A navy surgeon was not considered as important as a doctor, since the position was usually held by men who had learned “in the field” so to say. They had little or no formal training, and mostly performed their duties by passing out patent medicines and lopping off badly damaged or diseased limbs.
Probably because of this, the ship’s physician usually drank to excess, and often injured themselves in the process. If the surgeon became incapable, his assistant, the loblolly boy might be promoted to the position of surgeon.
The loblolly boy got his name from the thin gruel (loblolly) served to men in the sick berth. In the normal progression, he would first be promoted to Surgeon’s Mate, and then to Surgeon, but on a long voyage, the ship might easily need to make a number of promotions due to loss of personnel.
In fact, this was reflected in the Navy’s traditional daily toasts. The list went as follows:
On Sunday – “Absent friends.”
On Monday – “Our ships at sea”
On Tuesday – “Our men.”
On Wednesday – “Ourselves – because no one else is likely to be concerned with us.”
On Thursday – “A bloody war or a sickly season.” This is the one that needs an explanation. Casualties due to either war or sickness opened up opportunities for promotion. This toast is the ultimate form of making the best of a bad thing.
On Friday – “A willing foe and sea-room!”
On Saturday – “To wives and sweethearts… May they never meet.”
Yes, the last one was official, too.
The Royal Navy had another odd tradition regarding toasting. When a toast is proposed to a reigning monarch, it is and always has been, traditional to stand while making it. If the monarch is present, he then stands to acknowledge the toast.
According to legend, King Charles II was eating dinner on a Royal Navy ship Royal Charles when the captain rose and made the traditional toast. The captain and his offers stood, instinctively ducking to avoid the low ceiling and exposed beams.
The king however, was not so used to confined spaces. He stood to his full height to acknowledge the toast, and promptly cracked his head on the ceiling. Then, according to the story, he decreed that henceforth all navy officers would be permitted to toast their monarch while seated. The tradition remains to this day.
Navy officers and sailors, like pirates, needed to be careful of headroom. Ships of the day were not designed with humans in mind. Decks were set up in such a way that the cannons were the proper distance above the surface of the sea, and if that meant that the decks were only 4 feet apart, then the ship’s people had to get by with only 4 feet to stand in.
Crouching was common. Even officers (who might have the luxury of a private cabin 4 x 6 feet) almost never had enough room to stand up straight. Sometimes the space allotted to humans was so scanty that bizarre measures were called for. On at least one navy ship, the entry to the midshipman’s berth was so tiny that it was necessary to crawl into it on all fours.
For all this lack of space, it was permitted to bring pets on board. The only requirement was that the person bringing the pet must pay for any food or other requirement. So, the extremely crowded berth mentioned above might contain, in addition to several teenage boys, dogs, cats or even monkeys and parrots.
It was also possible, depending on the captain, for officers to bring their wives with them. Some captains did this, but more brought mistresses instead. This had something to do with the idea that “honest women” were too “delicate” for life at sea, but a woman who was willing to sleep with a man outside of matrimony was made of sterner stuff.
It wasn’t even entirely impossible for a common sailor to sneak a wife or sweetheart on board. Women disguising themselves as men to get on board a ship were well documented. But that wasn’t always necessary.
Because of chronic lack of funds, navy sailors often went without pay for months, even years. Add to this the fact that many of the men were essentially kidnapped and forced to join the service, and you have a situation ripe for desertion. Regulations punished desertion with death, but this did not have nearly enough effect.
The navy’s answer was to confine the sailors on board the ship for years at a time. When ships came in to port, the sailors were not allowed to go on shore at all. Instead, small boats would come up alongside, trading for fresh food, tobacco, or sex.
It wasn’t unusual for stray women to come in through the cannon ports, and stay for days, even leaving with the ship. Wives were permitted to visit husbands, and there was also a lot of lying about who was married to who. Married or not, these women also stayed sometimes.
So, that was the Royal Navy of the 18th century. Drunk, crowded, smelly, running on the lust for treasure and the hope of sex. Personally, I’ll take the pirates.
I hope you will, too.