Daniel

The Motley Crew: how did multinational crews arise and work?

9 posts in this topic

Apparently, it was no romantic fiction or P.C. kowtowing when Master and Commander showed the Surprise's sailors as every color and nationality you can imagine. According to Woodes Rogers, the privateer crew of the Duke and Duchess on leaving Bristol in 1708 numbered "333, of which above one third were foreigners from most nations." That begs some questions. How did so many foreigners get aboard? The obvious answer is from foreign ships docking in England, but that explanation won't do because the Navigation Acts didn't allow foreign ships to sell much of any important commodity in Britain. Were English ships picking up foreigners in foreign ports and then bringing them back to England?

Then also, how did they deal with the language problem? Did most of the foreigners speak English, or the English officers speak the crew's languages? On Navy ships, which were required to hold services in the Anglican rite every Sunday, did Scottish Presbyterians, Dutch Calvinists, Danish Lutherans, Portuguese and French Catholics, or even African Muslims participate?

And knottiest of all: it must have been inevitable, what with Europe's shifting alliances and the long communication lags, that England would occasionally go to war with a country whose sailors were still on English ships. What happened then? Did the foreign sailors consent to fight against their native countries? Were they imprisoned as "enemy aliens?" Traded for English seamen in foreign service?

Edited by Daniel

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Daniel, you always ask the most interesting questions! I'm not sure that there's a right answer to any of your questions below that could be written in such a short form as a forum post, but I have a few examples for you.

Then also, how did they deal with the language problem? Did most of the foreigners speak English, or the English officers speak the crew's languages?

Edward Coxere, seventeenth-century seaman and memorialist, served in ships of various different nationalities during his career. He was sent to France in his youth to learn French, but after going to sea he also became fluent in Dutch and Spanish whilst serving on ships of those nationalities. At one point he wrote: "but still, though I had French and English, I had Dutch to learn to understand those I was withal, which I soon got". I also recall Irving Johnson saying somewhere that he had to learn the names of all the lines on the Peking in German. There were, for example, 19 different nationalities speaking ten different languages (English, Dutch, Maltese, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, German, Italian, French, Danish) on HMS Victory at Trafalgar. It's inconceivable that all the officers learned all the languages to accomodate the crew, far simpler for all of the crew to learn English.

On Navy ships, which were required to hold services in the Anglican rite every Sunday, did Scottish Presbyterians, Dutch Calvinists, Danish Lutherans, Portuguese and French Catholics, or even African Muslims participate?

Thomas Lurting, another 17th-century seaman memorialist and a Quaker, mentions the Quakers not attending service with the rest of the crew, but holding their own private meeting: "The first thing observable was, they refused to hear the Priest..." and "it was reported in the Publick Place of Worship, that I was amongst the Quakers; at which, many of them left the Priest and his Worship, to come and see me". Interestingly, on Lurting's ship, the captain was a "Baptist Preacher".

And knottiest of all: it must have been inevitable, what with Europe's shifting alliances and the long communication lags, that England would occasionally go to war with a country whose sailors were still on English ships. What happened then? Did the foreign sailors consent to fight against their native countries? Were they imprisoned as "enemy aliens?" Traded for English seamen in foreign service?

I've just been doing some research on American PoWs held at Dartmoor Prison during the War of 1812. Most of them were seamen who had been captured, but several were men who had been serving in the Royal Navy at the outbreak of hostilities and were given the choice to become PoWs rather than fight against their country. Conversely, RN recruiters made regular appearances at the prison to encourage Americans to escape captivity by joining the RN.

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You know...reading Foxe's post reminds me of something, but memory of it is a bit vague... at least one of the surgeons whose journals I read served for a time with another European country's navy because he couldn't get a posting on an English ship. Since such things aren't usually of interest to me, I don't keep notes on them, but I want to say it was James Yonge. It also seems to me that William Clowes (late 16th century) may have served on another nation's ships at the beginning of his career as well. I know he read German, but I don't know if he spoke it or not.

Somewhere I also have a list of the extensive number of ships that Edward Barlow served on (it's in an appendix to his second book) and that may be of interest to you as well. I believe he served on some non-English ships during his time, although I am not entirely certain. I will try to remember to find it and scan it in a post a link to it here.

