Seamen relaxing on the HMS Pallas, April 1775. Early depictions of common seamen are exceedingly rare; this one is from an album of watercolours by Second Lieutenant Gabriel Bray aboard the ship. Courtesy the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Essay/
Oceans and water

Seamen relaxing on the HMS Pallas, April 1775. Early depictions of common seamen are exceedingly rare; this one is from an album of watercolours by Second Lieutenant Gabriel Bray aboard the ship. Courtesy the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Who was Jack Tar?

He was a patriot and a prisoner, a delegate and a drunk; circling the globe when few Englishmen ever left their home counties

Stephen Taylor

Seamen relaxing on the HMS Pallas, April 1775. Early depictions of common seamen are exceedingly rare; this one is from an album of watercolours by Second Lieutenant Gabriel Bray aboard the ship. Courtesy the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Stephen Taylor

is a writer of maritime history, biography and travel. His work has appeared in The Times, The Observer and The Economist, among others. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which is Sons of the Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail (2020).

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Britain’s maritime past is now most commonly recalled in images of gold-epauletted admirals and wooden ships surging the waves or locked in blazing battle. Yet maritime history is not simply Nelson and Trafalgar. Nor, to widen the compass, is it over with James Cook and the Endeavour. Naval supremacy and mapping the globe did indeed play a major role in Britain’s rise as a 19th-century superpower. Trade, especially in the Indian Ocean, was a vital element too. And along with wealth and the creation of empire came a thirst for scientific knowledge; Charles Darwin on the Beagle is only the most famous of many Enlightenment voyages.

All these enterprises have been widely studied and celebrated – apart, that is, from the crucial element that binds them. The common seamen, those who went aloft to set their ships on a course to victory, riches or discovery, are virtually anonymous. The simple name ‘Jack Tar’ serves as a label for the entire tribe.

The age of sail has broad terms of definition, but a reasonable range is from 1740 to 1840. This was the century when Britain became the world’s leading power. In this process, Jack – with numbers that peaked in the Napoleonic Wars at 147,000 naval hands and 115,000 in the mercantile sector – was an essential factor. He would have been the last to see it that way, but it is reasonable to suggest that the engine of progress up to the Industrial Revolution was the plain sailor.

His name proclaimed him a man of the people – Jack being a generic term for the common man. (The term Tar was added because of that substance’s common use in aspects of seafaring, from sealing sailors’ jackets to binding rope.) Yet, among them, he was an outsider, almost another species, who excited profound suspicion ashore. At a time when others of his class might never stir beyond their native valley, he roamed the world like one of the exotic creatures he encountered on his travels, returning home bearing fabulous tales (some of them actually true), curious objects and even stranger beasts. Although while at sea he was as poor as any rustic labourer, ashore he knew brief spells of wealth. Then, fired up with back pay and prize money, he would eat, drink, cavort and fornicate like a lord. Habitually profligate and with a terrifying thirst for alcohol, he was loyal to his ship, his country and his king, roughly in that order. Most of all, though, he was loyal to his mates, and it was this kinship that made him capable of the boldness that marked him in his golden age.

He was, simply, the most successful fighting man produced by his native land which, with its taste for booty, pugilism and foreign adventure is saying quite something. So profoundly did he believe in himself, and so deeply did he awe the enemy, that defeat was never contemplated and rarely experienced. His spirit earned him the respect, the admiration and, sometimes, even the love of his officers.

It bears emphasising, however, that it was not only in war that he was tested. Voyages of trade and exploration took him to the farthest corners of the globe. Jack joined in the discovery of a Pacific idyll, and helped to cast William Bligh adrift when the dream turned to nightmare. He ventured to lands of distant peoples and mystifying customs. In doing so, he encountered perils every bit as dire as those he faced in battle; for, if one thing about his existence is plain, it is that he was far more likely to be carried off by disease or shipwreck than a cannonball.

The dangers and hardships of his life were quite enough to deter most of his compatriots. Samuel Johnson spoke for baffled landsmen in general when he declared: ‘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.’ One clergyman who ministered briefly to a man of war – and fled as soon as he was able – could not fathom how humans dwelt ‘in a prison within the narrow limits of which dwell likewise Constraint, Disease, Ignorance, Insensibility, Tyranny, Sameness, Dirt and Foul air; and to these subjoined the dangers of Ocean, Fire, Mutiny, Pestilence, Battle and Exile’.

