Baynham, Henry. Before the Mast: Naval Ratings of the Nineteenth Century. London: Hutchinson and Company, 1971. 217 pp. Introduction, note on sources, naval chronology, illustrations, list of nautical terms, index.
In this sequel to From the Lower Deck, Henry Baynham strives to examine how the sailors of the Royal Navy adapted to service during the post-Napoleonic era. After the peace of 1815, the Navy reduced its manpower from a height of 145,000 to only 19,000 men, who adapted to new roles and new dangers.[i] Baynham argues that the sailors who served in the “New Navy” not only served in different roles than they had in the “Old Navy”, but they became a significantly different breed of men: more educated, less rough, and less unified than their earlier counterparts. Before the Mast is Baynham’s effort to show the Royal Navy of the nineteenth century “as the sailors saw it”.[ii]
The change in the type of men who became sailors was due to many factors, not the least the end of the Press Gang. This ended the conscription of merchant sailors at sea and ashore, leaving the only conscripts in the Royal Navy those unfortunates sentenced to serve time by a judge, and the boys of the Marine Society.[iii] These changes produced new recruiting challenges for ships’ Captains, but the new volunteer force developed over the next thirty-five years into a cohort of long-serving enlisted men. By the 1850’s, most sailors enlisted for multi-year stints followed by a pension after twenty-one years of active service.[iv] By this time, most sailors joined the service as boys after years of formal training, developing a new kind of professionalism and esprit de corps.
The Royal Navy of the Pax Britannica undertook a wide variety of missions, including anti-slavery patrols off West Africa and in the Persian Gulf, explorations of the poles, surveying the Pacific Ocean, and fighting ashore in a manner reminiscent of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Construction Battalions of World War II in the Crimea. Despite changes in mission and the end of conscription, the legacy of the Old Navy remained, including the punishment of Flogging Round the Fleet, in which the condemned was flogged on each ship of the fleet until they reached their total sentence. Flogging fell into disuse only in stages, first being removed from the authority of the Captain, then disappearing from the list of peacetime punishments in 1870, and finally completely abolished in 1879.
A major and continuing source of discontent among enlisted sailors of the Royal Navy through the 1860’s was lack of liberty ashore. Baynham’s primary dissenting voice regarding the positive changes in the Navy was John Tilling, serving on the Leander on the South American station. The crew of the Leander endured illness, desertions, lack of shore leave, and harsh discipline reminiscent of the Napoleonic Wars. Tillman at least eight floggings of men sentenced by courts martial during his time on the South American station.[v] Most of the sentences on the Leander were for the crime of desertion. Baynham asserts that the number of such punishments on Tillman’s ship was unusual for the Navy of the 1860’s, which records indicate only occurred for about 1.5% of offenses in the fleet.[vi] Tillman’s vessel was also unusual in that the crew mutinied over lack of shore leave and the harsh shipboard discipline. Despite Admiralty orders requiring that sailors not be kept aboard for more than three months without leave, many of the crew had not been ashore in sixteen months.[vii]
Other sailors provide a happier view of their service, but point to several items as necessary improvements for discipline and shipboard happiness. Drinking represented a significant contributor to breakdowns in discipline, leading the Admiralty to reduce rum rations throughout the century.[viii] While some sailors opposed this change, others like Sam Noble and Tom Holman were disciples of the temperance movements, and John Beechervaise noted improved discipline and fewer accidents as the ration decreased.[ix] Similarly, relaxing of rules for shore leave reduced desertion, particularly when men were able to visit family and friends between cruises.
Since Before the Mast focuses on enlisted men, Baynham predominantly relies on the letters and journals of seaman and petty officers. Although he found some of these documents in archives or as works published by former sailors, many came from a novel source. These include the anonymous pamphlet Seaman of the Royal Navy, A View from the Lower Deck by One who Knows, which Baynham contrasts with the more positive autobiographies of Sam Noble and Tom Holman. To gather additional material, Baynham resorted to the novel approach of publishing a letter in the Daily Express asking the public for assistance in locating recollections from family records. In this way, he obtained a large number of letters and journals that might otherwise have gone undiscovered.[x]
In areas not covered by the recollections of the Bluejackets, Baynham fills in gaps by resorting to descriptions of events and voyages provided by officers and other witnesses. One exemplary episode is his use of Captain (later Rear Admiral) Frederick Beechey’s account of his voyage north of the Bering Strait, which Baynham supplements with the accounts of John Beechervaise, Quartermaster in HMS Blossom. The Crimean War is an especially unusual event for Baynham since no first-hand accounts written by members of the Naval Brigade survive despite its valiant efforts at Sebastopol and other battlefields. To make up this lack, Baynham utilizes letters written by an anonymous member of the Rifle Brigade who fought alongside the sailors, providing a ground-level view of the Royal Navy in a “dismounted” role.[xi]
Despite the extensive use of primary sources, Baynham provides none of the footnotes, endnotes, or bibliography that Historians rely upon in evaluating research. This lack indicates that Before the Mast occupies the middle ground between scholarly and popular work. While avoiding excess patriotism in his accounts, portraying both the positive and negative aspects of life, including drunkenness, in the Royal Navy, Baynham nonetheless portrays the common sailor as an inventive, diligent, and reliable sort the British public can be proud to remember.