The Choosing of Watches by John Masefield

The petty tally,Food,Work,Punishments

As soon as an ancient ship of war was fitted for the sea, with her guns on board, and mounted, her sails bent, her stores and powder in the hold, her water filled, her ballast trimmed, and the hands aboard, some "steep-tubs" were placed in the chains for the steeping of the salt provisions, "till the salt be out though not the saltness." The anchor was then weighed to a note of music. The "weeping Rachells and mournefull Niobes" were set packing ashore. The colours were run up and a gun fired. The foresail was loosed. The cable rubbed down as it came aboard (so that it might not be faked into the tiers wet or dirty). The boat was hoisted inboard. The master "took his departure," by observing the bearing of some particular point of land, as the Mew Stone, the Start, the Lizard, etc. Every man was bidden to "say his private prayer for a bonne voyage." The anchor was catted and fished. Sails were set and trimmed. Ropes were coiled down clear for running, and the course laid by the master.
CIRCA 1630

The captain or master then ordered the boatswain "to call up the company," just as all hands are mustered on modern sailing ships at the beginning of a voyage. The master "being Chief of the Starboard Watch" would then look over the mariners for a likely man. Having made his choice he bade the man selected go over to the starboard side, while the commander of the port-watch[323] made his choice. When all the men had been chosen, and the crew "divided into two parts," then each man was bidden to choose "his Mate, Consort or Comrade." The bedding arrangements of these old ships were very primitive. The officers had their bunks or hammocks in their cabins, but the men seem to have slept wherever and however they could. Some, no doubt had hammocks, but the greater number lay in their cloaks between the guns, on mattresses if they had them. A man shared his bed and bedding (if he had any) with his "Mate, Consort, or Comrade," so that the one bed and bedding served for the pair. One of the two friends was always on deck while the other slept. In some ships at the present time the forecastles are fitted with bunks for only half the number of seamen carried, so that the practice is not yet dead. The boatswain, with all "the Younkers or Common Sailors" then went forward of the main-mast to take up their quarters between decks. The captain, master's mates, gunners, carpenters, quartermasters, etc., lodged abaft the main-mast "in their severall Cabbins." The next thing to be done was the arrangement of the ship's company into messes, "four to a mess," after which the custom was to "give every messe a quarter Can of beere and a bisket of bread to stay their stomacks till the kettle be boiled." In the first dog-watch, from 4 to 6 P.M., all hands went to prayers about the main-mast, and from their devotions to supper. At 6 P.M. the company met again to sing a psalm, and say their prayers, before the setting of the night watch; this psalm singing being the prototype of the modern sea-concert, or singsong. At 8 P.M. the first night watch began, lasting until midnight, during which four hours half the ship's company were free to sleep. At midnight the sleepers were called on deck, to relieve the watch. The watches were changed as soon as the muster had been called and a[324] psalm sung, and a prayer offered. They alternated thus throughout the twenty-four hours, each watch having four hours below, after four hours on deck, unless "some flaw of winde come, some storm or gust, or some accident that requires the help of all hands." In these cases the whole ship's company remained on deck until the work was done, or until the master discharged the watch below.[24] The decks were washed down by the swabbers every morning, before the company went to breakfast. After breakfast the men went about their ordinary duties, cleaning the ship, mending rigging, or working at the thousand odd jobs the sailing of a ship entails. The tops were always manned by lookouts, who received some small reward if they spied a prize. The guns were sometimes exercised, and all hands trained to general quarters.

A few captains made an effort to provide for the comfort of their men by laying in a supply of "bedding, linnen, arms[25] and apparel." In some cases they also provided what was called the petty tally, or store of medical comforts. "The Sea-man's Grammar" of Captain John Smith, from which we have been quoting, tells us that the petty tally contained:

"Fine wheat flower close and well-packed, Rice, Currants, Sugar, Prunes, Cynamon, Ginger, Pepper, Cloves, Green Ginger, Oil, Butter, Holland cheese or old Cheese, Wine-Vinegar, Canarie-Sack, Aqua-vitæ, the best Wines, the best Waters, the juyce of Limons for the scurvy, white Bisket, Oatmeal, Gammons of Bacons, dried Neats tongues, Beef packed up in Vineger, Legs of Mutton minced and stewed, and close packed up, with tried Sewet or Butter in earthen Pots. To entertain Strangers Marmalade, Suckets, Almonds, Comfits and such like."

