© Duane A. Cline 1999
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17th Century Navigation
In much of the literature concerning the early American colonists we are simply told that they "sailed" from one place to another. We get the hazy notion that the sailors simply boarded a ship, set sail and went where the wind took them as they explored the coastal waters. We are seldom told that the officers and crew on those ships were intelligent men -- some of the officers were well-educated in colleges and universities. The others learned their skills from a life at sea.
It was not unusual for a young boy of 8 or 12 years of age to go to sea as a cabin boy. There might be several young boys on a ship at any given time. It is not well known that these young boys were to meet every Monday at the main mast or in the officers' quarters for lessons. The officers in charge of educating and training these young boys probably taught them the rudiments of reading, using hornbooks. They might also have taught them the basics of arithmetic, which would be essential if they were to become master mariners. Much of the navigational calculation needed would involve trigonometry.
In addition to the basic education, the young boys had to learn the necessary skills to serve on board a ship. One of the first things they had to learn was the 32-points of the compass on the compass rose. In addition, they needed to know how to keep time with the aid of sandglasses; how to read the correct time with a sun-dial; how to check the speed of travel with the log-line and half-minute glass; and how to record the information on the traverse board.
That was only the beginning. They had to know every sail and its proper name; every line in the rigging, its name, its function and its location at the pin-rail. It must be remembered that there were about 75 different lines controlling the setting of the sails. A good seaman had to know exactly what line to work and where to find it quickly. In other words, a sailor had to know the ship like the back of his hand.
If a young sailor showed a capacity for learning, the officers might begin to teach him more advanced mathematics which would be needed in the use of such navigational instruments as the astrolabe, the nocturnal, the cross-staff and back-staff, tide computers and so on. He would also have to learn the use of declination tables for converting his calculations according to date, time and location. All of these things would determine the exact latitude and longitude which had to be known in directing the course of the ship.
In his "Sea Grammar," Capt. John Smith provides us with a basic list of navigational instruments which he believed should be on a ship in his day. His list includes the following:
|Dipsie line ["deepsea" line for greater depths]|
MATHEMATICAL & NAVIGATION WORKS
In addition to the basic instruments, John Smith also gives us a list of important works on astronomy and mathematics which he believed to contain essential knowledge for a ship master and his officers. The list in itself would be meaningless to the modern reader. Therefore, following Smith's list, you will find a few notes on the works and their authors, which should give you an idea of the depth of knowledge which the officers of a ship in those times would be expected to have at his command. Smith's list is as follows:
1. Edward Wright, a graduate of Cambridge University in mathematics, turned out textbooks, designed navigational instruments, and lectured on mathematics. One of his pupils was Prince Henry, the son of King James I. In 1599 he published a book entitled Certaine Errors in Navigation, which contains important sections on instruments and their use. He made many astronomical observations and drew up tables of computation. He also wrote concerning the use of the terrestrial and celestial globes which had been developed by Emery Molyneux.
2. John Tapp was a mathematical practitioner of that day who was also a publisher of navigational books. He filled a real need when he began the regular publication of an almanac which contained all of the tables he thought would be useful and necessary to seamen. In 1596 he edited and published a book entitled The Arte of Navigation, which was an English translation by Richard Eden of Cortes's work which had been published first in 1579.
3. A Regiment of the Sea by William Bourne was published in 1574. In it Bourne details the use of many navigational instruments. In it is the first mention of the log-line.
4. The Seaman's Secret, was written by John Davis and published first in 1595. Davis had spent much of his life at sea. He was recognized by the leading men of his day for his skill and knowledge of navigation. He was the inventor of the back-staff, sometimes called the Davis Quadrant. He explored the northern coast of America looking for the north-west passage, keeping a day-to-day journal. In his Seaman's Secrets he gave many extracts from that 1593 journal.
5. Edmund Gunter was a professor of astronomy at Gresham College in London. He published works based on computations of the first logarithmic tables of sines, secants and tangents. He developed some instruments for navigation and surveying which were of great importance. His sector was actually the fore-runner of the modern slide-rule.
6. Robert Hues was educated at Oxford University and wrote on the use of Emery Molyneux's Globes (terrestrial and celestial) in 1594. It is thought that he might have given direct mathematical instruction to the colonists of New Virginia since his patron was the Earl of Northumberland, which would have given him a direct connection to those early settlers.
The point of all of this is to demonstrate the extent of knowledge required in navigation. There would have been a crew of about 25 to 30 men on a merchant ship the size of the Mayflower.
THE CREW AND THEIR DUTIES
THE MASTER - Christopher Jones
The master's duty was to command everything on board his ship. He told the officers to what port he wished to go. The Master's place was on the half-deck.
[NOTE: Remember that the superior officer in charge of merchant ship was called the Master.]
THE MATES - John Clarke
[There were others. We are not certain of their names. Thomas Clarke may have been one. We also have the names of Andrew Williamson and Thomas Jones, who may have completed the compliment of four mates on a ship.]
