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I want to be an AdmiralN.A.M. Rodger
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Vol. 42 No. 15 · 30 July 2020

I want to be an Admiral

N.A.M. Rodger

2407 words
Sons of the Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail 1740-1840 
by Stephen Taylor.
Yale, 490 pp., £20, April, 978 0 300 24571 4
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The‘common seamen’ of the age of sail are both an obvious subject to write about, and an obvious one to avoid. Most readers, and writers, will have a sense of the seaman’s life as having been exotic, dangerous, heroic even – but there are not many real experts on it, and fewer still with the literary powers necessary to recreate a way of life so remote from most modern experience. There are still big sailing ships at sea (though none that carry commercial cargoes); it is still possible to work aloft as a topman, encountering many of the same dangers as Stephen Taylor’s subjects did – but few of those who write about seamen have ever gone aloft on a dirty night to lay out on a yard and hand sail. There is at least one modern authority (Sam Willis) who deliberately went to sea in square rig to learn the trade of a foremast man, but Taylor, like most of us, has had to pick it up as best he can from reading. Of course it is the business of the historian to plunge into the deep waters of the past and to bring up vanished lives, but few lives seem to have vanished so completely, in so short a time, as that of the square-rig sailor. The necessary combination of scholarly rigour and imaginative sympathy is seldom harder to achieve than when treating the lost lives of an inarticulate people – or a people usually supposed to have been inarticulate.

The common seaman in the ‘heroic age of sail’ (which Taylor dates to the period 1740-1840) does not occupy a very long shelf in the library or the bookshop, even adding other languages to English, and most of the modern literature on his existence can be sorted roughly into two categories. One approach is to read all the published narratives (or purported narratives, for not all are genuine) written by seamen and to generalise about their experience. Stories drawn from different circumstances over a century of seafaring are apt to make a rather random anthology which even the most skilful writer might struggle to render coherent. The alternative approach is that of what used to be called ‘social science’: to collect impersonal evidence, above all statistics; to number and weigh the sons of the waves even if we cannot hope to meet them in person. Both techniques have their proponents and in recent years some historians have employed both, but more often they represent contrasting sympathies. Taylor has read and profited from such recent books as Jeremiah Dancy’s The Myth of the Press Gang and Isaac Land’s War, Nationalism and the British Sailor, but it does not suit his purpose to follow their arguments in detail, or to enter into the controversies which in some cases they have aroused. He writes mainly about warships (merchant ships are more difficult to study because the records are less forthcoming), but first he goes in search of the small group – scarcely more than a score – who have left us accounts of their lives. Some of these were published in the men’s lifetimes and have long been known to specialists, but some of the most remarkable and evocative have only come to light recently, and there may be more to be discovered.

Taylor is not compiling an anthology, but he listens carefully to the seamen’s voices and brings out their personalities by paraphrase more than direct quotation. Deep-sea sailors were not, as is sometimes suggested, the wretched poor but members of the skilled working class. Sailors tended to start their working lives young, even by 18th-century standards, and few of them took their formal education very far, but many if not most were literate, and not a few were self-educated. They read for pleasure, for profit and for self-improvement, since the ability to read, and especially to figure, opened up possibilities of advancement. Those who understood at least something of navigation and accounts might improve their rank and standing at sea. Those who were more or less at ease with writing might produce the memoirs that are Taylor’s richest source of evidence. Some suffered from ‘improving’ editors, but the best of them speak to us in their own authentic voices. They come from both warships and merchantmen, for Taylor’s period spans the ‘Great Wars’ against France, and many men served in both spheres in the course of their careers. More of them represent the navy, however, perhaps because their memories were more appealing to publishers or because the navy offered more opportunities to the lucky and ambitious. Overall they give a vivid sense of the variety of the seafaring life.