Self-portrait of Second Lieutenant Gabriel Bray sketching in watercolour aboard the HMS Pallas, 1775. Photo courtesy the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Yet – and here is the paradox – if there is one characteristic that emerges from Jack’s world, it is pride. As well as being part of a brotherhood, he had an independence unknown to his class at the time: he didn’t join the Navy, he joined a ship; and if he didn’t like her he could desert at the next port and sign on with a new captain, because his skills were always in demand. He might be a press-ganged hostage, but he could also be a patriotic volunteer; as often as he was a noble simpleton he was a cunning devil; and the drunken dolt was sometimes a thoughtful and, yes, literate, traveller.

A navy surgeon who had years to observe the men in his care described them thus in 1797:

The[ir] mind, by custom and example, is thus trained to brave the fury of the elements, in their different forms, with a degree of contempt, at danger and death, that is to be met with no where else, and which has become proverbial. Excluded, by the employment they have chosen from all society, the deficiencies of education are not felt and information on general affairs is not courted. Their pride consists in being reputed a thoroughbred seaman; and they look on all landsmen as beings of inferior order.

Among the biggest myths is that they lacked a voice. Jack’s story was neglected by generations of naval historians, perhaps because of a mistaken belief that he had failed to tell it. Various texts unearthed and dusted off over the past 30 years have amply disproved that. It is now plain that the Trafalgar moment gave rise to a spate of lower-deck memoirs, including one glorious fantasy, The Life and Surprising Adventures of Mary Anne Talbot, Related by Herself (1809), purportedly by the illegitimate daughter of an aristocrat who followed her seducer to war, joined the Navy disguised as a man, was wounded at the guns in battle and, unsurprisingly, created a publishing sensation.

Of genuine full-length accounts by plain tars there are at least a dozen. One of the earliest was the work of William Spavens, an unlettered orphan who believed the world to be flat when he signed on almost 50 years before Trafalgar, and towards the end of his life – disabled by the loss of a leg, living on the charity of benefactors, but self-educated to a level little short of erudition – produced a memoir that is as gripping as it is moving.

Subsequent accounts extend to the Napoleonic wars and beyond. One of the most thoughtful is by John Nicol, who manned the guns at the Nile but was also a shrewd observer of Polynesia and China in the 18th century – and an incurable romantic. On a voyage transporting convicts to New South Wales, Nicol fell hopelessly in love with a female prisoner who bore his child while they were still at sea and, after she was landed, spent years sailing in a fruitless quest to find her.

Jacob Nagle cut a more dashing figure. An American, Nagle was living evidence that seafaring transcended national allegiance. He was born in Pennsylvania, and fought on land and sea for his country’s independence before signing on with the old enemy to serve in the king’s ships; he also sailed with the East India Company, survived shipwreck and being cast away, and for 40 years kept a vivid, carefree journal that is in every sense an epic – the tales of a seafaring adventurer to rank with any from Joseph Conrad’s pen. Nagle was Foremast Jack writ large.

The best sailors’ memoirs are about more than life at sea. Robert Hay, William Richardson, Samuel Leech and Robert Wilson cast real light on their times. Olaudah Equiano, renowned as the former slave from Benin who campaigned for abolition and wrote a celebrated autobiography, was also a sailor. Charles Pemberton was among those – and there were a few – taken to the sea by a romantic imagination. He proved a hopeless sailor but wrote eloquently of ships and the sea before achieving fame as a thespian.

There is a belief among historians that wariness is needed – that Jack’s love of a good yarn led him to embroider the truth. It is said, moreover, that in the age of reform following the Napoleonic Wars he became a vehicle for polemical pamphleteering – as the wretched victim of naval discipline. But the records are there for us to test his accounts, and to a remarkable degree they stand up to scrutiny.

Standing 100 feet above a plunging deck, swaying with a mast that might move through 60 degrees

Take the case of James Choyce, a London boy aged 16 when he started sailing. Four years later, in 1797, he was taken prisoner off a whaler in Peru. His deadpan account of survival at the edge over the next 11 years stretches the bounds of credibility by any standards: various escape attempts, a short-lived career as a pirate, service on a navy frigate culminating in desertion before a second spell in captivity – in France. At this point, Choyce writes, ‘I here disowned the name of an Englishman, as it had always been unlucky to me’, and joined the enemy, reasoning: ‘Who would not fight for so good a master as Buonaparte?’

Choyce’s loyalties were always flexible, though. Sighting a British squadron at anchor off the Brittany coast in 1808, he stole a boat and rowed out to the Theseus. Here, at the very point when his story is most likely to be dismissed as fantasy, the ship’s log confirms that one James Choyce had been welcomed up the side after escaping ‘from a French prison’. Other facts, including his various desertions, are also substantiated by Admiralty records. For cunning, determination and daredevilry, few Jacks could have matched Choyce.

