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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Sunday, January 08, 2023

From Experimental Seamanship to the Naval Art

Fans of the Age of Sail might enjoy reading Elin Jones’s article “Stratifying Seamanship: Sailors’ Knowledge and the Mechanical Arts in Eighteenth-century Britain” in the British Journal for the History of Science, accessible here.

As the abstract explains, in the mid- and late 1700s a few British “seamen with decades of experience on the lower deck of merchant and naval vessels” published books about the practical aspects of sailing large ships. Those titles were popular, going through multiple editions.

But after a few more years those authors were supplanted by “land-bound authors and naval officers” from the upper class. That change erased the first group’s emphasis on the collective knowledge and ingenuity of working sailors.

British mariners already viewed “seamanship” and “navigation” as separate areas of knowledge, divided by class. Young Royal Navy officers learned to manage the vessel from veteran sailors, but only officers were expected to know how to figure out where the ship was. For an ordinary seaman to appear on deck with a sextant was not only rare, but possibly mutinous.

It takes a while for the article to get through theories of knowledge to its evidence, but here’s a compelling example:
In 1792, William Nichelson, who had been a seaman on merchant ships before becoming master attendant at Portsmouth throughout the American Revolutionary Wars, published his A Treatise on Practical Navigation and Seamanship. . . .

Nichelson’s work was structured around occurrences and weather events he had encountered under sail and his observations on the best methods to rig, reef, furl, steer and haul, and to improve the ship whilst at sea. . . .

This is most thoroughly demonstrated in Nichelson’s forty-page recounting of the voyage of the East India Company ship Elizabeth from India to England in 1764, aboard which he had acted as master. Whilst sailing 650 leagues off the Cape of Good Hope, the crew of the Elizabeth had encountered a storm which had almost wrecked the ship, and required them to sail for thirty-five days back towards the Cape without a working rudder. Nichelson’s account of this period recounts the inventiveness and ingenuity of an experienced seafaring crew in the face of immediate danger. The ship again was represented as a site of experiment, as the author described in great detail the process by which the crew arrived at the invention of a temporary rudder, made by sawing part of the top mast and lashing it to the outside of the ship, which would form the main part of the new ‘machine’, then sawing an oak plank until it resembled a ‘key’ which could manipulate the mast's direction.
While old salts like Nichelson emphasized gaining knowledge through “experimental” practice, the succeeding set of genteel authors wrote of a “naval art” available to only a few.
This shift from a prizing of collective manual labour to individual mental acumen is further represented in a 1793 publication of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce which details the ‘invention’ by Captain Edward Pakenham of ‘a substitute for a lost rudder’. The invention is remarkably similar to that described by Hutchinson and Nichelson several years earlier, but the account given of its creation is very different. Whilst Nichelson's representation of events emphasized the work of the crew in pooling their experience to arrive at the invention of their new ‘machine’, Pakenham's account describes him as a ‘highly-esteemed inventor’ and includes a plan of ‘my machine’, which he seems miraculously to have devised and wrought single-handedly.

The plan for a temporary rudder is almost identical to that designed by Nichelson's crew, but it would come to be known as ‘Pakenham's Rudder’, described as ‘genius working for the benefit of humanity’, and accordingly awarded a gold medal by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
There are no American examples in the article, but it put me in mind of how Capt. Timothy Folger of Nantucket told his cousin, Benjamin Franklin, about the Gulf Stream. Franklin sent his first report on this ocean current to London in 1768. British authorities mostly ignored it. Franklin ended up republishing his map in later decades in France and the U.S. of A.

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