The contrast between pirates and the Royal Navy makes for good theater. On the one side pirates, the drunken, greedy, disorganized criminals in their motley clothes. On the other, the proud naval officers, sober, serious, devoted to duty, sporting crisp uniforms and…
Except that’s not at all the way the Royal Navy worked in the very early 1700’s.
In 1717, the Royal Navy had no uniforms. No navy did. In the army, uniforms made for an impressive spectacle. It also reduced costs, since the “uniform” clothing could be ordered in bulk. But at sea, it was the ship that made the impression. Details of the men sailing it were not so important.
Besides, the sailor did have a certain level of similarity in dress. They all tended toward the same cut of baggy work pants in either red or canvas-white (as ubiquitous as blue jeans are today) Working men wore short jackets, of about the same cut, and most sailors, whether navy or not, favored blue. Most sailors also favored checked shirt, and blue was the most common color, followed by red.
Blue for sailors had been ordained 1,700 years before by the Romans, who were trying to camouflage their ships. The Romans also dyed their sails blue, but that tradition did not last. Red was likely popular because it was both inexpensive and durable, being produced by iron oxide (rust).
Further uniformity was brought about because the ship supplied a “slops chest” of clothing that was available for purchase. The sailors had to pay for the clothes, and the service was outsourced to third-party suppliers. Therefor the supplied clothing tended to be similar, if not identical.
Officers, especially captains, dressed any way they pleased, and there was much more variety here. A captain could wear literally anything he chose. It was an era of grand clothing, with silks, brocades lace and embroidery being common for men who could afford them. Usually the only way to determine who was in charge was by the grandeur of a coat. Well-heeled lieutenants might be able to afford to dress better than their commanding officer, but would quickly find out it was not good for the career.
In Britain, uniforms were designed after a petition from the officers to Parliament in 1760. By this time, other nations has used uniforms for years.
Saluting was not a tradition in the navy until about 1800. During the Golden Age of Piracy, and for some time thereafter, the naval greeting was to touch or tip the hat, the same as for civilians.
The navy was also a much more drunken than we imagine. The British rationed a gallon of beer or wine for each man each day, or a pint of unadulterated brandy or rum. Interestingly enough the service also punished men from drunkenness. They got around this by re-defining what it meant to be drunk. In the navy, drunkenness was being so impaired by drink that a man could not stand up and say his name.
The officers, in addition to the ration of liquor, were expected to supply additional drink for private social use. Cases and cases of wine, brandy, sherry, gin, and rum were purchased out of the private funds of the captain and officers, and stored on the ship. It was not at all uncommon for every man on board to be in an alcoholic haze. The phrase “The sun is over the yardarm” signaled that it was about 11:00 in the morning, and time, not to begin drinking, but to begin drinking HEAVILY.
The navy also anticipated “sharp dealing” as it was called. For example the position of “Purser” the man who managed the ship’s money, was not a paid position. Instead, those wishing to have the position paid the navy a considerable sum, and were expected to make it up by cheating. Either they would pay less than allocated for supplies in foreign ports (often resulting in spoiled or otherwise sub-standard food) or they found ways to get extra money that didn’t need to be spent.
One way was to charge a 10% fee on the sale of all clothing from the slop’s chest to the sailors. Another was to write monthly pay-tickets for non-existent personnel, cash the ticket and keep the money. This led, much later, to the start of a tradition whereby each week during inspection, every man on the ship stepped forward and told the captain his name.
Pay also happened in a more piratical way than you might expect. While everyone but the purser received at least nominal pay, the navy actually ran on an institution called “prize money”. Simply put, when a Royal Navy ship captured a ship of an enemy nation (either a war-ship or a merchant) the captured ship or “prize” belonged to the captain and crew of the vessel that captured it (There were rules for when multiple ships were involved in a capture.)
The captured ships and their cargos were sold, either at common auction or in a direct sale to the British Government. Money from a capture, often enough to make a man rich for life, was distributed to the captain and crew according to a prescribed formula. The money was divided into eighths. One eighth went to the ship’s Captain, and one eighth to the Admiral who wrote his orders. The Lieutenants, Captain of Marines (if present) and Sailing Master shared an eighth between them. The next eighth was divided between the ship’s Chaplain, Carpenter, Gunner, Boatswain, Lieutenant of Marines, and Master’s Mates. One eighth was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain's clerk, surgeon's mates, and midshipmen.
The final two-eighths was divided among the sailors. As you can see, the divisions were between larger and larger groups of people, resulting in a smaller and smaller share for each man. The final division, by members of the crew, might be split among many hundreds of people. But the money inspired men of all levels. The largest payout ever was after the Spanish ship Hermioney was captured by the Active and the Favourite in 1764. The two British Captains received about £65,000 apiece (about 500 year’s salary) and the men about £485 each.
However, this money might take months to get back to the people who had earned it. To increase morale, British captains sometimes confiscated all the money found on a prize, divided it into appropriate shares, and passed it out in in person, immediately. It was not technically legal, but it happened often.
The lure of such prize money was what brought men to the service. It was certainly not the actual pay, which was barely enough to live on – by definition about ¼ of what was given to merchant officers and sailors. Prize money was on everyone’s mind and often caused poor decisions, since a ship that was sunk could not be sold. Trying to preserve enemy ships for sale was known to lose battles.
So there we have it… The navy was just as drunken, disorganized, and treasure-mad as the pirates, and often dressed much the same.
Just one more reason why the pirates did so well during the Golden Age.
Next week – more navy triva.