Guest post: Ships’ Masters – forgotten heroes of navigation


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One of the moments of epiphany that set me on my course towards becoming a naval historian was – I will admit it, since it was ten years ago – a film scene. It was a brief shot in the opening battle sequence of Peter Weir’s Master and Commander, which showed a scruffy old fellow, strangely attired in a dented hat and a coat with a conspicuous lack of gold lace ordering the ship’s captain to the taffrail with a sort of curt bark and a rudeish gesture. Old seafarer that I was, I gasped in horror. Nobody could treat that near-divine being, the Captain, in this way and not suffer for it. What was in store for this unfortunate man was a spell in the bilboes and then a court martial. But nothing of the sort happened. Nobody so much as batted an eyelash. Instantly, I suspected a historical inaccuracy. A bit of research showed that this was not so: the scruffy old fellow – Mr Allen – was the ship’s master, and as such, his behaviour was exactly what it should be. Since their title is somewhat confusing, a little explanation is in order. In the sailing navy, masters were the officers in charge of a ship’s navigation. Because they had nothing to do with the military running of the ship, they were not appointed by commission but by warrant, but this does not necessarily mean that they were, in terms of standing, inferior to the commissioned officers. They were the Royal Navy’s professional seamen, an elite branch of highly qualified experts. Before being given charge of a King’s ship, they had to pass through an elaborate process of examination at the – civilian – corporation which was the authority on matters of seamanship: the Trinity House. This procedure was unique for sea officers. Masters kept the ship’s only official log and had a legal right not to have their handling of the ship interfered with, not even by the captain. A commander who did so might find himself in dangerous waters, in every way. Masters’ awareness of their importance led to the sort of devil-may-care attitude that makes my archive days pure joy. I have seen a document in which one master is recorded as saying that ‘he knew how to put a ship about before the captain knew salt water’; in another, a master calmly bids the commanding officer kiss his unmentionables. In most such cases, the worst these men had to expect was a halfhearted rap on the knuckles, because the Royal Navy was extremely reluctant to displease or – God forbid – dismiss its crack navigators. It is a testimony to their excellence that these are often the people praised in the highest terms by their commanders. Many captains had lifelong regard for or even deep friendships with the masters who had sailed with them. In that light, Robert Pugh’s master-ly (did I mention that I should never be let within a cable’s length of a bad pun?) portrayal of Mr Allen, with its fine balance of insolence and professionalism, and its scatterings of gruff paternal advice, seems just right. Ever since watching the film for the first time, I have had a soft spot for masters; so much so, in fact, that studying them is now my full-time job. And here – I apologise for my long-winded, and in that sense truly eighteenth-century, preface to this point – the collections of the National Maritime Museum prove to be a veritable treasure trove. I could go on about them for pages and pages, but will be merciful and limit myself to three of my favourite objects. The first is a late eighteenth-century sextant by Troughton, which goes in the catalogue by the not very romantic designation of NAV1139. If you look at it very closely, you can see a small engraved inscription which reads: ‘The Gift of Captain Jas. Brisbane to Mr T. H. Hoskins, Master of HM Ship Saturn, 1802’. Sextant-NAV1139-detailIt is a handsome gift, and one that cannot have been lightly given, since a sextant like this would have cost the extortionate sum of ten to twelve pounds. Brisbane and Hoskins had not served in the Saturn together very long; Hoskins had joined in late November 1801 and the ship paid off at Portsmouth in July the following year, as is apparent from the master’s log. He must have made quite an impression on his captain: Brisbane writes the master a glowing recommendation as a ‘Sober, steady, respectfull and most Zealous Officer, a perfect Navigator, an excellent Seaman, and a good Man’, and asks for Hoskins to be given ‘any encouragement that can be shown him’. Perhaps not wishing to rely on the Navy Office in that respect entirely, he evidently went on to reward the master himself, by investing nearly a month’s pay in a valuable instrument. I hope to uncover more of their story. The second item is a manuscript (LOG/N/W/1), the log of John Dykes, which he kept as master of the Winchelsea in 1787. What most people notice first about this document is that Dykes served with the well-known – the by all accounts great – Admiral, then Captain, Edward Pellew. But the document is a gem in itself: apart from the usual entries one would expect in a log, it also contains a recipe for making vinegar and a ‘poetic epistle’ on Labrador which, curiously, was published by George Cartwright five years later [!]. master-Dykes-vinegar master-Dykes-poetical2There are also rhymed sailing instructions (though not of Dykes’s own composition) which helpfully explain that

From Cape Bonavista to the stinking Isles The course is North full forty miles Then you must steer away NE Till Cape Freels Gull Isle bears WNW Then NNW thirty-three miles Three leagues off shore lays Wadhams Isles.

Most endearing, though, is the scrap of dried moss, pressed carefully between two blank pages, that I like to imagine Dykes kept as a souvenir of the Labrador station. Dykes-moss2This document does not tell me so much about masters per se, but it helps me to understand – so I, the historian, flatter myself – what those peoples’ lives were like, what occupied their leisure hours, how they saw and interacted with the world surrounding them. The third item is another manuscript (DRY/10): the questions of a master’s exam for the Channel, as well as the correct answers. master-exam-02I won’t say much about this. Instead, I dare you to head to the Caird Library and see it for yourselves. Lena Moser is studying for a PhD at the University of Tübingen. She kindly agreed to write this post after giving a paper on her research at the Museum's history of navigation conference, 'Ideas in Movement', in April.