"Some," says the author of this savoury list, "will say[325] I would have men rather to feast than to fight. But I say the want of those necessaries occasions the loss of more men than in any English Fleet hath been slain since 88. For when a man is ill, or at the point of death, I would know whether a dish of buttered Rice with a little Cynamon, Ginger and Sugar, a little minced meat, or rost Beef, a few stew'd Prunes, a race of green Ginger, a Flap-jack, a Kan of fresh water brewed with a little Cynamon and Sugar be not better than a little poor John, or salt fish, with Oil and Mustard, or Bisket, Butter, Cheese, or Oatmeal-pottage on Fish-dayes, or on Flesh-dayes, Salt, Beef, Pork and Pease, with six shillings beer, this is your ordinary ship's allowance, and good for them are well if well conditioned [not such bad diet for a healthy man if of good quality] which is not alwayes as Sea-men can [too well] witnesse. And after a storme, when poor men are all wet, and some have not so much as a cloth to shift them, shaking with cold, few of those but will tell you a little Sack or Aqua-vitæ is much better to keep them in health, than a little small Beer, or cold water although it be sweet. Now that every one should provide for himself, few of them have either that providence or means, and there is neither Ale-house, Tavern, nor Inne to burn a faggot in, neither Grocer, Poulterer, Apothecary nor Butcher's Shop, and therefore the use of this petty Tally is necessary, and thus to be employed as there is occasion."

The entertainment of strangers, with "Almonds, Comfits and such like," was the duty of a sea-captain, for "every Commander should shew himself as like himself as he can," and, "therefore I leave it to their own Discretion," to supply suckets for the casual guest. In those days, when sugar was a costly commodity, a sucket was more esteemed than now. At sea, when the food was mostly salt, it must certainly have been a great dainty.[326]

The "allowance" or ration to the men was as follows[26]:—

Each man and boy received one pound of bread or biscuit daily, with a gallon of beer. The beer was served out four times daily, a quart at a time, in the morning, at dinner, in the afternoon, and at supper. On Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, which were flesh days, the allowance of meat was either one pound of salt beef, or one pound of salt pork with pease. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, a side of salt-fish, ling, haberdine, or cod, was divided between the members of each mess, while a seven-ounce ration of butter (or olive oil) and a fourteen-ounce ration of cheese, was served to each man. On Fridays, or fast days, this allowance was halved. At one time the sailors were fond of selling or playing away their rations, but this practice was stopped in the reign of Elizabeth, and the men forced to take their food "orderly and in due season" under penalties. Prisoners taken during the cruise were allowed two-thirds of the above allowance.

The allowance quoted above appears liberal, but it must be remembered that the sailors were messed "six upon four," and received only two-thirds of the full ration. The quality of the food was very bad. The beer was the very cheapest of small beer, and never kept good at sea, owing to the continual motion of the ship. It became acid, and induced dysentery in those who drank it, though it was sometimes possible to rebrew it after it had once gone sour. The water, which was carried in casks, was also far from wholesome. After storing, for a day or two, it generally became offensive, so that none could drink it. In a little while this offensiveness passed off, and it might then be used, though the casks bred growths of an unpleasant sliminess, if the water remained in them for more than a month. However water was not regarded as a[327] drink for human beings until the beer was spent. The salt meat was as bad as the beer, or worse. Often enough the casks were filled with lumps of bone and fat which were quite uneatable, and often the meat was so lean, old, dry and shrivelled that it was valueless as food. The victuallers often killed their animals in the heat of the summer, when the meat would not take salt, so that many casks must have been unfit for food after lying for a week in store. Anti-scorbutics were supplied, or not supplied, at the discretion of the captains. It appears that the sailors disliked innovations in their food, and rejected the substitution of beans, flour "and those white Meats as they are called" for the heavy, and innutritious pork and beef. Sailors were always great sticklers for their "Pound and Pint," and Boteler tells us that in the early seventeenth century "the common Sea-men with us, are so besotted on their Beef and Pork, as they had rather adventure on all the Calentures, and Scarbots [scurvy] in the World, than to be weaned from their Customary Diet, or so much as to lose the least Bit of it."

