Monday, March 10, 2014

Ship’s Figureheads

The tradition of putting a figurehead, a carved representation of the spirit of the ship, onto the bow of a vessel goes back at least to the ancient Greeks, and possibly before. The original Greek ships had eyes painted on either side of the bow, and the Romans copied this tradition, and added decorative carvings. By the middle Ages, the tradition was a wooden carving of a beast, a person, or a mythological figure, attached to the front of the ship under the bowsprit.

Although we associate the figure of a partially clad woman with the figurehead, in fact the most common figurehead for English ships in the 1600’s was a lion. The Admiralty was trying to reduce cost, while the ship captains and crews wanted the most lavish and significant figures possible.

The French had such figures. France valued the appearance of ships, and hired the very best sculptors to decorate them. When English ships were captured by the French, the figureheads were sneered at. When French ships were captured by the English, the figureheads were admired.

Strong lobbying by captains reinstated the individualized figurehead for first and second rate ships, and for smaller vessels captains were sometimes willing to spend their own money for an appropriate figurehead.

Merchant ships in the meantime represented the prosperity of the company. Lavish figures were commissioned, executed by fine craftsmen, painted and covered in real gold gilt. The height of lavish decoration is estimated to be the year 1700, in the first third of the Golden Age of Piracy.

18th century cartoon - sailor painting a figurehead's lips.

Sailors of all ranks loved their figureheads. They were lovingly cleaned, painted, and cared for. When the style in figureheads was forms with outstretched arms, the arms were made to be removable, and were carefully stowed away when the ship was at sea, to be brought out and re-attached when the ship came into port. 

Figurehead of the Black Pearl

The figurehead was, in fact, the spirit of the ship. While detailed records of the day-to-day running of the merchant ships is not always available, Royal Navy records reveal some interesting stories.   One captain, trying to beat a rival at getting his sails set in record time, told his crew “If you fail to make the time, I’ll have the figurehead painted black.” The men were suitably motivated, and won the contest for their captain.

Another ship, going into battle under really bad orders from the Admiralty, was in serious danger of losing an engagement, when one of the sailors climbed forward and covered the head of the figurehead (In this case George II) with his hammock. When the sailor’s commanding officer demanded to know what he was about, the man replied, “We don’t have to break his heart, do we?” The behavior was let stand, as the officers may have been thinking the same thing.

A figurehead representing the owner's daughter

One merchant ship plied a regular route between two ports for several years, but then was asked to sail farther down the coast. There was nothing to prevent it, but when the ship reached her regular destination, she was set upon by a strong headwind that would not allow her to go farther. One of the old hands suggested blindfolding the figurehead until they had passed their usual port. This seemed to have worked, as the headwind abated, and the blindfold was removed from the figurehead when the ship was farther along.

The last story here will be that of the Cutty Sark a clipper ship famous enough to give her name to some very fine Scotch. I myself have always wondered where the name came from. The tale goes as follows…
A man named Tam O’Shanter  was riding home late one night when he passed a churchyard, and saw a troop of witches dancing around a bonfire. Most of the witches were old and ugly, but one was not. Her name was Nanny, and she wore nothing but a nightgown (a sark) that had been cropped off short (cut), and showed most of her legs.

The figurehead of the La Coquette was a brazen wench

Tam was so pleased to see her that he shouted, “Weel done, cutty sark!”

At once the witches began to chase him. Nanny, being the youngest, was soon in the lead, but Tam spurred his horse for the bridge, knowing the witches could not cross running water. Nanny was just able to catch the horse’s tail, but the beast was traveling so fast that its tail came right off in Nanny’s hand.

The Cutty Sark had as her figurehead Nanny the witch, holding the tail of Tam’s horse. When the ship was in her heyday, the apprentice seamen had it as their job to keep the “horse’s tail” in good repair, replacing it with frayed rope whenever it became worn.

Like many figureheads, Nanny currently resides in a museum. But her replica still adorns the ship she was born for, guiding her through the sea.


  1. Awesome stories, thanks!

  2. /Do you know any history of pirate figureheads?

  3. /Do you know any history of pirate figureheads?

    1. Since there have never been any "purpose built" pirate ships, pirates just had to take what they got whenever they stole a ship.