Sailors have always been fond of boxing "with bare knuckles" or, as it was referred to in the 18th and early 19th centuries, “milling”. Picking your champion, laying down your bet and then cheering as the match progressed seems to have been a great stress reliever. Aboard ship, these matches were frequently conducted with the opponents sitting astride a sea chest, sometimes with their legs tied to it. On land, however, the usual roped off ring and feint and dodge tactics of a modern boxing match applied. It was a bloody, bar knuckle sport that could result in severe injury or death. Regardless, men went after it like women go after chocolate.
A surprisingly beautiful description of such a match appears in Patrick O’Brian’s novel The Yellow Admiral. This is the 18th in his 21 book Aubrey/Maturin series. Much of the book is spent by land at the Aubrey familial estate, Woolcombe. Here Barret Bonden, Captain Aubrey’s coxswain, falls out with the neighboring estate’s gamekeeper, “Black Evans” (who, as an aside, is not African but "corpse-white" and quite covered with black hair) and the match is set. Bonden, a former champion of both the Mediterranean Fleet and the Portsmouth squadron, is badly beaten by dirty tactics and suffers a concussion. The match through Doctor Maturin’s eyes is stunningly fresh and lyrical. Today, allow me to share some of it with you:
It was not until the third and above all the fourth and fifth round that Stephen began to see that much more than mere brute strength was involved, very much more. Both men had been hit and hurt; their blood was up; each had taken the other’s measure; and though Bonden moved quicker and had more science, Evan’s blows, above all his body blows, were heavier by far. At one point they stood toe to toe in the middle of the ring, hammering one another with extraordinary rapidity and force, but he perceived that almost all the blows he could follow were diverted by the guard: indeed, in spite of the apparent confusion of arms and fists the whole was not unlike a fencing-match with its almost instant anticipation of attack, recoil, parry and lightning counter-strokes.
He sat there, watching them circle, manoeuvre, come in with a storm of blows, close and strive locked together, or break apart for a fresh attack: he watched them under the clear light of a high, veiled sky, fighting there to the roar of the opposing sides – they might have been in the arena of a small provincial Roman town – and he too was as tense as any as he urged his old friend and shipmate to go in and win, shouting for him in a voice he could barely hear for the huge din on either side.
~ Patrick O’Brian, The Yellow Admiral, Chapter Three, pages 66 – 67
In the end Evans, who is a blackguard to the core, takes advantage of Bonden’s long, sailor-braid coming loose from its tight chignon. He grabs the hair and swings Bonden’s head into one of the boxing ring’s wooden poles. Bonden, bloody and senseless, is carried home to Woolcombe. The feud between Jack Aubrey and Evans’ employer escalates and… well… You should read the book.
Keep your fists up and your feet moving, Brethren. Happy Friday!
Engraving by H. Heath of Tom Molyneaux, the first American heavyweight boxing champion who began as a Virginia slave, fighting British heavyweight champion Tom Cribb at Thistleton Gap, Rutland.