Sailors and Seamen

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Sailors and Seamen

Maritime work and labor in America from the 1750s to the 1850s was predominantly a world of men from poor working families. However, there were variations in the socioeconomic backgrounds of sailors. The third son of a well-to-do farmer, lacking the prospect of a lucrative inheritance in the future, was just as likely to go to sea as the firstborn son of a destitute urban mechanic. There were also variations in race and ethnicity. In the two major branches of maritime employment, the American merchant marine (commercial shipping) and the navy, crews regularly comprised men from various nations around the globe. In addition, African Americans also carried cargo across the oceans and fought to keep shipping lanes open to American commerce. The motley workers of "the wooden world" made key contributions to the commercial and industrial expansion that took place in America up to and beyond the Civil War.

For the most part, the terms "sailor" and "seaman" were used interchangeably throughout the Age of Sail, or roughly from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. Any sailor could be given the moniker Jack Tar, taken from the maritime weatherproofing agent that frequently covered worker's clothing. On a warship the quarterdeck was the space reserved for the captain and the officers; those not permitted to walk along the quarterdeck were sometimes called fore-the-mast men. This phrase was also used to describe the people on board merchant vessels, generally those common seamen who lived in a ship's forecastle. Although the term "mariner" applied to anyone at sea, it could specifically designate a ship's captain.

Women sometimes masqueraded as males at sea, working in the merchant marine and in the navy. Wives followed husbands in their berths and performed a variety of functions, from carrying water to gun crews in battle to washing clothes and preparing medicinal cures for the many diseases that afflicted seamen. In certain circumstances, women even became pirates.

Through the first half of the nineteenth century, different wooden worlds awaited an American Navy seaman or a sailor in the merchant marine. Work on an American warship was typically more demanding than work on a merchant marine vessel. In addition to the manual labors associated with the day-to-day art of harnessing trade winds and ocean currents, naval seamen conscientiously prepared to engage in battle at sea. Regular military training, including gunnery exercises, and constant order were required. To ensure discipline, the captain had the authority to inflict corporal punishments on the crew. Punishments for poor work performance in the naval service ranged from isolation in iron chains to flogging with the cat-o'-nine-tails (a whip of nine knotted lines that left scars resembling cat scratches) and, in extreme cases, hanging. Impressed men, those who served involuntarily, frequently equated naval service with slavery. Owing to their propensity to mutiny or desert, these coerced laborers were confined to quarters below deck when not at work; their movements on board were closely monitored, and they were typically denied shore leave or liberty. Upward mobility, not uncommon in the merchant marine, was rare in the navy. As had been the custom in the British Navy, commissioned officers were almost exclusively politically connected, educated, and propertied. By contrast, meritocracy remained the sole province of the merchant marine up to the American Civil War. Naval service also took individuals to sea for longer periods than did the merchant marine. As a result, families were separated and naval seamen were forced to endure greater isolation than most merchant mariners. Yet, for the patriot, naval service brought honor and glory. Moreover, naval vessels were generally better provisioned with food and drink than trade ships. Regular rations of rum were given to naval seamen to help boost morale and dull the pains associated with hard manual labor.

A maritime laborer at the turn of the nineteenth century would have encountered a different life in the American merchant marine. Whereas the navy ranked its seamen, sailors in the merchant marine rated, or classified, themselves. There were three types of sailors: workers with no prior maritime experience, known as landsmen, landlubbers, green hands, and waisters; regular or common seamen, who had some experience or who were previously employed with another merchant; and the able-bodied seamen, veterans with deep working knowledge of nautical matters. (An able-bodied seaman past his prime was often called an old salt.) A sliding pay scale afforded able-bodied seamen the best wages. Typically, wages were higher in the merchant marine than in the navy, especially during wartime periods of greater risk. Merchant mariners could also supplement their wages by using the trade ship to transport private cargo for separate sales. On average, however, sea work paid less than most landed occupations. Signing on for a trading voyage required a sailor to come to terms with a captain, a merchant, or a merchant's agent, or supercargo. This process of negotiation sharply contrasted with the hardships endured by pressed men in the navy. In addition, crew sizes and ship tonnages were smaller on average in the merchant marine than in the navy.

Despite these differences, sailors or seamen on naval vessels and merchant ships engaged in comparable work. On both merchant ship and naval vessel, maneuvering a wooden sailing vessel on the open sea required coordinated activity between those in charge of navigation—usually the captain, sailing master, or hired pilot—and the crew. It was the crew that set and reefed, or unfurled and furled, sails. The crew also maintained and altered the ship's rigging, including the cordage, block, and tackle, to suit varying sail positions. Even the most seaworthy vessel took on water that had to be pumped, and the sturdiest craft required routine cleaning. Scrubbing, or "holystoning," the decks involved rigging hoses to pumps, wetting the decking, coating them with sand, using stone blocks that resembled Bibles (thus "holystones"), sweeping the planks free of sand, and swabbing everything dry. Additionally, both merchant vessels and warships had to be ever vigilant against the threat of attack at sea. Crews were therefore split into two watches, which were further divided into groups with alternating four-hour shifts. Two two-hour shifts, called dog watches (a corruption of "docked," meaning shortened), ensured that the same group would not have a monotonous work schedule. Laboring in this manner, sailors and seamen safeguarded American commerce and transported manufactured goods and raw materials around the world.

See alsoImpressment; Naval Technology; Revolution: Naval War; Shipping Industry .


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Harland, John. Seamanship in the Age of Sail: Shiphandling of the Sailing Man-of-War, 1600–1860. 6th ed. London: Conway Maritime Press, 2000.

Labaree, Benjamin W., William M. Fowler, Edward W. Sloan, John B. Hattendorf, Jeffrey J. Safford, and Andrew W. German. America and the Sea: A Maritime History. Mystic, Conn.: Mystic Seaport Museum Publications, 1998.

Lemisch, Jesse. Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York's Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.

Shepherd, James F., and Gary M. Walton. Shipping, Maritime Trade, and the Economic Development of Colonial North America. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1972.

Stark, Suzanne J. Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Christopher P. Magra