Essential Information

National Maritime Museum

02 Oct 2013

The Sea-mans Dictionary: or, an exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a shippe : together with an explanation of all the termes and phrases used in the practique of navigation by Sir Henry Mainwaring (London, John Bellamy, 1644) – library reference PBD7424 and PBE6223

The Seaman's DictionaryOur item of the month is “The Sea-mans Dictionary : or, an exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a shippe” compiled by Sir Henry Mainwaring (or Manwayring as it spelt in the title page). Although it was written in 1623, the book was only published in 1644. It is considered the first authoritative treatise in seamanship.

The Seaman's Dictionary Sir Henry Mainwaring had a colourful life as a pirate and a naval officer. The famous Jacobean pirate was born in 1587 near Ightfield, Shropshire. Although he studied at Oxford and trained as a lawyer, in 1610 he was commissioned to capture the notorious Newfoundland pirate Peter Easton but failed. He became a pirate after a mission in which he would accompany Sir Thomas Sherley to Persia was blocked by Spain. The Spanish navy became the main target for his corsair-like activities and many claimed he never attacked English ships. Eventually, after many complaints by France and Spain, King James I offered him pardon if he gave up piracy. He came back to England in 1616 where he was knighted 2 years later. Shortly after, Mainwaring wrote his Discourse on Piracy dedicated to the king, showing his gratitude for his pardon.

Mainwaring was Lieutenant of Dover Castle from 1620 to 1623. While there he wrote the Seaman’s Dictionary, although it was only published more than 20 years later. Mainwaring went on to have an active political and naval life, as he served as captain of a few naval ships and was elected as a member of parliament. Having survived his wife and daughter, he died in 1653 with very little money to his name although he was considered one of the greatest seamen of his age.

The Sea-mans Dictionary contains 118 pages filled with descriptions of terms relevant to seafarers in the 17th century. It is has a few decorative illustrations and initials and a quite a flexible approach to spelling! It is only 20 cm high which is quite handy as it was easy to carry and sailors could have a copy of as a sort of handbook with them when on board. One of the Library's copies of the 1644 edition is currently stored in a small box, having lost its leather cover at some point in the last 350 years....

Although Henry Mainwaring’s work was innovative, the dictionary format was not new. After the first alphabetical dictionary in English was published in the early 17th century, many authors copied the format as it allows a simple and organized way of instruction and collection of information. As the terminology of sailing and navigation can be challenging even for experienced seamen, let alone landlubbers, nautical dictionaries were very useful then and still are today. More examples can be found in the online Library Catalogue by searching for the UDC reference 800.866.

The entries in the dictionary do not simply offer synonyms, but rather they are definitions within the context of the seafaring world. The purpose of the book was to instruct those gentlemen who were not familiar with the language of seamen. In the preface Henry Mainwaring states that “this book shall make a man understand what other men say, and speak properly himself; which how convenient, comely, and necessary a thing it is, all men (of sense) do know”. He believed those who read his book would be better seafarers.

The Caird Library currently holds 3 different editions of the published version of The Sea-mans Dictionary. The 1644 edition includes an index of the words it contains, unlike the other editions we hold (1666 and 1670). The 1666 edition is actually quite rare, as most copies were lost in the Great Fire of London. So valuable was this publication that during the Dutch wars there two, possibly 3 reprints. The National Maritime Museum also holds a copy of one of the original manuscripts of The Sea-mans Dictionary (archive reference LEC/9). When it was first compiled in 1623, it was freely circulated among naval commanders at the time, some of them even taking it to sea, although most if not all of those manuscripts are in folio size, so they don't have the same compact nature as the published version, though perhaps they are displayed to better effect on the armchair sailor's bookshelf!

In 1921, the Navy Records Society reprinted The Sea-mans Dictionary by comparing and collating the text of the manuscripts and published editions and modernised the spelling. However, the work of the NRS showed that the 1644 edition to had many serious errors when compared it to manuscript versions. The publisher also included an extract from ‘the victory of patience’ 1636 in the 1644 edition, although that was left out of the reprint as it was not present in the manuscripts. It is not clear why the book was not published for 20 years. It is possible that it was originally intended for the Duke of Buckingham only, who was Mainwaring’s patron and to whom a dedication is given in the earliest known manuscript version of the dictionary which is omitted from other manuscripts and printed editions. Perhaps the upheaval of the English civil war mean that the project was 'shelved'...

A Brief Abstract The Sea-mans Dictionary is evidence of the many changes in the seagoing trade during the 17th century. It was written by a naval officer who had been a pirate and who recognized the need for clearer directions in the training of new seamen. The 17th century saw a dramatic increase in numbers of seamen. It is estimated that there were between 3,000 to 5,000 sailors in England in 1550 but by the first decade of the 1800s that number had increased to something like 140,000. The 17th century also saw great changes on the Royal Navy’s administration and it became the largest industrial organisation of the Western world in the 18th Century. Works like The Sea-mans Dictionary tried to organize the profession and were necessary to standardize instructions. The dictionary served as a resource to many seafarers.

If you would like to know more about Sir Henry Mainwaring and his works, we have a range of resources in our library collections, which are available to be seen in the Caird Library’s reading room.

Nabila, Library Assistant

Published in 1644

Manwayring, Henry, Sir, The sea-mans dictionary : or, an exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a shippe : together with an explanation of all the termes and phrases used in the practique of navigation (London, John Bellamy, 1644) – library reference PBD7424 and PBE6223

Published in 1666

Manwayring, Henry, Sir, The sea-mans dictionary : or an exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a ship, together with an explanation of all the termes and phrases used in the practique of navigation (London, G Hurlock, 1666) – library reference PBE5187

Published in 1670

Manwayring, Henry, Sir, The sea-mans dictionary : or an exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a ship. Together with an explanatios [sic] of all the terms and phrases used in the practick of navigation (London, Benjamin Hurlock, 1670 – reprint of 1667 edition) – library reference PBE5188 and PBE6213


  • Manwayring, Henry, Sir, The life and works of Sir Henry Mainwaring (Greenwich, Navy Records Society 1920-1922) – 2 volumes – library reference PBE1842/1-2
  • Ogborn, Miles, Global lives : Britain and the world, 1550-1800  (Cambridge University Press, 2008) – library reference PBH1899
  • Harris, G. G., ‘Mainwaring, Sir Henry (1586/7–1653)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [, accessed 26 June 2013]

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