The mates are second in command only to the master. The mates are to direct the course and command all the sailors in the steering, trimming, and sailing the ship. The mate's place is in the midship.
THE STEERSMAN AND CONNER
[Perhaps one of the mates or master mariners served as steersman.]
The steersman was the man who served at the whip-staff, or steering mechanism. He could not see where the ship was headed from his location on the 'tween deck. His view was obstructed by the forecastle and the main mast which was directly in front of him. Therefore, it was necessary for him to receive direction from a man on the deck above him. That second man was called the conner. The term "conning" is still used in the navy today.
[One of the mates may have served in this capacity.]
The pilot took charge of the ship when they were about to make land. It was his job to take the ship into safe harbor.
THE SURGEON - Giles Heale
The surgeon was exempted from all duties other than attending to the sick and caring for the wounded. Whenever possible the surgeon was expected to have a certificate from the Barbers' Surgeon Hall to prove his sufficiency. He was also expected to have a surgeon's chest, which was well stocked for both physic and surgery. He had to take into account the clime into which the ship would be traveling and stock his supplies accordingly.
THE MASTER GUNNER - [Name unknown.]
The master gunner had charge of the ordnance and shot, powder, match, ladles, sponges, worms, cartridges, arms and fire-works.
GUNNER'S MATES - [Names unknown.]
The rest of the gunners or quarter gunners received their orders from the master gunner according to directions, and were required to give account of their stores.
THE CARPENTER - [Name unknown.]
[They were generally nick-named "Chips."]
The carpenter and his mate were to have nails, clinches, roove, and clinch nails, spikes, plates, rudder irons, pump nailes, skupper nails and leather, saws, files, hatchets and any other needed tools which would be needed in caulking, breaming, stopping leaks, fishing, or splicing the masts or yards as occasion required. He was also required to give an account of his stores.
THE BOATSWAIN [BOSUN] - Robert Coppin
The boatswain was to have charge of all the cordage, tackling, sails, fids, marling spikes, needles, twine, sail-cloth, and rigging for the ship.
THE BOATSWAIN'S MATE - [Name unknown.]
The boatswain's mate was in charge of the long boat, for the setting of the anchors, weighing or fetching home an anchor, warping, towing, or mooring. He was to give an account of his stores.
THE COOK OR STEWARD - [Name unknown.]
[The cook was generally nicknamed "Cookie."]
The cook was to prepare and deliver out the food according to the master's directions, and mess them four, five, or six at a time as the men were free from duty.
THE QUARTERMASTERS or MASTER MARINERS - [Names unknown.]
We know, however, that the Pilgrims hired two master mariners who were to stay with them in the New World. Those two men were John Alderton and Thomas English.
The quartermasters were to have the charge of the hold in the matter of stowing supplies. They were also responsible for trimming the ship in the hold [some of the rigging lines were attached in the hold area]. Their men were also called to serve on watch. Their duties also included fishing, and for this purpose they were required to have a seine, a fish gig, a harpoon iron, and fish hooks, for all of the various breeds of fish which they might encounter on a voyage.
THE COOPER - John Alden
The cooper was to look after the casks in the hold and to check their hoops regularly for leakage or spoilage. It was his job to stave or repair the buckets, baricos, cans, steep tubs, runlets, hogsheads, pipes, butts, etc., for wine, beer, cider, beverages, fresh water, or any liquor.
When the ship reached land, it was his job to see that enough oak was cut and prepared to send back on the ship to replace all of the wood which had been used in staves for barrels, hogsheads and casks on the voyage. England was very short on wood at this time in history, and it was very important to replace any wood lost in shipping of these wooden containers.
THE SWABBER - [Name unknown.]
The Swabber was in charge of scrubbing the decks and keeping the ship clean. Every Monday a liar was placed under his command. The Liar was to hold his place for a week. The seaman who was first to be caught in a lie each week, was so proclaimed at the main mast (every Monday) by a general cry, "a liar, a liar, a liar!" He was then placed under the Swabber's command. It was his job to keep the beak head and chains clean. The beak head was the location of the holes where the crew relieved themselves -- in other words, the latrine. The navy word head, which comes from this old term, is still used by seamen today.
THE SAILORS - [Names unknown for the most part.]
The Pilgrims hired two ordinary seamen to stay in the New World. The names of these two were John Ellis and William Trevore.
The Sailors were to be the older and stronger men who would do the hoisting of the sails, getting the tacks aboard, hauling the bowlines, and steering the ship when needed.
THE YOUNKERS - [Names unknown.]
There was a young sailor named by Winslow and Bradford. The young sailor who taunted and cursed the Pilgrims before he died on the voyage was named Richard Slaterne. Since he was only sixteen, he may have been a younker or a cabin boy.
The Younkers were the young men (sometimes called "the foremast men") who took in the topsails, or top and yard, or furled the sails, or slung the yards, bousing and trussing. They might also take their turns at the helm.
Last modified October 28, 1999
Webmaster Dave Lossos