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One of the most familiar icons of British maritime history is Jack Tar, the sailor.
We don’t know for sure where the moniker ‘Jack Tar’ come from. The word ‘tar’ as a familiar term for a sailor probably dates back to the seventeenth century. It was sometimes prefixed by ‘jolly’. Tar, of course, was pretty pervasive on board ship, used as a waterproofing agent (tarpaulin) and by a seaman to dress his queue, his clubbed plait of hair. ‘Jack’ was frequently a generic name for the common man. The term ‘Jack the Tar’ was used in an engraving of 1756 about the Seven Years War. And in 1770 an essay compares someone to ‘a Jack-tar on the quarter-deck.’
A Jack Tar was said to be:
Begotten in the galley and born under a gun
Every hair a rope yarn
Every tooth a marline spike
Every finger a fishhook
And his blood right good Stockholm tar
The period in which I’m particularly interested, and which is the setting for my Thomas Kydd series, is the zenith of the Age of Sail (1793-1815). It coincides with the monumental strugle for empire between Britain and Napoleonic France.
In the bitter French wars at the end of the 18th century, there were, out of the six hundred thousand or so seamen in the Navy over that time, only about 120, who by their own courage, resolution and brute tenacity made the awe inspiring journey from the fo’c’sle as common seaman to King’s officer on the quarterdeck. This meant of course that they changed from common folk to gentry; each became – a gentleman. And that was no mean thing in the 18th century. And of those 120, a total of about 22 became captains of their own ship – and a miraculous three, possibly five, flew their own flag as admiral!
It’s important to take account of the historical context in which Jar Tar lived. Conditions aboard were hard, but for the times by no means extreme. On the land there was no real security for the working man; a full belly at the end of a hard day was never certain, and food was generally of poor quality. At sea, the meanest hand could rely on three square meals a day and grog twice – and free of charge, something a ploughman in the field or redcoat on the march could only dream about.
Accommodation at sea was far cleaner than the crowded bothies and stews of the city and with half the men on watch it has been remarked that the 28 inches of hammock space per man compares favourably with that of a modern double bed. It may be a life we couldn’t tolerate today, but for the eighteenth century it was not horrific.
Jack Tar’s world, the lower deck, was a unique, colourful and deeply traditional way of life, with customs and attitudes hallowed over the centuries. A young sailor learned many things along with his sea skills: handicrafts ranging from scrimshaw to ships-in-a-bottle, well-honed yarns whose ancestry is lost in mists of superstition, and most valuable, the social aptitudes to get on with his fellow man under sustained hard conditions.
Individualism – a trait shared by all nations in a universal sea ethos – made for strong characters and sturdy views and makes a nonsense of portrayals that have them otherwise. There could be no doubts about the man next to you on the yard or standing by your side to repel boarders; they were your shipmates, and a tight and supportive sense of community arose which only deepened on a long commission, far waters and shared danger. Then, as now, the sea was a place to find resources of courage and endurance from within yourself, to discover the limits, both in you and in others.
Prize money was an obvious incentive to Jack Tar – all seamen would have before them the example of the capture of the Spanish Hermione, which left the humblest seaman with forty years’ pay for just a few hours work. Such riches were rare, but by no means unknown – yet this does not explain why the blockading squadrons, storm-tossed and lonely with never a chance of a prize, still performed their sea duties to a level that has rarely been seen, leagues out to sea and out of sight, executing complex manoeuvres without ever an admiring audience.
A more universal reason is perhaps the fact that there was a simple and sturdy patriotism at work; in the years since Drake, the seamen had evolved a contempt for those foreigners who dared a challenge at sea, and in the years of success that followed, it became a given that the Royal Navy would prevail, whatever the odds. In the century up to Nelson this became a ‘habit of victory’ that gave an unshakeable confidence in battle, every man aware that he was a member of an elite with a splendid past that it would be unthinkable to betray. This habit of victory produced some incredible results. For example, in the whole 22 years of the war, the Royal Navy lost 166 ships to the enemy. In the same period no less than 1,204 of the enemy hauled down their colours in return – seven times their number!
‘Aft the more honour, forward the better man!’
The men on the lower deck who helped achieve these odds were exceptional seamen, tough and loyal characters who have contributed to a sea culture that has flowered and endured over the centuries. They’ve often been painted as mere brutes but that is certainly not the case. It’s time for the real Jack Tars to step out from the shadows and take their place among the heroes of the age. Nelson was adamant, and I have his words as the dedication to my first book, speaking of the officers aft on the quarterdeck and the men forward in the fo’c’sle; ‘Aft the more honour, forward the better man!’
As an aside, one of my most abiding images of Jack Tar is something that happened just before Nelson was finally laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral. The solemn funeral service lasted over four hours. Beneath the dome of St Paul’s hung a chandelier of 130 lamps, and below the floor of the aisle a special lift had been built to lower the coffin into the crypt. Then, at the last moment, when the 48 seamen from Victory were to fold the battle ensign and lay it upon the coffin they turned on the flag and tore it into pieces, as a remembrance for each man. An impulsive, emotional initiative worthy of Nelson himself.
A similar article was also posted at English History Authors Blogspot
Poster: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Pascoe: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Nelson’s funeral: (Image: By Augustus Charles Pugin.Neddyseagoon at en.wikipedia. Later version(s) were uploaded by Gump Stump at en.wikipedia. [Public domain or Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons)
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