The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

January 31, 2014

The age of sail

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— Very, very few movies over the course of cinema “get it right” when it comes to history, but more and more, Hollywood has come around to at least the right setting and atmosphere when it deals with history.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” is based on Patrick O’Brian’s three-novel trilogy, so while fictitious in nature, it was more than admirable in its play between characters and historical setting.

I’ve always been enamored of these type tales, having envisioned sailing on a ship in the early 1800s, traversing the world’s waters to do battle with a foe — probably because of my family Navy heritage, from my dad, my granddad and his brother, my uncle, my nephew and bunch of cousins all having sailed the high seas.

A sailor’s life in the halcyon days of sailing after the turn of the year 1800  is flat out compelling.

So, let’s cast eyes and thoughts back 200-plus years, during a bygone and somewhat romantic age.

Men who set to sea had to be a most hardy lot, as daring and adventurous as any who set foot upon land across the world.

All shared a common experience and bond, working together at sea and enduring some of the worst nature could throw at man.

Once they had set sail, whether it frigate or schooner or man-o’-war, a sailor and his officers were cut off from a normal life they may or may not have enjoyed on land.

Sometimes they were at sea many months — sometimes years —  accepting and enduring cramped conditions, disease, a sometimes lack of good water, and pay that was poor and uneven in the best of circumstances.

And — always in the back of a seafarers mind — they faced daily life-threatening dangers and daunting weather at almost every turn.

One element of a sailor’s life that seems always to come through on cinema is punishment — it being a captain’s duty to mete out harsh floggings and even hanging for everything from insubordination to stealing of food to murder.

A captain of a ship at sea was the ultimate arbiter of a sailor’s fate, although I’m sure a good, sturdy, stern but fair captain was a far better and more effective leader of men than the opposite — who might find himself the victim of a mutiny and thrown overboard or cast adrift in the middle of a great ocean and left to a very uncertain end.

But then, while punishment on a ship might seem harsh, you have only to look at history and see that throughout our world chronicles — say in England or the early days of America — a person on land could be hanged for stealing as little as something worth mere pennies.

So, in that light, punishment aboard ship may not seem so harsh. It’s just there was nowhere for the the poor sailor to hide or seek clemency.

While flogging was the most common punishment for a sailor — an occasion in which the entire crew had to stand to and witness the offender being whipped with a rope end or cat o’ nine tails — other punishments could be worse.

An offending sailor could be tarred and feathered at sea, or keel-hauled, where the seaman was tied to a rope, swung overboard and dragged underwater beneath the ship’s keel.

I kind of doubt even the most hardy soul survived long under such severe punishment.

Of course, he also could be hanged from the yard arm for things like mutiny.

Interestingly, a sailor’s lot little changed from the days of the early English explorers, up until fleets like the legendary British Royal Navy — the benchmark for all other sailors and navies — made war upon Napoleon Bonaparte.

Ships’ rations generally included beef or pork cured in salt, fish, cheese, some type of biscuit or hardtack and of course, ale or grog — a mix of weak beer and rum.

Food quality generally always was poor, owing to the ship’s conditions, contamination and spoilage. Rats and vermin always were in abundance, while maggots and weevils most times laced biscuits.

As with most things over the centuries, unscrupulous food suppliers would provide less than savory fare to ship owners and the military — always looking to cut costs whenever they could.

Singing, fiddling and playing games of chance were widely employed diversions to the very hard and dangerous work an able seaman was expected to perform. Carving of wood and ivory became an art form with many a sailing lad.

In the end, despite at times brutal conditions, back-breaking toil and  weather that could spell their doom, the sailor of both fact and myth must be placed at the top of those hardy souls to whom history now must tip its cap.



Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking