A few years ago, my husband decided he wanted to interpret an 18th century sailor (maybe early 19th century.) Thus the research began for both of us. Last year he was pressed (I use the term lightly, as he was quite willing to go) by the crew of HMS Acasta. While researching the life of a Royal Navy Sailor I've dug deep into the archives of various institutions for logbooks, journals, wills, and more. Anything which might give up some clues regarding the lives of those men enlisted in His Majesty's Navy during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
What the record turns up is actually pretty inspiring. These men who took to the seas existed in an arguably binary world: living sparsely at sea or comparatively lavishly in port, just paid a large sum of wages or without a penny to their name. While this is not to say that some sailors didn't find balance in their lifestyles (and budgets) the record seems to indicate that enough of the population of crew aboard vessels inhabited this realm of drought or flood. While my husband was intrigued by their lives at sea, I was fascinated by their lives ashore or when in retirement from the Navy.
|(I blame the somewhat idealized tales of |
Horatio Hornblower and the very, very handsome
Ioan Gruffudd. Le Sigh.)
What struck some as a potential drawback to interpreting the Royal Navy (how do you interpret a sailor when many of the events we attend are landlocked and without a ship?) I saw as an opportunity for enrichment. While fiction may not be the best place to finish, it certainly makes for inspiration to a beginning, and all of the questions Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin elicited begged for more academic treatment. What was the experience of these men when they were not shipboard? What kind of encounters did they really have with those who were anchored on land? Where and how did they fit into the society after their wandering careers were over? What was the grain of truth to the stereotypes and what was the more nuanced and complex version of their stories? And more importantly: how could we bring this part of their stories to life?
|"Dick Dock, or the Lobster & Crab (Greenwich Pensioner Caricature)2|
For now, we hope you'll join us on our voyage and wish us Godspeed, because we acknowledge that "Life allows nothing to mortals without great labor." 3
2 "Dick Dock, or the Lobster & Crab (Greenwich Pensioner Caricature) - National Maritime Museum” [Royal Museums Greenwich- Collections]. Royal Museums Greenwich, August 16, 1806, accessed November 6, 2016, http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/143274.html, Object ID: PAH3327; Artist/Maker: James Whittle & Richard Holmes Laurie; Coloured etching; Two Greenwich Pensioners sit outside a Greenwich or Deptford tavern drinking and smoking. One, with a wooden leg, is shaking hands with a one-armed Royal Marine (whose jacket is miscoloured blue rather than red, as it should be). Behind another one-legged sailor watches the shipping on the river with the Royal Hospital at Greenwich (crudely shown) in the distance. The print illustrates a song, below image and title, in which the sailor insults the “lobster” but is reconciled on discovering he once saved his life.
3Horace, The Works of Horace, ed. C Smart and Theodore Alois Buckley (New York: Haper and Brothers, 1863).