William Spavens’s Narrative was published by a Louth printer in 1796, and has been reprinted in recent years. Growing up in Cleethorpes on the Lincolnshire coast, he believed that ‘sailors must be happy men to have such opportunities of visiting foreign countries and beholding the wonderful works of the Creator in the remote regions of the earth … I thought of nothing but pleasant gales and prosperous voyages.’ According to Adam Smith (who as an inhabitant of the great port of Glasgow must have had many opportunities for observation), ‘a tender mother, among the inferior ranks of people, is often afraid to send her son to school in a seaport town, lest the sight of the ships and the conversations and adventures of the sailors should entice him to go to sea.’

Another published author, better known to the modern reader and filmgoer, is Olaudah Equiano or ‘Gustavus Vassa’, the former slave who became a celebrated figure in the abolitionist movement. Having earned enough in trade (including the slave trade) to buy his freedom, he published his Interesting Narrative in 1789. A bestseller, it made him famous and comfortably wealthy, and enabled him to marry Susanna Cullen of Soham in Cambridgeshire in 1792. Most of his story can be confirmed by other evidence – he was bought from a Virginia plantation at about the age of ten and became the slave of the naval officer Michael Pascal – but his memories of growing up in a West African village are more suspect, as Taylor notes. It’s more likely he was born in America and knew Africa only at second hand. Both Equiano and Spavens fought in major actions in 1759, Britain’s ‘year of victories’: Equiano as a powder-boy on Edward Boscawen’s flagship the Namur at the Battle of Lagos, and Spavens as a topman on the frigate Vengeance at Quiberon Bay. Equiano later sailed to the Arctic with the young Nelson as part of the 1773 Phipps expedition, though they were in different ships.

The next of Taylor’s common seamen is William Richardson of Whitby, whose narrative, already familiar from Spencer Childers’s 1908 edition A Mariner of England, is printed here for the first time ‘unimproved’, from the original manuscript in the National Maritime Museum. Richardson was an unembarrassed participant in the slave trade, though much of his career was spent in Indiamen. By 1805 he was a naval warrant officer, gunner of the Caesar. In 1809 he was taken prisoner at the Basque Roads action.

Joshua Davis was an earlier naval prisoner, an American who in 1778 was taken by the frigate Surprise aboard the Jason of Boston, a rebel privateer. He changed sides several times after his capture. He describes himself as ‘an American citizen who was pressed and served on board six ships of the British navy, was in seven engagements, once wounded, five times confined in irons and obtained his liberty by desertion’. His narrative suggests that his loyalties to crown or rebels sat equally lightly with him, but when it was published at Boston in 1811 the printer added a lurid appendix of British cruelties to catch the mood of the moment. Davis fought at the battle of the Saintes (1782) in the British ship Anson, and gives a fine description of clearing for action: ‘Cows, sheep, hogs, ducks, hencoops, casks, wood &c were seen floating for miles around us.’ He finally managed to get home to Boston in 1787 after eight years’ absence.

Davis’s near contemporary John Nicol was a romantic like Spavens: ‘I had read Robinson Crusoe many times over and longed to be at sea.’ He volunteered for the navy at Leith in 1776, as soon as he had finished his apprenticeship as a cooper, eager for the chance to visit China.

Jacob Nagle, one of the most remarkable of seaman memoirists, emerged into the light only 25 years ago. His career included service under Washington and Nelson; he was also a member of Governor Phillip’s barge crew at the foundation of New South Wales. It all seems too good to be true, but, some slips of chronology aside, the journal that Nagle wrote in old age proves to be an astonishingly accurate record of a fascinating life. From a description of the Battle of the Brandywine in 1777, in which he fought as a 15-year-old artillery matross in the Continental Army, to his closing years in rural Ohio in the 1840s, Nagle describes his life in vivid and often picaresque detail. He was clearly a shrewd but in many ways an innocent man, who preserved to the end of his life the outlook and even the language of the 18th century.

