Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775 by Peter Earle

18 March 2008

A few months ago, I was doing a bit of reading on the shaky financial status of British East India Company in the years leading up to the American Revolution. Intriguing subject, but somewhat out of my usual areas of research interest, and so I was glad to have this book to look to when I needed to check a few day-to-day details about what it meant to be involved in merchant shipping in that particular time period.

Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775 by Peter Earle

From what I can tell, most of the fictional accounts of life on the seas in the Age of Sail tends to focus on two perspectives: pirates and navies. The careers of Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey make for good sea-tales, as do the adventure stories of pirates and privateers on the high seas, where everyone is out for a good fight and a well-taken prize. Merchant shipping, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have as much of the romance and glamour associated with navies and pirates. As such, a history book that focuses specifically on merchant shipping — whether of one or two ships owned by a single small-businessman to the vast fleets operated and administered by the powerful Dutch, French, and British East India Companies — doesn’t seem as easy to come by. Merchant shipping shared many aspects of lifestyle with the different navies or famous pirates, but there were also some noted and notable differences to consider. In this case, Peter Earle’s brief but detailed Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775 provides a sound introduction to the workaday life of the men who all but created the concept of international trade.

The book covers the many different facets of a typical merchant sailor’s life, with chapters that examine the routine (the daily workload and general prospects for advancement) and the basic financial (possessions and general wealth) aspects to the more extraordinary situations (shipwrecks, punishments, mutinies, and court trials) that a sailor might face. Earle draws mostly on the primary sources of trial records from the Admiralty courts, as well as various logs and journals and accounts of the day. One such set of accounts is the Lloyd’s List, by now one of the world’s oldest continuously-running journals (dating back to 1734), which features shipping news and other market information of interest to the merchants, traders, brokers, and insurance underwriters who frequented Lloyd’s Coffee House in the City of London. As such, Earle is able to examine the relationships amongst members of the crew and between the crew and the officers — mainly because important and enlightening information tends to come out in the middle of court case testimonies. The chapters are short and straightforward, generally free of nautical slang and jargon and quite accessible even to those who have only a basic knowledge of seafaring life.

One aspect of this book that I found particularly interesting but rather understated was the differences between general trading ships and slaving ships. I think Earle could possibly have looked into slaving ships in more depth, perhaps even devoting a specific chapter just to the social history of life aboard a slaving ship during the various stages of its route. The history of merchant shipping in the late seventeeth and early to mid-eighteenth centuries really can’t be studied without looking at the slave trade, and I think Earle’s book is at a bit of a disadvantage for not devoting more time or page-space to looking at it. It isn’t a disadvantage that truly detracts from the book, but I do think that the book really would have benefitted from a study of that particular aspect of trade in human cargo. In general, though, Sailors does just what it sets out to do, and the information within on the social history of English merchant shipping might easily appeal to anyone interested in a more rounded picture of life at sea the Age of Sail.

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