When you ask someone to visualise what they think life sailors during the Age of Sail were like, chances are that the images that they conjure up would be like a scene from Treasure Island, with swashbuckling pirates, scurvy ridden sailors drunk on rum, ridiculous ‘pirate accents’ where arrgghhh is every second word and the occasional flogging using the infamous cat o’ nine tails. Their way of life imply that they were free from the shackles of society, being able to live freely on the open seas. Though this may have some element of truth for pirate crews, their relatively relaxed organisation is in contrast with the disciplined European navies (though there were many overlapping experiences). The European navies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were formidable machines that projected the influence of their state around the world and as such their organisation were highly regulated to ensure their efficiency. Consequently, the social hierarchy often reflected the society of their parent state and this was especially true of Britain’s Royal Navy.
The Royal Navy during the time of Admiral Horatio Nelson (1793-1815) was one of the most formidable fighting forces in the world. Though the ships of the Royal Navy were formidable weapons platforms within themselves, it was the officers and sailors who made it such a powerful force. These men, nicknamed Jack Tars, came from a variety of backgrounds from across the society of Britain and this diversity is translated into the distinct differences in experiences of that the men which is a reflection of how society worked at the time.
So how was British society like during this time? The period that Admiral Nelson lived in is known as the Georgian period (named after Kings George I-IV) and it was a period of Enlightenment, Innovation and Revolution. Such radical phenomena meant that radical change shortly followed. Some examples of these changes include improvements in food production, medicine and sanitation. Consequently, this led to a dramatic rise in the population which rose from nine million in 1750 to over eleven million by the early 19th century. Innovations in industry and agriculture, combined with increased literacy and education meant that the middle class now had a greater influence in society with some even attaining enough wealth to rival that of the landed gentry. Unlike some other European states, though British society was rather class conscious, movement between classes were rather flexible. This meant that, with enough wealth and social connections, the lower classes could potentially climb to the upper echelon of society. However, despite this opportunity to climb the social ladder, the lower classes were often stuck in their poverty due to being unable to earn enough money nor make the right contacts.
As previously mentioned, the way that the Royal Navy was administered was a reflection of how British society at the time functioned. The officers came from the upper and middle classes and competed each other to climb up the ranks, and gain wealth and prestige while the sailors came from the lower classes of society and for the most part could not hope to make into the upper echelons. That being said, due to the nature of naval life, there were also various differences from civilian society.
As previously mentioned, the officers drew mainly from the upper and middle classes of society. As is still the case, even members from the Royal family joined the Royal Navy, with the future King William IV serving as a midshipman from 1780-85. Many younger sons of the aristocratic families, due to them not inheriting their father’s estates and titles, also found naval services appealing as it offered them a chance to gain fame and wealth. Unlike many other European navies, the officer corps was not exclusively the domain of the aristocrats and in fact the professional middle class (doctors, lawyers, ect) made up around 50% of the officer corps. This reflected British society’s relatively flexible freedom of movement between the social classes.
In contrast, the sailors were often from the same background of the ‘scum of the earth’ that filled Lord Wellington’s army. Other sources of sailors were orphans from Charitable Societies, non sailors who had lost their jobs and merchant sailors who were pressed into naval service. Just as in the civilian world, despite the relative freedom of movement between social classes, the sailors were rarely ever able to enter into the upper ranks. Also like in the civilian world, they were subordinated to the the upper and middle class authorities.
However, despite this inequality, the conditions of naval life often meant that the officers and sailors developed a respect for each other. Both share the hardships and hazards of shipboard life and as such it was necessary for them to be able to work together without much animosity in order to ensure efficiency. Additionally, the Royal Navy was moving towards becoming a meritocracy and as such many of the officers were promoted based upon their ability to lead and not just their wealth and social connections. Therefore, though for the organisation of the navy for the most part reflected contemporary British society, the conditions of service meant that the class divide was less wide compared to civilian society. Consequently, this efficiency meant that Britain was able to ‘rule the waves’ and create the empire ‘where the sun never sets’.
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