the War of 1812.

Cramped Quarters. Once on board, sailors lived in very cramped quarters. There was no privacy, even for officers. Although many berthed in the forecastle, others just slept where they could. Richard Henry Dana describes his first night as a merchant seaman on the Pilgrim in Two Years Before The Mast:
The steerage in which I lived was filled with coils of rigging, spare sails, old junk and ship stores, which had not been stowed away. Moreover, there had been no berths built for us to sleep in, and we were not allowed to drive nails to hang our clothes upon. The sea, too, had risen, the vessel was rolling heavily, and everything was pitched about in grand confusion. There was a complete “hurrah’s nest,” as the sailors say, “everything on top and nothing at hand.” A large hawser had been coiled away upon my chest; my hats, boots, mattress and blankets had all fetched away and gone over to leeward, and were jammed and broken under the boxes and coils of rigging. To crown all, we were allowed no light to find anything with, and I was just beginning to feel strong symptoms of sea-sickness, and that listlessness and inactivity which accompany it.
Bad Food. On long voyages only a few days supply of fresh food could be carried, the rest of the time the crew ate salted beef, pork, or horse meat, and “sea biscuits,” or hardtack. It was not uncommon for unscrupulous vendors ashore to sell ships supplies that were already spoilt or infested with pests, and reduced rations and malnutrition were common. As common was theft of food. Stores were kept locked, and a crew member caught stealing food could be punished severely, including having his hand cut off.

Discipline. Discipline could be harsh as well. The most common form of punishment was flogging, consisting of several dozen lashes with the end of a rope or a “cat o’ nine tails,” a form of whip. More severe offenses were punished by keelhauling, in which the offender was pulled across the underside of the ship by rope, often dying in the process. The most severe crimes, mutiny and murder, were punished by hanging.

A Contrary View. Naval historian Andrew Lambert says that, while maybe not exactly romantic, shipboard life in the Age of Sail was not the “concentration camp” that some have made it out to be. Lambert was part of a recreation of one of Captain James Cook’s voyages. According to him, food on board was superior to what was available to many on shore at the times. “For them such regular, hot, protein-rich meals, together with a nearly limitless supply of beer, would have been a luxury,” Lambert says.

Lambert also notes that discipline, while harsh, was consistent with society-wide norms of the time: “If anything, naval punishment was less severe, for sailors were a scarce and valuable resource that no captain would waste; also, flogging meant that the punishment was quickly completed, and the man could return to duty.”

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Military History at Suite 101: Harsh Life Aboard Navy Sailing Ships.
Authorama: Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast.

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