Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Safe at Sea

As modern Westerns in a land based society we tend to think of time aboard wooden ships, particularly from about 1492 until approximately the start of the U.S. Civil War (roughly the Second Empire in France) as full of hazard, want, disease and monotony. Unless we’re playing pirate a la Disney or imagining great naval triumphs (heavy on the imagination) it all seems bleak and scary.

Curiously, at least to most of us, this was not how the people who lived the life at sea perceived it. The average seaman was, by and large, much happier at sea than by land. The general consensus was that, aside from women and all the grog you could drink, nothing good came of spending too much time by land. Gull sharpers and sea lawyers liked nothing better than to take advantage of a seaman, and divest him of what little wealth he might actually have. Even in the women department things could get ugly. There were always wives and sweethearts and even the most gentlemanly naval officer knew they, too, had their hands out for his coin. And prayed they’d never meet. No, it was better to be at sea in a good ship where a man knew his duty and his mates and could rest easy of a night.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is a quote that sums the attitude up nicely from able seaman (and sometimes privateer) William Wood, written to a friend considering the sea life in 1634:

Whoever shall put to sea in a stout and well conditioned ship, having an honest master and loving seamen, shall not need to fear, but he shall find as good content at sea as on land. It is too common with many to fear the sea more than they need, and all such as put to sea confesses it to be less tedious than they ever feared or expected. A ship at sea may well be compared to a cradle rocked by a careful mother’s hand, which though it be moved up and down it is not in danger of falling.

High praise from an experienced voice; such insight is what makes historical research so fascinating and so much fun. Especially for a sea-geek like me.

Header: Sailing Ships via Screen Decoration (click over to find lots of lovely screen decorations featuring sailing ships at sea)


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! I don't know. I still think it takes a certain mindset (and at least a little bit of courage) to go to sea in a wooden ship, but maybe that's just because I'm such a lubber.

Nice pictures, too!

Clay and Fiber Artist said...

Can I ask where the source is for the William Wood quote?

I'm in contact with a genealogical researcher in the Wood family. We are distantly related and I'm sure he would be very interested in knowing about this quote.

J. Harris

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy and J!

Timmy: it is daunting, no matter how you look at it.

J: The quote is from "A Mariner's Miscellany" by Peter H. Spectre. He does not include a bibliogrphy. Benerson Little, in "The Buccaneer's Realm", mentions information about a Captain John Wood in the same era in William Hacke's "A Collection of Original Voyages" c 1699.

Both Spectre and Little's books are available at Amazon. I hope that helps a little.