J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Jack Tar on the Web

British Tars, 1740-1790 is a blog with a nicely specific focus: images of British sailors in those busy decades of the eighteenth century. The creator, Kyle Dalton, is a Revolutionary War reenactor who worked at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.

Each entry is based on an image from that period that includes a sailor as either subject, background figure, or emblem. Dalton then offers a detailed analysis of maritime clothing, head to toe.

This collection of pictures reflect the same cultural figure that Jesse Lemisch wrote about in “Jack Tar in the Streets: Merchant Seamen in the Politics of Revolutionary America,” an influential William and Mary Quarterly article from 1968:
Here comes Jack Tar, his bowed legs bracing him as if the very Broadway beneath his feet might begin to pitch and roll. In his dress he is, in the words of a superior, “very nasty and negligent,” his black stockings ragged, his long, baggy trousers tarred to make them waterproof. Bred in “that very shambles of language,” the merchant marine, he is foul-mouthed, his talk alien and suspect.
Lemisch then wrote, “Clothes don’t make the man, nor does language; surely we can do better than these stereotypes.” He wanted historians to get beyond the upper-class notions of the time to consider those sailors as individuals with economic and political ideas of their own.

Likewise, Dalton’s blog starts with the common figure of the common sailor and then looks at the variety and evolution of those men over time. It’s quite a voyage.

5 comments:

John Johnson said...

I'm glad to see British Tars getting some wider recognition. I've been following it for awhile now and have found it both entertaining and educational.

Were you aware of Don Hagist's wonderful blog redcoat76.blogspot.com? He profiles individual British soldiers there.

J. L. Bell said...

I subscribe to Don Hagist's blog so I never miss an item. It's on one of the lists at the right under its formal name: British Soldiers, American War.

Kyle Dalton said...

Thank you for the nod!

I enjoyed reading Lemisch's piece, and was wondering if you had read Paul Gilje's 2000 article "Loyalty and Liberty: The Ambiguous Patriotism of Jack Tar in the American Revolution," and what you thought of it.

I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to (though not entirely a contradiction of) Lemisch

J. L. Bell said...

I hadn't read Gilje's article before, so I looked it up and read it today (P.D.F. download). Thanks!

I remembered reading some H-Net reviews of Gilje’s subsequent book, and Gilje’s response to those reviews. Like the article itself, those are very concerned with how his work fits in with what we might call the “Lemisch school” on British-American sailors.

Like you, I don’t think Gilje’s work is opposed to Lemisch’s, though it does reach some opposite conclusions. It feels more like an examination of the same subject and material with a more powerful lens, and that naturally produces a more detailed, complex, and nuanced view. The same sailors still have their own economic and political interests and views. Lemisch (writing from the 1960s left) emphasizes those tars as a crucial element of the American Patriotic movement and American history. Gilje (a generation later) points out how their immediate interests didn’t always align with serving the U.S. of A.—something Lemisch would agree with. The next step, if possible, might be a numerical analysis.

I suspect Lemisch might have made more of Gilje’s remarks on how American maritime officers demanded better treatment than ordinary sailors, and the stats on how many more officers escaped than men. Ebenezer Fox at one point wrote that he and his fellow seamen couldn’t organize an escape with an officer. I don’t think Lemisch would like that, but it does reflect eighteenth-century social hierarchies.

J. L. Bell said...

Oops! Lost the link for the P.D.F. download.