The salt-fish ration was probably rather better than the meat, but the cheese was nearly always very bad, and of an abominable odour. The butter was no better than the cheese. It was probably like so much train-oil. The bread or biscuit which was stowed in bags in the bread-room in the hold, soon lost its hardness at sea, becoming soft and wormy, so that the sailors had to eat it in the dark. The biscuits, or cakes of bread, seem to have been current coin with many of the West Indian natives. In those ships where flour was carried, in lieu of biscuit, as sometimes happened in cases of emergency, the men received a ration of doughboy, a sort of dumpling of wetted flour boiled with pork fat. This was esteemed a rare delicacy either eaten plain or with butter.[328]

This diet was too lacking in variety, and too destitute of anti-scorbutics to support the mariners in health. The ships in themselves were insanitary, and the crews suffered very much from what they called calentures, (or fevers such as typhus and typhoid), and the scurvy. The scurvy was perhaps the more common ailment, as indeed it is to-day. It is now little dreaded, for its nature is understood, and guarded against. In the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, it killed its thousands, owing to the ignorance and indifference of responsible parties, and to other causes such as the construction of the ships and the length of the voyages. A salt diet, without fresh vegetables, and without variety, is a predisposing cause of scurvy. Exposure to cold and wet, and living in dirty surroundings are also predisposing causes. The old wooden ships were seldom very clean, and never dry, and when once the scurvy took hold it generally raged until the ship reached port, where fresh provisions could be purchased. A wooden ship was never quite dry, in any weather, for the upper-deck planks, and the timbers of her topsides, could never be so strictly caulked that no water could leak in. The sea-water splashed in through the scuppers and through the ports, or leaked in, a little at a time, through the seams. In bad weather the lower gun-decks (or all decks below the spar-deck) were more or less awash, from seas that had washed down the hatchways. The upper-deck seams let in the rain, and when once the lower-decks were wet it was very difficult to dry them. It was impossible to close the gun-deck ports so as to make them watertight, for the water would find cracks to come in at, even though the edges of the lids were caulked with oakum, and the orifices further barred by deadlights or wooden shutters. Many of the sailors, as we have seen, were without a change of clothes, and with no proper sleeping-place, save[329] the wet deck and the wet jackets that they worked in. It often happened that the gun-ports would be closed for several weeks together, during which time the gun-decks became filthy and musty, while the sailors contracted all manner of cramps and catarrhs. In addition to the wet, and the discomfort of such a life, there was also the work, often extremely laborious, incidental to heavy weather at sea. What with the ceaseless handling of sails and ropes, in frost and snow and soaking sea-water; and the continual pumping out of the leaks the rotten seams admitted, the sailor had little leisure in which to sleep, or to dry himself. When he left the deck he had only the dark, wet berth-deck to retire to, a place of bleakness and misery, where he might share a sopping blanket, if he had one, with the corpse of a drowned rat and the flotsam from the different messes. There was no getting dry nor warm, though the berth-deck might be extremely close and stuffy from lack of ventilation. The cook-room, or galley fire would not be lighted, and there would be no comforting food or drink, nothing but raw meat and biscuit, and a sup of sour beer. It was not more unpleasant perhaps than life at sea is to-day, but it was certainly more dangerous.[27] When at last the storm abated and the sea went down, the ports were opened and the decks cleaned. The sailors held a general washing-day, scrubbing the mouldy clothes that had been soaked so long, and hanging them to dry about the rigging. Wind-sails or canvas ventilators were rigged, to admit air to the lowest recesses of the hold. The decks were scrubbed down with a mixture of vinegar and sand, and then sluiced with salt water, scraped with metal scrapers, and dried with swabs and small portable firepots. Vinegar was carried about the decks in large iron pots, and converted into vapour by the insertion of[330] red-hot metal bars. The swabbers brought pans of burning pitch or brimstone into every corner, so that the smoke might penetrate everywhere. But even then the decks were not wholesome. There were spaces under the guns which no art could dry, and subtle leaks in the topsides that none could stop. The hold accumulated filth, for in many ships the ship's refuse was swept on to the ballast, where it bred pestilence, typhus fever and the like. The bilge-water reeked and rotted in the bilges, filling the whole ship with its indescribable stench. Beetles, rats and cockroaches bred and multiplied in the crannies, until (as in Captain Cook's case two centuries later), they made life miserable for all on board. These wooden ships were very gloomy abodes, and would have been so no doubt even had they been dry and warm. They were dark, and the lower-deck, where most of the men messed, was worse lit than the decks above it, for being near to the water-line the ports could seldom be opened. Only in very fair weather could the sailors have light and sun below decks. As a rule they ate and slept in a murky, stuffy atmosphere, badly lighted by candles in heavy horn lanthorns. The gloom of the ships must have weighed heavily upon many of the men, and the depression no doubt predisposed them to scurvy, making them less attentive to bodily cleanliness, and less ready to combat the disease when it attacked them. Perhaps some early sea-captains tried to make the between decks less gloomy by whitewashing the beams, bulkheads and ship's sides. In the eighteenth century this seems to have been practised with success, though perhaps the captains who tried it were more careful of their hands in other ways, and the benefit may have been derived from other causes.

