Winston Churchill, it is said, uttered the immortal phrase: 'Naval tradition? Monstrous! Nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash!’ But by the time he came to reflect on the subject, the reality of life at sea in the late 18th and early 19th century had long passed from human memory. In the intervening years, it had been recreated by a series of graphic first-hand accounts and then distilled into an accepted wisdom by the poet John Masefield in his classic 1905 book Sea Life in Nelson’s Time.
Masefield created a mythic world of cruelty and suffering, where seamen were forcibly impressed into the navy, controlled by corporal and capital punishment, exposed to virulent diseases and served disgusting food, their only solace being the daily issue of grog – watered-down rum. Quite how these men survived, let alone defeated every enemy they faced for more than 200 years, was not a question Masefield troubled himself to pose.
The first requirement for any historical enquiry is to establish context. We live in the early 21st century, two centuries after Trafalgar. We must not impose our modern sensitivities and values on the very different world that our ancestors inhabited.
In peacetime, the navy recruited all its men as volunteers. Many of them were boys, often helped by charities such as the Marine Society, which funded careers at sea for street boys in major cities. As professional sailors required years to master their craft, it was as well to start early. Boys commonly began at the age of 10 or 12, and there was plenty of work for small, nimble seafarers, both on deck and in the rigging.
By 16, most boys would be competent seamen, able to work aloft, reef sails, knot and splice ropes and steer the ship. At the same time, their bodies took on a characteristic broad-shouldered, barrel-chested physique – the result of heavy hauling and lifting and often being bent double over the yards – while the constant roll of the ship gave them a peculiar rolling gait.
On board, the sailors were divided into watches, usually two, which shared the work, and into messes of 8 to 10 individuals, for catering. Each mess was a self-assembled group of like-minded men, usually with the same skills and rank. They shared the domestic chores of preparing food, collecting cooked dishes and washing up. These small groups formed the core of shipboard life and were the basis of effective teamwork, working together in key areas, perhaps in the rigging or as a gun crew.
Most sailors worked at sea for another decade, taking ‘shore side’, or coastal seafaring, work when they settled down in their late 20s. A small proportion remained at sea, filling vital specialist roles such as master, responsible for the navigation of the ship.
Mature sailors were a valuable commodity, the pinnacle of working-class labour in the 18th century, better paid and better treated than any shore-bound contemporaries. Their status was most obvious in wartime, when the navy needed three or four times as many seamen as in peacetime.
During war, sailors could earn far more serving in merchant ships, which could increase pay to attract them. Naval pay remained constant, but the state had a legal right to the services of mariners in wartime. This allowed the navy to ‘impress’ trained sailors from merchant ships or the shore – that is, compel them to serve. While many men volunteered in wartime, taking an enlistment bounty, these were landsmen, untrained, inexperienced fellows who might make a sailor – in time.
While impressment was often portrayed as cruel and unjust – for instance, the infamous ‘pressgangs’ – it was the only method that allowed the state to man the fleet quickly and thereby ensure that the enemy could not invade. Even if a few non-seafarers were occasionally impressed, the majority were eventually released. Most men who were taken and kept then ‘volunteered’ to earn the bonus.
The evils of the system were acceptable to the society of the time. They ceased to be so in the 19th century, but in the 20th, nations relied on conscription to fill the ranks of their armed forces, a system no different in concept and far less discriminating in practice.
Dress and adornments
Sailors’ clothes were completely practical, except for the outfits they donned for going ashore. Sailors at work wore long trousers that could be rolled up, short-waisted jackets that kept the body warm without the tails of a contemporary coat, and heavy knitted ‘jerseys’. These clothes were either supplied by the ship, or made from raw materials that the men purchased on board. Most worked barefoot, for extra grip on the ropes while aloft.
By contrast, they acquired elaborate colourful clothes for going ashore, rich with silver and gold ornaments. After the exertions, dramas and terrors of the sea, they took their pay to the nearest seaport, spending freely on wine, women and song. For most people, this was their only sight of the sailor – a larger-than-life, exotic figure, usually drunk and apparently carefree. However, the same men, once afloat, were transformed into skilled professionals.