Writing styles are as varied as the characters. Choyce’s journal – found at the Brighton lodging house where he died – is unfortunately wooden. Take, by contrast, Nicol’s exhilaration at sighting China in 1787: ‘The immense number of buildings that extended as far as the eye could reach, their fantastic shapes and gaudy colours, their trees and flowers so like their paintings …’ He was fascinated by local eating habits:

The Chinese, I really believe, eat anything there is life in … I like their manner of setting out the table at dinner. All that is to be eaten is placed upon the table at once, and all the liquors at the same time. You have all before you and may make your choice.

Nagle had earthier tastes. His journal is unique in the insights it offers of life at sea – of being high in the tops where the ablest hands battled the elements, standing 100 feet above a plunging deck, braced against the yards, feet planted on ropes slung below, swaying with a mast that might move through 60 degrees, and awed by all they surveyed. Nagle’s adventures, set down in his distinctively phonetic style, show a man rambunctious among his fellows and quick with his fists, yet, when it came to women, thoughtful and generous. Paid off at Wapping, he would set out to impress the tavern lasses, ‘with about two guineas in my pocked [sic] and som silver to cut a flash with’. Once, after a hectic ‘last cruise’ ashore, and being taken to a woman’s bed, he found she had concealed his purse. Nagle felt no resentment, simply demanded it back, and ‘she said I was the best friend she every fell in with. I have saived her from the gallos or transportation.’ He still gave her a guinea.

Among those who had wives to return to, Ned Coxere captured the poignant moment of an unannounced homecoming (what Jane Austen called ‘the true Sailor way’):

She, being surprised, could hardly speak, for she knew not before whether I was dead or alive. I laid down my pack and rested myself, and had my relations come about me with joy.

Perhaps because of their proximity to suffering, seamen’s writings often reflect a simple humanity. William Richardson, recalling his solitary voyage on a slaver, thought the Igbo people of West Africa ‘sober and industrious, and no more deserv[ing] the name of savages than some countries where they call themselves Christians’. He also noted guiltily how slaves shackled on deck during the day would beg for a can of water, ‘and instead of guzling [sic] it up as many who call themselves Christians would do, they would fill their mouth, pass it to the next, who did the same, and so on until it was expended’.

A significant number of black seamen, including former slaves such as Equiano, served on British ships. Precise figures are elusive because the ships’ musters which record the age, experience and hometown of each hand are colour-blind. However, a proclamation of 1775 welcoming slaves from America, ‘willing to bear arms’ for the king, stimulated naval recruitment; and as the pay, food and living conditions were the same for all hands, theirs was an uncommonly egalitarian world. ‘Everybody on board used me very kindly,’ Equiano recalled, ‘quite contrary to what I had seen of any white people before.’

Another prominent black seaman, Dr Johnson’s former servant Francis Barber, actually preferred naval life to his master’s household; after the Doctor, mystified that Barber had left him, went to the Admiralty to insist on his discharge, a resentful Barber told James Boswell that it had been done ‘without any wish of his own’.

For the kind of violence that earned a seaman 150 lashes, a civilian might die on the gallows

There is no ignoring the dark side of their world. Floggings were routine, the results gruesome. Leech wrote that human flesh whipped with the cat-o’-nine-tails resembled ‘roasted meat burnt nearly black before a scorching fire’. Images of the press gang remain among the most enduring of the age – typically a band of thugs, cudgels in hand, tearing a forlorn figure from his family cowering in the background. The reality could be even worse, as in the cases of entire crews seized within sight of home shores after years away and, without any family contact, sent to another corner of the world.

Yet the sadists common to maritime fiction were rare, and naval discipline could be less severe than the criminal code of the day. For the kind of violence that earned a seaman 150 lashes, a civilian might die on the gallows. Nagle’s distress at seeing a woman hanged in New South Wales for theft, ‘much intocsicated in liquor’, is palpable: ‘It was dreadful to see hur going to aternity out of this world in such a senceless, shocking manner.’

Even the press gang had its defenders. Nicol, taunted by lubberly civilians about his serf-like treatment, touched on a truth when he shot back:

Could the government make perfect seamen as easily as they could soldiers there would be no such thing as pressing. I told them that I was happy to be of more value than them all put together.

The fact that Jack did indeed hold the nation’s destiny in his calloused hands was never more powerfully demonstrated than by the Great Mutiny of 1797.

