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Before the mast

Tall Ships prompt dreams of life on the historic high seas. We forget the hardships that made prefer jail to a sailor's lot.

By Scot Lehigh, 7/16/2000

he Tall Ships have captivated Boston, their visit making stowaways of our fancy, fostering dreams of a life at sea, of rippling sails overhead, the pitch of the deck beneath our feet.

TALL SHIPS COVERAGE

FROM BOSTON.COM
07/18/00
Blown transmission strands English Tall Ship in Boston

07/17/00
Captains of smaller ships grumble about treatment
More tall ships arriving
Tall ships leave Boston Harbor

07/14/00
* Tall Ships become Party Boats
* Getting aboard a tall order

07/13/00
* Canadian students learn the seafaring life

07/12/00
* A floating hospital for sailors
* Sailors cavort around town
* Irish sailors find second home
* Tall Ships add bustle to harbor

07/11/00
* After Parade, the party begins
* A picture perfect day for Parade
* Crowd gathers at Fan Pier

FROM THE GLOBE
07/17/00
* Hostility left in Tall Ships' wake
* Visiting sailors transform city
* USS Kennedy stood the tallest

07/16/00
* Before the mast

07/15/00
* Millions enjoy the fun

07/14/00
* Much ado over ribald show

07/13/00
* Visits running ahead of '92

07/12/00
* Boston lays out hearty welcome
* Weather lends a hand at Logan
* Front-row seats for Winthrop
* For TV a logistical challenge
* Waterfront companies mix pleasure, business

07/11/00
* A sea change in the harbor
* A struggle for the sea's bounty
* An urban festival in a box
* Just off downtown, a treasure
* Top brass agree Sail Boston is city's best blast

NECN REAL VIDEO

07/16/00
Crowds say goodbye
Tall Ships leave Boston
USS Constitution saluted

07/14/00
* Battle of Barges preview

07/13/00
* Sail Boston's parade of tourists
* The long lines at the JFK

07/12/00
* Britain's Lord Nelson

07/11/00
* Celluci on Sail Boston
* The Japanese ship Akogare
* The Parade Route
*Spectators turn out early
* Sail Boston weather
* Managing outer harbor traffic
* Parade of Sail route for Tues.
* Aboard USS John F. Kennedy


   

Yet we have a way of forgetting the dark side of history, of glorifying war, or romanticizing times of sacrifice. Thus, before we bid bon voyage to the armada (and our senses), it is instructive to ask what life was like during the golden age of sail, which ran from 1460

to about 1860. Here's a hint: Not a whit like the impression one might glean from the gleaming flotilla that came gliding into the harbor on Tuesday.

Writing of the 17th-century British Navy, historian G. M. Trevelyan described life aboard ship this way: ''The sailors, famished when they were not poisoned, seldom clothed, and hardly ever paid, were kept together by flogging, keel-hauling and other sea tortures on men of war that were often little better than ill-managed convict hulks and ill-supplied plague hospitals.''

Nor did perspicacious 18th-century observers think life at sea had improved much by their time. ''No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself in jail,'' Samuel Johnson said at mid-century, ''for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned. A man in a jail has more room, better food and commonly better company.''

If Johnson was right in much of what he said of seafaring life, he was wrong in implying jail offered protection from the British Navy. In Horatio Nelson's era (the late 18th and early 19th centuries), only about half of the sailors on British naval vessels were volunteers. Others were dragged aboard by the notorious press gangs in what was essentially legal kidnapping.

Prison was a regular recruitment site. Britannia filled her decks with smugglers, thieves, pickpockets, debtors, rogues, and the like. Complained one veteran sailor of the quick-fingered scalawags he was forced to serve with: ''Neither chest nor bed nor blanket nor bag escaped their sleight-of-hand thievery.''

Although American custom and tradition forbade ''impressment'' - outrage over England's seizing of sailors from American ships was, after all, one of the causes of the War of 1812 - the American Navy was full of characters as shady as any.