Contact with Polynesian societies in the South Pacific introduced a new form of personal adornment to the seafarer’s repertoire: the tattoo. Officers and men alike had returned from Cook’s first voyage with intricate patterns embellishing their bodies. While the gentleman scientist Sir Joseph Banks had his discretely applied to his buttocks, the sailors were more interested in display. Such devices together with their weather-beaten faces and hands scarred by rope work and ingrained with tar, made the sailor instantly recognisable ashore, easy prey for the pressgang.
Nothing about 18th- and early 19th-century life at sea is as profoundly shocking to the modern sensibility as the systematic use of physical punishment. Dark tales of brutal floggings administered with sinister ‘cat o’ nine tails’ and hanging from the yardarm have frightened the unthinking for generations.
In truth, society at this time was rough and brutal, with almost all crimes being punishable by some form of physical chastisement. The navy had no better system than the rest of society, and nowhere to imprison offenders. Instead, they were flogged and returned to duty, their punishment being witnessed by all. The crew was assembled on the upper deck to watch the event, with the marines drawn up with loaded muskets between sailors and officers. This was the theatre of example, intended to inspire others.
Most punishable offences at sea concerned the safety of the ship and the discipline of the crew. Men were punished for refusing orders, falling asleep on watch, being too drunk to work or failing to keep themselves and their clothes clean. The number of lashes administered tended to reflect the severity of the offence and the sailor’s previous record. Thieves were punished by the crew themselves, who made them run the gauntlet.
Mutiny – the attempt to seize control of a ship – was rare, but earned those involved the ultimate punishment: hanging. However, hangings were very rare, because sailors were too scarce and too valuable to be wasted.
The main cause of indiscipline was drink. Men smuggled alcohol on to the ship or shared their grog rations to render themselves insensible. If this behaviour threatened the safety of the ship or affected the discipline of the crew, the offenders earned a beating.
While consuming eight pints of beer and a significant quantity of rum-and-water daily might seem like a recipe for disaster, the men were accustomed to the intake and, given their strenuous work regime, burnt off most of the alcohol. Men occupied in demanding physical employment ashore were also used to a significant beer ration.
The Victorians decided that women had no place on board warships and, with customary zeal, actively wrote them out of the history of the 18th-century navy. However, a significant number of women did go to sea, although they never appeared officially on crew lists.
Usually they were the wives of petty officers – older women who were unlikely to excite the passions of the younger sailors. They often acted as nurses, but at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, several women served in the ammunition-handling parties, one was killed, yet another gave birth.
By the early 19th century, fashion was changing and many ships went to sea without women. By the 1840s, they had been removed altogether, unless we count the occasional presence of the captain’s wife.
There were also women seafarers, working on small family-run coastal vessels. In addition, a handful of women served at sea disguised as men, but such cross-dressing was frowned upon by almost everyone.
In their anxiety to sanitise 18th-century seafaring life, the Victorians managed to confuse the offence of ‘unclean behaviour’ – such obnoxious activities as relieving oneself in the hold or on deck or refusing to wash one’s clothes or body – with something they feared: widespread homosexuality among an essentially all-male crew.
In reality, homosexual behaviour was disapproved of by crews, and documented cases are rare. Great care was taken to protect adolescents from older crewmen. Contemporary society considered homosexuality a mortal sin, while the law held it to be a crime punishable by death. Navies have always reflected the societies from which they spring, and in this respect, the 18th-century royal navy was hardly unique in punishing overt homosexuality.
Relatively few cases came before naval courts martial, but those found guilty were hanged. It seems that, in the essentially public nature of life on board these crowded, cramped warships, the accepted mores of the age and the threat of serious punishment sustained the social order.
The reverse side of the strictures against homosexual activity was the remarkable licence given to the crew to indulge their heterosexual desires.