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American whaling ships (ref. Moby Dick) often sailed from New England ports with no more than a half-crew and picked up sailors on islands in the Caribbean, Polynesia, or wherever they sailed. The temporary sailors were dropped off at home on the way back. Many of these islands had a tradition of supplying sailors so there must have been a tradition of understanding simple orders, hand signals or the like. After all, you don't have to be fluent in a language to understand "all hands aloft!," "Shorten sail" or the like. When in the Army in the '60s, I knew many Puerto Ricans and others whose English was very shaky but had no trouble absorbing standard orders, drill and so forth. And probably, a few swift smacks from a rope's end helped.

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I am reading the trial of Bartholomew Roberts men and have found it contains a surprising amount of detail that the account included in the General History doesn't include. (Incidentally, this trial was published as "A Full and Exact Account of the Tryal Of all the Pyrates Lately taken by Captain OGLE", 1723.) I came across this, which has interesting ramifications for the notion that members of a pirate crew spoke different languages, at least in Roberts' crew.

"Harry Glasby (acquitted) swears, the Prisoner [Michael Mare] he is convinced was on board the Rover when she was taken, and made a Pyrate of, three or four Years ago, continuing with them 'till the Company broke up; that afterwards sailing in a Sloop from Martinico, and meeting with some of the same Pyrates he was formerly with, he joyfully embraced his being a second time Associate with them, none but himself being taken out of the Sloop, because it was against their Rules to take a Foreigner, which the Prisoner was, as well the rest of that Sloop's Company.
... The Prisoner pretended he could not speak English and being asked whether he could not swear in that Language? he readily understood the Question but answer'd, No, Mynheer..." (p. 38)

Mynheer is Dutch, so we're not exactly talking about a language sailors wouldn't have been exposed to here.

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Going a bit forward and out of the GAoP, but read R.H. Dana's Two Years Before the Mast ca. 1820's. Little of the daily grind changed on board sailing vessels until the age of steam took over and 19th century industrial revolutions changed the economic systems of the world. He gives great details on foreign shipmates and Sandwich Islanders employed as crew etc.

 

Bo

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While interesting, that is about 100 years after the end of the Golden age of Piracy and it is not a pirate ship. OTOH, as I said, my evidence is only from one ship - I don't believe there is that much information about the the makeup of various GAoP pirate crews.

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From Bucquoy, describing the order on Taylors ship in 1722:

"Eben so machte er es auch mit den verschiedenen Nationen; diese musste er so zu verteilen, dass sich allemal bei sieben Mann wenigsten drei Engländer befanden, von welchen er versichert sein konnte dass sie ihm treu wären. Auf diese Art waren die Engländer allezeit die mehresten, und wenn es darauf ankam die mächtigsten: de übrigen viere waren etwa ein Franzose, ein Schwede, ein Portugiese, usw. Es konnte nichts gerbt oder getan werden, wovon Tailor nicht so gleich Nachricht bekam; und durch diese Politik regierte er sie, ohne dass sie merkten, dass man auf ihr Tun und Lassen genau Achtung gäbe."

A little mixed up googeltranslation (but I guess you get it):
"Just so he made it also with the various nations; this he had to be distributed such that all seven men least three Englishmen were, of what he could be assured that they would be faithful to him. In this way the English were always the more most, and when it mattered the most powerful: de remaining fours were about a Frenchman, a Swede, a Portuguese, etc. It could be tanned or done anything which Tailor not equal received message so; and by this policy he ruled them without they realized that they were exactly respect to their actions and omissions."

 

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I realize those points, however, pirate or not, ship life and the structure of sailing ships' crews are still vastly the same across the ages as I stated. Sometimes one must remember that the "big picture" (i.e. the function of multi-national crews) has no boundaries of time and place, and the answers to certain questions can as often be found outside the realm of an extremely narrow study focus. Open to argument of course, but I am a licensed Social Studies teacher after all. Can't help but remind people to look at all options. Once you read sources from one period and compare with those of another, you will find that my thesis is sound.

 

Bo

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