In ''White-Jacket: Or the World in a Man of War,'' Herman Melville, who had served on the frigate the United States, called the US Navy ''the asylum for the perverse, the home of the unfortunate.''

At this midsummer juncture, a review of history serves to provide a more accurate picture of life at sea. Although sailing may conjure up images of endless idle hours spent on deck in the glory of sun and wind, a truer description comes by paraphrasing Hobbes: seafaring life was poor, nasty, brutish - and wet.

In rough weather, a sailor's work was dangerous indeed as he wrestled with sails aloft, only a slip away from plunging to his death on the deck or in the raging seas. Other times, a day's labor was dull, tedious, and repetitive.

Sailors themselves knew the allure of the sea was a landlubber's delusion. ''No sooner ... has the young sailor begun his new life in earnest than all this fine drapery falls off, and he learns that it is but work and hardship after all,'' student-cum-sailor Richard Henry Dana wrote in ''Two Years Before the Mast,'' an account of his mid-1830s experiences he penned in part to combat the misimpressions that drew young men down to the sea.

The day aboard ship began between 6 and 7 a.m. with the cry ''all hands ahoy.'' The first chore was often washing and scrubbing of the decks, a traditional task captains insisted be done done daily, even in freezing weather. Beyond the task of sailing the ship - the setting, reefing, furling, and bracing of sails - repairing of the miles of rigging, scrubbing of sails, overhauling of gear, and general cleaning, tarring, painting, greasing, and oiling went on without surcease. On a naval vessel, sailors also found time for regular practice with and inspection of guns and equipment. Make-and-mend days filled any spare hours.

Except on Sundays, and for a few moments in the evening, if a man was on deck, he had to be at work. ''It is the officer's duty to keep everyone at work, even if there is nothing to be done but to scrape the rust from the chain cables,'' Dana wrote.

The day ended between 8 and 9 p.m., when the off-duty watch or shift could retire for four hours below decks to their hammocks, slung so close that little more than two feet separated one snoozing sailor from the next.

Only Sunday was different, including a church service and some sort of music or revelry.

Another part of the retrospective romance of sailing is the notion of traveling the world, sampling the exotic cultures of the various ports of call. But when shore leave for British naval sailors came at all, it was generally restricted to a small portion of the crew. In home ports, there was frequently no leave, because reluctant captains feared desertion. That situation led one British sailor to call his five years of service ''floating imprisonment,'' other servicemen to complain of serving ''upwards of ten years without having the satisfaction of seeing our friends.''

The issue of leave was one of the grievances that precipitated the great British naval mutiny of 1797, in which more than 50,000 men serving on more than 100 vessels rebelled. (Thomas Paine, who stoked American revolutionary fervor with ''Common Sense,'' helped popularize another key grievance in his ''Rights of Man: Part the Second'': ''The pay ... is about the same now as it was about a hundred years ago, when the taxes were not above a tenth part of what they are at present.'')

The admiralty made one concession to concupiscence: In ports, wives and prostitutes were allowed aboard, and the lower deck often took on aspects of an orgy. But if heterosexual sex was allowed, the sentence for homosexuality, which was sometimes, but not always, overlooked, was death.

Food was neither plentiful nor good. Breakfast was usually tea and hardtack (hard, dry, unleavened bread) or biscuit. Salt beef or pork and biscuits were the monotonous mainstays of other marine meals, though peas, oatmeal, beans, cheese, potatoes, and rice also figured in. Even in port, fresh vegetables were not a regular part of meals until late in the 18th century; only after 1795 was citrus included to combat scurvy.

A regular rapping came at the beginning of each meal as the men banged their biscuits on the table to knock the worms out. As a Sunday treat, the men might have ''duff,'' a gummy flour pudding eaten with molasses. Beggars ate better, groused one British sailor.

Certainly calamity made that true, for then, starvation loomed. Things got so desperate for one English ship blown off course during the 16th century that rats, mice, and the ship's cats were all devoured. During their 12,600-mile crossing of the Pacific in 1520-21, Magellan's starving men were reduced to eating the leather that wrapped the mainyard to reduce chafing.