Although opportunities for heterosexual activity were severely restricted on board ship, few vessels spent more than a month or two at sea without returning to port. Once there, wise captains found outlets for the obvious desires of a large body of young, unattached heterosexual males. In peacetime, shore leave was granted, allowing the men to enter the exotic, dangerous and costly nightlife of the large seaports, where wine, women and song were available – at a price.
In wartime, when the fear of desertion and the shortage of men made captains unwilling to allow their crews to go ashore, they allowed the shore to come out to the ship. All manner of women, money-lenders, small traders and other interested parties would come aboard. While one or two of the women would have been the wives of sailors on the ship, others might have been someone’s wife, but for that day, they were anyone’s for a consideration. The adage that sailors have a wife in every port had some basis in fact: a sailor would always claim that the object of his desire was his ‘wife’, to salve the conscience of the naval authorities.
Once this floating society had assembled, a sensible captain gave the ship over to the crew for the day. It was no place for the sensitive or the indiscreet. The old saying ‘show a leg’ attests to the fact. When it was time for the ship to leave, the cry would go out: ‘Show a leg!’ (now often corrupted to ‘Shake a leg’). By inspecting the proffered limbs emerging from the men’s bunks or hammocks, the petty officers could find out how many women were on board and ensure that all of them left the ship before it sailed.
Disease, medicine and prevention
A consequence of casual sex was, as one might expect, a significant incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. These formed a substantial part of the workload of naval surgeons. Treatment was primitive: usually an injection of mercury into the affected part. And the patient would also have to pay for it, as contracting such a disease was considered a self-inflicted injury.
Even in wartime, disease killed far more men than battle or the accidents of the ocean. The great killers were scurvy, a wasting disease caused by lack of vitamin C, and dysentery, while malaria and yellow fever made service in the tropics unusually hazardous. As medical knowledge improved, the dangers of disease were reduced. For instance, a workable solution to scurvy – the issue of lemon juice – was available by the 1790s, when the royal navy faced its greatest task: waging a 22-year war of attrition with republican/imperial France.
One reason why Nelson won his battles was because his men were healthier than those of Spain and France. The royal navy’s mania for cleanliness held back contagion, and it fed its crews better than their shore-side contemporaries, fuelling their labour with a calorie-rich mix of meat, alcohol and hard bread, with as much fruit and vegetable matter as contemporary food preservation and local supplies allowed. Nelson’s own obsession with keeping his men healthy meant that he devoted massive efforts to procuring lemons, fresh vegetables and meat, because he knew it was easier to keep them fit than to cure the sick.
As Nelson knew better than anyone, many of the injuries caused by enemy action and by falls from the rigging required surgical treatment. He claimed to have been wounded almost 100 times in the king’s service, and never forgot the first bite of the surgeon’s cold scalpel in 1797 as his shattered arm was amputated.
With no understanding of antiseptic conditions and no anaesthetic beyond copious draughts of rum, the survival rate for major surgery was low. Fractured limbs could be amputated, but serious penetrative internal injuries were invariably fatal. Physicians who treated the interior of the body were less commonly found on board ship, being members of a more prestigious profession than the surgeons who were only just beginning to shed their association with barbers.
At least the surgeons had plenty of practice. At Trafalgar in 1805, William Beattie not only tended to the dying Nelson, but had 145 other wounded men to treat. He worked in horrific conditions deep in the bowels of the ship, far from the action, in a dimly lit, low-ceilinged space usually home to the midshipmen. The Reverend Alexander Scott, who stayed by Nelson’s side until he died, never forgot the experience, suffering recurrent nightmares for the rest of his life.
Professionalism and commitment
While ‘rum, sodomy and the lash’ might be the accepted stereotype of life at sea in the 18th-century royal navy, it is far from the reality. The royal navy was, and remains, the most successful fighting service in world history, successful in almost every battle it fought and invariably on the winning side in war. It achieved this unrivalled success by treating its men well.
Churchill was wrong: the traditions of the royal navy were supreme professionalism and a commitment to victory, built on a community that worked hard and was allowed occasional licence to indulge their passions. One hopes that, long before he became prime minister in 1940 and needed the navy as never before, Churchill had learned that lesson.