I do a lot of research for my comic. Sometimes I think I’d like to put together some annotations just to show how much of it I’m not making up but generally I’m too busy working on the comic itself. Most of my research focuses on seafaring in the 17th century and in particular the English Royal Navy and if you ever plan on writing anything dealing with that subject there’s no book I can recommend more highly than The British Seaman by Christopher Lloyd (not the guy who played Judge Doom and Doc Brown). No other book has given me so much of exactly what I really need, which is the day to day experience of the average seaman and a real perspective on how England’s institutions affected people on a personal level. It makes use of diaries and journals of seamen from the time which I’ve tracked down to read in their entirety. One thing that becomes quickly apparent is that it was a really miserable life. The British Seaman quotes from the journal of Edward Barlow, who was a seaman for most of his life in the late 17th century:
I was always thinking that beggars had a far better life of it and lived better than I did, for they seldom missed of their bellies full of better victuals than we could get; and also at night to lie quiet and out of danger in a good barn full of straw, nobody disturbing them, and might lie as long as they pleased; but it was quite contrary with us, for we seldom in a month got our bellyful of victuals, and that of such salt that beggars would think scorn to eat; and at night when we went to take our rest, we were not to lie still above four hours; and many times when it blew hard were not sure to lie one hour, yea, often we were called up before we had slept half an hour and forced to go into the maintop or foretop to take in our topsails, half awake and half asleep, with one shoe on and the other off, not having time to put it on; always sleeping in our clothes for readiness; and in stormy weather, when the ship rolled and tumbled, as though some great millstone were rolling up one hill and down another, we had much ado to hold ourselves fast by the small ropes from falling by the board; and being gotten up into the tops, there we must haul and pull to make fast the sail, seeing nothing but air above us and water beneath us, and that so raging as though every wave would make a grave for us; and many times in nights so dark that we could not see one another, and blowing so hard that we could not hear one another speak, being close to one another . . . There are no men under the sun that fare harder and get their living more hard and that are so abused on all sides as we poor seamen, without whom the land would soon be brought under subjection, for when once the naval forces are broken, England’s best walls are down. And so I could wish no young man to betake himself to this calling unless he has good friends to put him in place or supply his wants, for he shall find a great deal more to his sorrow than I have writ.
My copy of The British Seaman is a 1968 edition and I’ve noticed the really useful books tend to be no newer than 1970. They’re often very cheap, too, on Amazon, because they’re from libraries trying to get rid of them. I wonder if this reflects diminishing interest in the details of how people lived. Another useful book I found is England’s Sea Officers by Michael Lewis—I have a 1948 edition which seems to be the newest edition available. Though one of the interesting things about it is comparing its political sensibility to that of The British Seaman. It reminded me of when I wrote about the 1955 film The King’s Thief and wondered at the lengths it went to craft a flattering fantasy version of King Charles II. I wonder if there was a greater desire before the 1960s to see royalty in a positive light. Take these two perspectives on the infamous Ship Money scheme under Charles I.
From England’s Sea-Officers:
It was this Commission which was functioning when the great question of Ship-money came up, and, this time, we may find something good to say about poor King Charles. He insisted on the building of the fleet in spite of a rain of criticism and even obstruction from the Treasury-controlled Board of Admiralty; though, since there really was no money available in the middle of the “Eleven Years’ Tyranny”, the equipment of the ships was shocking, and the payment of the personnel almost non-existent.
From The British Seaman:
The first three-decker, the Prince Royal of 1610, and the first 100-gun three-masted ship, the Sovereign of the Seas of 1637, which was the prototype of all first-rate line of battle ships for the next two centuries, were perhaps the most beautiful ships ever built in this country, but their baroque ornamentation, their garlanded ports and elaborately carved sterns made them useless as weapons of war. The Sovereign of the Seas was the result of the levy of Ship Money. No doubt the aim of such a tax was sensible in so far as it sought to make the nation as a whole, and not merely the ports, responsible for the upkeep of a naval defence force, but the date and the manner in which it was imposed was extremely unwise. The reputation of the navy was at its lowest, its national importance at its least. Buckinghamshire squires might well be excused for knowing nothing about it and caring less.
Twitter Sonnet #1010
A nose reflected by a grin awoke.
A thousand speaking facial features pooled.
They say as yet the mouth alone has spoke.
But shapeless lumps of clay’re never fooled.
From tiny parts of brocc’li trees it grows.
From traps designed to slide across the stage.
In shaking shapes they came in solemn rows.
The metal symbols ranged to guess their age.
The sound was like the word or air that sups.
A growing branch of Shallows groups the men.
At dawn the dizzy knight is in his cups.
Perspective sorts the day inside the inn.
The language made of shadow spilled a bean.
A passive shoot begins to grow unseen.