Nagle is a real specimen of the sailor as contemporaries so often described him: self-reliant, skilful and tough, but also naive, inconstant, generous and heedless. Unlike many memoirists, he was not trying to write a tract for the times, or even to present himself in a heroic light (though he was trying to get a pension from the US government). Unlike other old men, he neither forgot nor remembered with advantages. He was more interested in people than events, and his stories of life ashore and afloat, of officers he served under, of encounters with crimps and the press gang, are both better evidence and better entertainment than any number of academic studies of the seaman’s condition.

Nagle’s contemporary Robert Hay, the illiterate son of a Scottish weaver, was another who acquired his whole education at sea. Hay survived the wreck of the frigate Amethyst in Plymouth Sound in 1811 with a copy of Isaac Watts’s Improvement of the Mind in his pocket, and in time ‘swallowed the anchor’ to make a new career on shore as a printer and newspaper editor.

Edward Pellew gives us another career pattern. His father was the master of a Falmouth Post Office packet who died when he was eight, leaving him little but a basic education and extensive local contacts. Pellew was an able seaman at 15 and an acting lieutenant at 21. Then his first patron turned him ashore as a troublemaker, leaving him adrift with little but his wits (and the Cornish mafia) to depend on. ‘Pock-marked, ugly, uninteresting and uneducated’, in his own words, he was also tough, brave, adept, lucky and unscrupulous. He positively enjoyed working aloft, especially when the conditions were most dangerous, though as a captain aged 47 he admitted that ‘I find … I am older than I was and can’t get to the Mast Head so well as I used. I want to be an Admiral for I am tired [of] Squaring the Main Yard.’ That year he had his wish. When he retired from his last command 12 years later, he was a viscount with a fortune of more than £300,000 – perhaps as much as £180 million in today’s money.

Taylor concludes his story at the beginning of the Victorian era, by which time life at sea was changing fast. The vast majority of warships and merchantmen were still under sail, though steamships had entered some of the passenger and coasting trades, but in peacetime everyday life aboard a man-of-war was very different from the way it had been during the long years of war with France. By 1840 the navy was beginning to do what it had scarcely tried in the 18th century: recruiting boys and training them up for a naval career. Typically they were literate when they joined the navy, though many of their older shipmates were not. William Ashcroft remembered being a boy of 13 in the line-of-battleship Asia in 1836:

Whenever the mail left for England I had some thirty or forty letters to write, and to read when the mail arrived … Men would often bring off books from the shore, such as Captain Marryat’s novels (we had a son of his in the ship), and I had to sit on the capstan reading while they sat around listening. If I said I could not read as I had some clothes to make and mend, there were always volunteers to do it for me … The Captain of the Foretop, Harry Tongue, used to keep me in order and called himself my ‘sea daddy’. I took him in hand to teach him to read and write and as soon as he could do so he changed his rating to Boatswain’s mate. About twelve years later I saw him again in the Pacific when he was Boatswain of the Thetis frigate.

This is a neat example of how a man could better himself at sea. It was all part of the process by which naval service was evolving out of the old forms of casual recruitment towards a regular career structure. In 1827 petty officers’ rates were made ‘substantive’, i.e. permanent and portable from ship to ship, like an officer’s rank, and they were given the right to sign on to the port flagship and take leave between commissions. A new gunnery training ship, Excellent, set some important precedents for skilled ratings. It cost £300 to train a seaman gunner, which would be wasted if the man then left the navy, so in return for extra pay gunners were obliged to engage for five years’ service (longer than a ship’s commission), with a free passage home for those whose time expired abroad. From 1831 any man with 21 years’ service could claim a Greenwich Hospital out-pension (a notable privilege in an age when any sort of retirement pension was still a great rarity).

These developments were unfolding in the background of Taylor’s story, and he is more interested in the individuals than the social history. What the reader will find in this book, and surely find fascinating and satisfying, is his kaleidoscope of individual personalities and adventures.

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