Debunking myths about the days of sail

posted in: History | 15

A lot of things we believe come from some pretty suspect sources. If you’re like me, you believe that in the days of sail navies – both military and merchant – were full of press-ganged victims, that the food was foul, the officers brutal and you could be flogged for little or no reason. In short, a pretty poor sort of life. That’s how it’s portrayed in the movies we watch. Mutiny on the Bounty springs to mind.

Then I happened across this documentary debunking some of these myths – at least as far as the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars was concerned.

Some of you know I wrote a historical fiction novel about a 1629 shipwreck off the West Australian coast (To Die a Dry Death). In order to write that novel, I needed to have some sort of understanding of shipboard life. This was an earlier, less enlightened time. But a number of points made in the documentary resonated with me. A sailing ship is a complex machine which can only operate efficiently if its crew is able to function. Have you ever climbed a high ladder without a safety harness? Try climbing a rope ladder up a high mast, then inch along a spar and haul up the ropes on the sail to bring it in. Then do all of that in a gale, with the ship tossing like a cork, the waves crashing over the bow and almost as high as you, the rain lashing your face, the canvas and the ropes sodden. Yet we’re expected to believe that sailors could do this sort of hard, physical work on lousy food, driven like slaves by uncaring officers? It doesn’t make sense, does it? And indeed, the documentary notes that in Nelson’s day, the ships’ captains were very concerned about the health and welfare of their crews.

I’m beginning to think some of the horror tales about the Dutch East India Company (VOC) may have been a little over the top, too. Punishments were severe. I talked about keelhauling here, dropping from the yard here. Sure, punishment was draconian – but then, so it was throughout society. However, if you didn’t do anything to warrant the punishment, it wouldn’t happen. Makes sense to me. Sure, there was a distinction between the privileged wealthy in the stern apartments and the sailors. But that was the norm in society in general. Captains could not afford to alienate their crews, nor to incapacitate them. Certainly captains could benefit financially by purchasing poor rations for their crews and I’m sure it did happen, but there would have to be a trade-off. Skilled seamen were hard to find and it’s hard to imagine a man wanting to sail with a skipper prepared to short-change his crew’s conditions. The sailors had to be able to respect and follow their officers, most especially their captain. This all had real meaning for me, because in the history books the captain of the Batavia is portrayed as a villain. In my novel I have portrayed him in a quite different light, as a rough, hard-drinking womaniser, sure, but as a leader, respected and followed by his crew.

One more point. Women were on the ships that fought the British navy’s wars. And despite the myth about women on ships being bad luck, it seems they were out there, anyway, sharing the conditions with their men. When the Victory went to war at Trafalgar, women were there, fighting alongside the boys. How about that?

The documentary is a real eye-opener. Recommended – but be warned, it’s about 48 minutes long.

15 Responses

  1. rinellegrey

    That sounds like a fascinating documentary! Having been on a couple of replica sailing ships of the time (The Endeavour and the Dufkyn), even if the food was OK and the punishments just, they were still so SMALL. It’s quite amazing to see it in person.

      • rinellegrey

        Yes! I’m amazed at how many people lived on them, and for such long periods of time. I love getting that glimpse into the past.

  2. Allan Douglas (@AllanDouglasDgn)

    Sounds interesting, Greta. Most everything I’ve seen portrays the Evil Tyrant side. But, as you say, people could not function well under those circumstance. I’ve flagged the documentary in my To Watch file. Thanks for pointing it out.

    • Greta van der Rol

      Yes, I was intrigued. At the time of Nelson, and earlier actually, sailors could get very rich, as you’ll find in the documentary. It was a gamble, a bit like gold prospecting.

  3. Bill Kirton

    Thanks, Greta. I’ve just started the sequel to The Figurehead and part of my intention was to look at conditions on board ships taking emigrants to Canada and the USA. Having watched the documentary, it seems obvious now that the myths of violence and press-ganged landlubbers were exactly that, and yet they’ve persisted for centuries. This sort of information helps us to get into the mindset of the people involved much more easily.

  4. Laurel C Kriegler

    Being from South Africa, it’s well known that the VOC used The Cape to replenish supplies of fresh food. I while there would have been issues early on on the longer voyages, I agree that the companies worked to solve the problems they had – in so far as they were able.

  5. Julia Rachel Barrett

    I imagine conditions could be harsh – however a good captain and a great navigator or pilot were absolutely essential. Otherwise you might be facing a mutiny on the Bounty. What is interesting about the history of circumnavigating the globe are the many attempts to alleviate scurvy. Took quite some time to figure out the crew required fresh fruits and vegetables.

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