A life on the Ocean Wave


The 21st is the 210th anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar.
Nelson’s victory was the apex of Britain’s mastery of the seas which would go unchallenged until the battle of Jutland a century later.

This protected our commerce ; an essential for a trading nation recognised by Alfred The Great. By 1800 the Navy was maintained to be equal to the combined size of other navies.
This didn’t last into the 20th century by which time other powers with larger populations and greater resources -particularly USA and Japan – ennobled by the rout of the Russian navy in 1905- and the growing might of the German navy, competed.

PAX BRITANNICA –Britain’s peace
Because of this supremacy, Britain’s writ ran large over all the seas.
For example when Slavery was abolished in Britain and the colonies in 1807,
Navy ships intercepted, boarded and released slaves from foreign merchantmen. Some 25 ships were employed exclusively on this task, which was dangerous and nearly resulted in wars with USA and Spain.
We also pressed for international treaties to stamp out slavery and piracy and create international law at sea and the principal of arbitration to settle disputes following the CSS Alabama incident.

The well - known tale of Mutiny of the Bounty was referred to recently in our history in films. Contrary to the depictions of Bligh in 3 films, he was neither a tyrant nor cruel and was a brilliant navigator.

The films do, however, fairly describe life on naval ships in the 18th century.
At the height of the Napoleonic wars, the Navy required the some 80,000 men.
To supplement the supply of volunteers about a half of this compliment was met by impressment. There was no random conscription. However, the press was limited to ports and legally only merchant seamen and other seafarers could be seized.

Pay had been considered attractive compared to land occupations but by the turn of the 18th century rampant inflation had severely eroded pay. Following a mutiny at Spithead in 1797, pay was increased and other complaints attended to.
Prize money could be substantial. A quarter of the value of seized ships went to the captain and the final quarter shared between the crew.
When two Spanish frigates were captured by four men ‘o war in 1799, ordinary seamen received £182 each. Since a month’s pay was 25 shillings, that sum would equal more than 10 years pay. That sum was not typical of course and a sailor would have to be lucky and his ship would need to encounter a ship of an enemy nation unlike seaman of Elizabethan days who practised what was in effect piracy.
Additionally, he would need to serve in a frigate as ships of the line weren’t fast enough to capture merchant ships

The work of a seaman was not arduous since the compliment represented the number guns the ship carried. A 38 gun ship would have a crew of 200. Contrary to popular belief, sailors received good quantities of foodstuffs that the limited preservation would allow.

The standard of discipline in the Georgian Royal Navy is often unfairly portrayed as being wantonly cruel. It should however be set in the context of the times as life ashore was often harsh, for if you had no income you could starve or be hanged for stealing bread. In the navy hangings were rare and only for serious offences like mutiny.
A midshipman for example receiving 10 strokes of the cane for some misdemeanour would fare little better at public school.
More than 50% of floggings were for drunkenness –which reflected the copious amount of the alcohol rations
Tight discipline was very necessary in a warship, well drilled hands performing their duties, without hesitation, made for an efficient fighting ship
Nor were punishments confined to the lower decks; in 1756 Admiral Byng was shot on the quarterdeck of his own flagship for cowardice in failing to prevent a Spanish force from retaking Menorca.

Reforms in the 17th century made by Naval Secretary, Samuel Pepys meant that promotions depended only on experience and training. Unlike the class –ridden society on land where most positions, such as the army, could be bought, in the navy a master’s ticket for example was only awarded after passing examinations. When competitive examinations were introduced for the Civil Service in the 1880’s, the idea was so revolutionary it was satirised by Gilbert & Sullivan.
Whilst this meritocracy had some limitations, it meant that Nelson, the son of a curate, and Bligh, an able seaman could rise to the highest positions

Cook was a merchant seaman as a teenager and joining the Royal Navy showed a talent for surveying and cartography.
Recognised for his detailed mapping of Newfoundland, in 1759 he charted the treacherous entrance to the St Lawrence seaway so that the fleet could take James Wolfe’s army where they scaled the heights of Abraham ,defeated the French and turned French Canada into British Canada .
His three epic voyages sailing the oceans, twice circumnavigating the globe, contributed so much to navigation and science.
Yet James Cook was born in Middlesbrough, the son of a farm labourer and from such humble beginnings became the greatest seaman of the greatest navy the world had seen.