Discipline was maintained by some harsh punishments, designed to "tame the most rude and savage people in the world." Punishment was inflicted at the discretion[331] of the captain, directly after the hearing of the case, but the case was generally tried the day after the commission of the offence, so that no man should be condemned in hot blood. The most common punishment was that of flogging, the men being stripped to the waist, tied to the main-mast or to a capstan bar, and flogged upon the bare back with a whip or a "cherriliccum." The boatswain had power to beat the laggards and the ship's boys with a cane, or with a piece of knotted rope. A common punishment was to put the offender on half his allowance, or to stop his meat, or his allowance of wine or spirits. For more heinous offences there was the very barbarous punishment of keel-hauling, by which the victim was dragged from the main yardarm right under the keel of the ship, across the barnacles, to the yardarm on the farther side. Those who suffered this punishment were liable to be cut very shrewdly by the points of the encrusted shells. Ducking from the main yardarm was inflicted for stubbornness, laziness, going on shore without leave, or sleeping while on watch. The malefactor was brought to the gangway, and a rope fastened under his arms and about his middle. He was then hoisted rapidly up to the main yardarm, "from whence he is violently let fall into the Sea, some times twice, some times three severall times, one after another" (Boteler). This punishment, and keel-hauling, were made more terrible by the discharge of a great gun over the malefactor's head as he struck the water, "which proveth much offensive to him" (ibid.). If a man killed another he was fastened to the corpse and flung overboard (Laws of Oleron). For drawing a weapon in a quarrel, or in mutiny, the offender lost his right hand (ibid.). Theft was generally punished with flogging, but in serious cases the thief was forced to run the gauntlet, between two rows of sailors all armed with thin knotted cords. Duck[332]ing from the bowsprit end, towing in a rope astern, and marooning, were also practised as punishments for the pilferer. For sleeping on watch there was a graduated scale. First offenders were soused with a bucket of water. For the second offence they were tied up by the wrists, and water was poured down their sleeves. For the third offence they were tied to the mast, with bags of bullets, or gun-chambers tied about their arms and necks, until they were exhausted, or "till their back be ready to break" (Monson). If they still offended in this kind they were taken and tied to the bowsprit end, with rations of beer and bread, and left there with leave to starve or fall into the sea. Destruction or theft of ships' property was punished by death. Petty insurrections, such as complaints of the quality or quantity of the food, etc., were punished by the bilboes. The bilboes were iron bars fixed to the deck a little abaft the main-mast. The prisoner sat upon the deck under a sentry, and his legs and hands were shackled to the bars with irons of a weight proportioned to the crime. It was a rule that none should speak to a man in the bilboes. For blasphemy and swearing there was "an excellent good way"[28] of forcing the sinner to hold a marline-spike in his mouth, until his tongue was bloody (Teonge). Dirty speech was punished in a similar way, and sometimes the offending tongue was scrubbed with sand and canvas. We read of two sailors who stole a piece of beef aboard H.M.S. Assistance in the year 1676.[29] Their hands were tied behind them, and the beef was hung about their necks, "and the rest of the seamen cam one by one, and rubd them over the mouth with the raw beife; and in this posture they stood two howers." Other punishments were "shooting to death," and hanging at the yardarm.[333] "And the Knaveries of the Ship-boys are payd by the Boat-Swain with the Rod; and commonly this execution is done upon the Munday Mornings; and is so frequently in use, that some meer Seamen believe in earnest, that they shall not have a fair Wind, unless the poor Boys be duely brought to the Chest, that is, whipped, every Munday Morning" (Boteler).

Some of these punishments may appear unduly harsh; but on the whole they were no more cruel than the punishments usually inflicted ashore. Indeed, if anything they were rather more merciful.

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