Although men could usually drink freely from the water cask on deck - the scuttlebutt that has lent its name to the gossip traded there - water became foul tasting after weeks in casks.

Beer and spirits were a sailor's favored drinks. Beer, when it could be had, was given at the rate of a gallon per man per day.

If not, a sailor was entitled to a pint of wine or a half-pint of spirits, usually rum or brandy, half in the morning, half at night. (When, to reduce the general inebriation, Admiral Edward Vernon, known as Old Grogham after the green grogham cloak he wore, ordered the half pint of rum cut with a quart of water, the diluted drink became known as ''grog.'')

Still, drunkenness, or grogginess, was common aboard ship.

''To be drunk is considered by every sailor as the acme of sensual bliss,'' wrote one mariner in his mid-18th-century memoirs. ''In our ship the men would get drunk in defiance of every restriction.''

But at their peril: By most accounts, at least half of all disciplinary measures had inebriation as their root cause.

And woe betide the poor swab who ran afoul of the captain. Discipline was unsparing, particularly in the British Navy, and ''all hands ahoy to witness punishment'' a regular command.

Mutiny, of course, was punishable by death. Although we think of it as a general rebellion, the charge also included striking an officer, as well as individual acts of disobedience. It could even be stretched to cover insubordinate language. A condemned man was executed by hanging, accomplished by fixing a noose about his neck, tossing the end over the yardarm, and hauling him skyward.

But the more frequent discipline was flogging. According to an account written in 1836 by a sailor known as Jack Nasty-face, a typical maritime punishment proceeded this way:

''The prisoner is made to strip to his waist; he is then seized by his wrists and knees to a grating or ladder; the boatswain's mate is then ordered to cut him with a cat-o'nine-tails; and after six or twelve lashes are given, another boatswain's mate is called to continue the exercise, and so they go on until the captain gives word to stop. From one to five dozen lashes are given, according to the captain's whim, but the general number is three dozen.'' Others say two dozen was the norm.

Nelson's early naval service gives a good indication of the frequency with which masters resorted to the lash; during his 18 months aboard the frigate Seahorse, the teenage seaman saw men flogged on at least 200 occasions. Naval records show that in 1810, 31 members of the ship Alfred were flogged for different offenses on the same day.

A brutal flogging could maim or even kill. One particularly sadistic British captain, Hugh Pigot of the Hermione, who sometimes ordered the last man down from aloft flogged, killed at least two men that way; it's no surprise his crew mutinied in 1797 and murdered him. But Pigot was hardly alone in his sadism.

One British officer reported to the admiralty: ''I served in a ship where every one of the maintopmen were stripped and flogged at the gangway for no other cause than that another ship in company got her topgallant yards up first, and not for any wilful negligence on the part of our men.''

When the crew of the Namur rioted, demanding shore leave, three ringleaders were hanged, while four received 500 lashes. Another seven received 200 lashes or more. Yet the captain, Edward Boscawen, was considered such a fair and forgiving officer that men begged to serve with him.

Flogging was a regular part of American naval (and merchant marine) discipline as well, though general treatment seems to have been more lenient, as evidenced by the fact that men regularly left England's service to join the US Navy, while desertion seldom occurred in the opposite direction.

None of which should in any way diminish Boston's delight in the picturesque armada that has invaded its harbor, of course. It's just that rapture is always best balanced with reality.

So though your imagination may follow the fleet of Tall Ships as they depart, don't let their grandeur sweep you too far off history's moorings.

Editor's note:: Information in this essay was drawn from 15 books on sailing and naval history, including, prominently, ''Nelson's Navy,'' ''Two Years Before the Mast,'' ''The British Seaman,'' ''Jack Tars & Commodores,'' ''Heart of Oak,'' ''The Great Mutiny,'' and ''Nelson the Commander.''

This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 7/16/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

 


 


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