Monday, May 4, 2015

The Royal Navy Part 2 – Hierarchy

Last week we learned how little the Royal Navy of 1717 had in common with the popular image of the institution. Rather than a uniformed service, run on sober loyalty, it was a mostly-drunken institution, motivated by gold and dependent on graft.

How did one join the navy?

Officers came from families who could afford to “buy” them positons on a ship. Young men joined as Midshipmen – so called because their sleeping quarters were halfway between the common sailors at the front of the vessel and the officers at the stern. Midshipmen were unpaid, and required to have an allowance from home, to be “managed” by the captain.

“Young gentlemen” joined this way at an age somewhere between 6 and 12. It really did take that long to learn all the things an officer needed to know. In addition, this arrangement mirrored that of apprenticeships on land.

Common sailors also joined at very young ages, but usually under different circumstances.

London during the Golden Age of Piracy was crawling with orphans. Hundreds of thousands of displaced peasants flocked to the city yearly, looking for work. Mortality was so high that the city would have de-populated itself every seven years, if not for the continuing influx of people.

As a consequence, parentless children were epidemic. Churches made some efforts, and some private individuals ran charities, but most of these kids were doomed to an early death. The Royal Navy, always in need of sailors, took boys as young as four to serve on their ships.

What could a four-year-old do to earn his keep? As with the officers-in-training, it took a long time to learn skills. Boys also carried messages (necessary on a large ships) and served the vital function of carrying powder to the cannons for both gun drills and actual combat.

Of course, some of these boys were molested, but the same or worse probably awaited them as they roamed the streets alone. The navy fed them, and gave them a place to live, a purpose for living, and even pseudo-family. It also gave them a grown man’s ratio of rum, which was probably shared by the boy’s friends. At least we hope so. Back in the 18th century, there was no “minimum drinking age” and children drank as soon as they stopped nursing.

Hierarchy was perhaps the most important thing in navy. Officers were gentlemen, the height of social order. According to the mores of the time, God himself had ordained that these people were “better” than the lower orders of society.

The center layer of shipboard society was made of the warrant officers, such as gunner, sailmaker and cook. These were roughly analogous to tradesmen. These fellows lived with a single ship throughout its life. So attached were they to the vessel that they often brought their wives with them. These women formed their own separate society.

Cut off from the land, they supported each other through sickness, health, pregnancy and childbirth. Often these women cared for the “young gentlemen” and perhaps the other children as well. Care for the midshipmen fell especially to the gunner’s wife.

Sailors were divided into three classes. Deck hands were those who, due to lack of experience or lack of intelligence, could do little more than clean things and haul on ropes. They were, literally, hands. Even this was semiskilled work, since every object on the ship had a unique name and purpose, and even being allowed to pick up a rope and pull on it required the trust of one’s co-workers.

Sailors, the next group, could do any of several skilled tasks. They were competent workers on the ship. They might, for instance, climb the masts to furl or unfurl sails hundreds of feet above the deck.

Able sailors were said to be capable of “handing” or dragging on ropes, “reefing” or raising, manipulating and furling sails, and “steering” using the ship’s wheel to guide the vessel along a course proscribed by the officers.

The differences between “men” and “gentlemen” was vast and unmoving. Any officer could strike any man at any time, with no punishment (other than, perhaps, a dressing down by the captain if the captain didn’t approve). A man striking another man earned himself a whipping.

But a common man who struck an officer was hanged. Death. Hierarchy was everything. No one on the ship held exactly the same position as anyone else – even when the rank was nominally the same, age, date of last promotion or skill set kept them apart.

Everyone “saluted” those on the level above them (actually to tip the hat, or touch the forehead if no hat was worn), and everyone saluted the quarterdeck, seat of the ship’s power. The quarterdeck was a raised platform at the back of the ship. The ship‘s steering mechanism was located here, along with the hourglass (actually a half-hour glass) that kept the ship’s time, and the ship’s bell which announced this time to the ship in general.

This was also where the national flag flew, and this symbol of the king’s authority gave power to the entire enterprise. In these days, it was believed that kings were chosen by God.

In contrast, pirates cut the decking of their ships level, and on at least one case moved the bell forward, a sign that no man stood above any other. Pirates kept their pay rates and grades of responsibility as level as possible.  

1 comment:

  1. Nice summary. The movie 'Master and Commander' demonstrates much of what is said here. It makes for a fine contrast against the organization of pirate shilps.