Tides in the Affairs of Men: The Social History of Elizabethan Seamen, 1580-1603

Clifton W. Potter, Cheryl A. Fury
2003 The Sixteenth Century Journal  
Early English maritime expansion, and, in particular, the Anglo-Spanish war, have been analyzed by generations of historians. Until recently, the focus has been placed on events and participants "at the top". In the following pages, we will revisit that period but we shall scrutinize it from a different perspective: this is an examination of the men of the seafaring community and their experiences during a particularly volatile period of maritime history. Without a doubt, the seafaring
more » ... seafaring community had to contend with simultaneous pressures from many different directions: shipowners and merchants, motivated by profit, hired seamen to sail voyages of ever-increasing distance which taxed the health and capabilities of sixteenth-century crews and vessels. International tensions in the last two decades of Elizabeth's reign magnified the risks to all seamen, whether in civilian employment or on warships. The advent of open warfare with Spain in 1585 ushered in two major developments. Firstly, there was the privateering war against the Spanish empire, seen by seamen as one of the few economic benefits of the conflict. Seamen, however, were not the only ones who went to sea for pillage and plunder: unprecedented numbers of landsmen were also anxious to participate in the very popular privateering war. This influx tested-the cohesion of the maritime community, largely unprotected by a guild or trade group. The other major development was the introduction of large-scale impressment, a iv deeply resented aspect of any naval war and one that brought uncertainty and great hardship to seamen and their families. During the second half of Elizabeth's reign, seamen were forced into their sovereign's serVlce in large numbers, a rude shock to labourers accustomed to a great deal of employment freedom. The Crown wrongly assumed that these men would be content to act out their parts in a play which it had scripted, wherein the needs of a state in crisis would take precedence over seamen's health and ability to earn a living. Without a naval caste of seamen, the Crown was frustrated by the intractability of a labour group accustomed to a high degree of "shipboard democracy" and a higher standard of working conditions. The relationship between the Crown and its seafarers was a "pullhaul" between a government beset by financial problems of fighting a protracted war on several fronts and frustrated by its limited infrastructure, and employees forced to work in dangerous conditions for substandard wages in an expanding economy. The stresses of the war years tell us much about the dynamic of the maritime community, its members' expectations and their coping strategies. What follows is an examination of a group of labourers whose livelihood, customs, and traditional freedoms were under attack. Unable to-take advantage of the increasing societal need for skilled seamen because of the power of the state, the growing numbers of "outsiders", and their weakness as a collective, seamen fought a defensive war: they tried to combat their deteriorating status by holding on tenaciously to their customs in an effort to survive their clash with the state. The fact seamen were ultimately successful is a testament to the tenacity of early modern work culture. v vi When I was pondering what to write about in the abstract for this dissertation, my husband suggested I could summarize my thesis as a work on "some guys, some boats, and bad food". While that synopsis contains a good deal of truth, I hope I have taken my analysis beyond those limits. This dissertation explores a number of themes involving the dynamics of the Elizabethan maritime community and the effects of war and commercial expansion upon that group. I have also endeavoured to understand seamen as part of the larger society. This is a result of my belief that naval and maritime history should be incorporated into the mainstream of historical scholarship rather than segregated, as has often been the case in the past. In addition to my analysis of seafarers, I believe this study also reveals much about the nature of early modern government and the deferential relationship of Elizabethan society. Like all historians, I hope to do my subjects justice and to interpret correctly the nuances of their relationship with each other, the Crown, and those ashore. After spending several years in this pursuit, it is my greatest wish to convey the seamen's understanding of their world and their circumstances to the reader. This dissertation is the product of living in close proximity with "my sailors". There are several people who aided and abetted us in our on-going love affair. I welcome the vii opportunity to thank those who have given me so much support during the conception, research, writing and revising of this dissertation. lowe a great debt of gratitude to my supervisor, J.D. Alsop, whose vast knowledge of the period and the subject have been invaluable. His excellent editorial skills and attention to detail have forced me to be more precise in both my writing and analysis. Jim's insights and the benefit of his own research have helped me see the larger significance of my own findings. I owe a great deal to McMaster University for their financial support and to the staff of the many libraries and record depositories who helped me in my searches. The staff at the Guildhall Library and the Greater London Record Office were especially helpful and generous with their time.
doi:10.2307/20061456 fatcat:tumz7nwttfhgjmojkm7zjabupe