Two years after the French Revolution, a tract was published in London acclaiming the monarchy’s overthrow, and setting a landmark in the battle for civil rights in Britain. Thomas Paine, the author, was a former seaman, and while Rights of Man (1791) addressed wider issues of social inequality, he proclaimed the coming of a time when ‘the tortured sailor, no longer dragged along the streets like a felon, will pursue his mercantile voyage in safety’. It chimed with a mood of grievance on the lower deck over navy pay – which had not been increased for almost 150 years – and poor rations.

Early in 1797, petitions from 11 ships at Spithead – the waters between Hampshire and the Isle of White – were sent to the commander of the Channel Fleet and the Admiralty, requesting ‘speedy redress’ over wages, not only for hands, but for their families labouring ashore under the rising costs of ‘every necessary of life’. The petitions’ wording was identical and had been agreed by senior men who formed a circle of activists, rowing across to one another and acting as spokesmen for their shipmates. They chose to be known as Delegates. But even that highly charged term failed to dent a ruling-class sense of complacency. The petitions were simply ignored.

All this needs to be set in the context of a nation in crisis. Bonaparte had mustered an army at Brest in northwestern France to launch an invasion. The Navy’s supposedly impassable ‘Wooden Walls’ stood in the way, reassuring citizens of their security – until 1,400 French troops landed in Wales. Although that inept foray was swiftly dealt with, it precipitated a run on the banks.

On Easter Sunday, orders came for the flagship, Queen Charlotte, to set sail. The hands refused to go to their stations. Instead, a boatload of men put out from her side and proceeded from ship to ship, addressing their companies. By nightfall, the entire fleet was in a state of mutiny.

‘For a mutiny … it has been the most manly that I ever heard of, and does the British sailor infinite honour’

The Spithead rebellion is estimated to have involved almost 80 ships, manned by more than 30,000 sailors, a quarter of the Navy’s manpower. The demands were simple – pay increases for all hands and improved rations. Until these were approved, and a pardon from the king was granted to every man, no anchor would be raised on any ship – unless the French set out from Brest, in which case they would sail to give battle directly.

Their lordships at the Admiralty surrendered. Pay was increased as demanded, and the king signed a general pardon. The first mass mutiny by an entire fleet had been marked by order and restraint. The leader, 26-year-old Valentine Joyce, a plain sailor from the Channel Island of Jersey who’d been at sea since the age of 11, was acknowledged to have handled negotiations with authority and dignity. Nelson’s opinion was that ‘for a mutiny … it has been the most manly that I ever heard of, and does the British sailor infinite honour.’

It did not quite end there. A second mutiny broke out at another anchorage in pursuit of further reforms – and voicing radical polemic:

Shall we who have endured the toils of a long and disgraceful war bear the tackles of tyranny and oppression, which vile pampered knaves wallowing in the lap of luxury choose to load us with? … No – the Age of Reason is at Length arrived …

Order collapsed amid infighting among lower-deck factions. This time, the authorities stood firm. A few leaders escaped to France, and 29 men were hanged.

But the war had entered a phase when battle and survival took precedence. Jack won redemption at the guns, from Camperdown to the Nile and, ultimately, his finest hour, Trafalgar. By then, he had established himself in enemy eyes as invincible. When English seamen came aboard his ship as a furious storm descended, a French captain wrote how:

[T]he English immediately set to work to shorten sail and reef the topsails, with as much regularity and order as if their ships had not been fighting a dreadful battle. We were all amazement, wondering what the English sailor could be made of. All our seamen were either drunk or disabled …

The brotherhood endured until the coming of steam, and the need for smaller, more technically qualified crews. At that point, with the creation of a Navy standing force, Jack came ashore. Among those to observe the transition, and lament his passing, was a Polish seaman, born Konrad Korzeniowski, who found his calling under canvas in British clippers and became one of the great writers in the English language. His own character, wrote Joseph Conrad, had been shaped by his shipmates:

men who knew toil, privation, violence, debauchery – but knew not fear, and had no desire of spite in their hearts. Men hard to manage, but easy to inspire; voiceless men – but men enough to scorn in their hearts the sentimental voices that bewailed the hardness of their fate. It was a fate unique and their own; the capacity to bear it appeared to them the privilege of the chosen! … They were the everlasting children of the mysterious sea.

Stephen Taylor

is a writer of maritime history, biography and travel. His work has appeared in The Times, The Observer and The Economist, among others. He is the author of eight books, the latest of which is Sons of the Waves: The Common Seaman in the Heroic Age of Sail (2020).

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