setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

I finished reading this last night, the autobiography of a 17th century seaman called Edward Coxere (pronounced "Coxery"). It has humour and tension but clearly comes from a time when the novel as an artform was still in its infancy. It has the free-roaming quality of a picaresque as Coxere simply reports one episode after another. It's filled with wonderful detail and incidental glimpses into how people talked and behaved. Coxere describes being sent to France in 1647 as a child in order to learn the language by being brought up in a French household. It's not long before he goes to sea. The book shows how fluid was the national loyalty of a seaman at the time as Coxere served on Dutch, French, Spanish, and English ships.

As I was at first with the Hollanders against the English I continued in this frigate in the wars against the Hollanders till about the peace. I had not been long in this ship but I was made coxswain: so that I served several masters in the wars between King and Parliament at sea. Next I served the Spaniards against the French, then the Hollanders against the English; then I was taken by the English out of a Dunkirker; and then I served the English against the Hollanders; and last I was taken by the Turks, where I was forced to serve then against English, French, Dutch, and Spaniards, and all Christendom.

In one of the more amusing anecdotes, he describes going home to England at last where everyone, including his mother, thought for certain he was Dutch.

My mother, spying of us, says to the other woman, 'Here come Master Dehase with a Fleming. It may be they may bring some news of Ned.' she little knowing I was he. The old man bid me say nothing, he being pleased at the conceit. When we came to my mother, she looked on me, but knew me not, but asked the old man if he could tell no news of her child, not thinking her child stood before her. The old man bid her patience; she should well hear. This was to her but the old tone, I suppose. I discerned the yearning bowels of a mother, yet notwithstanding I kept myself undiscovered awhile, till at last I made myself known with much joy and gladness.

Yes, there was a time when "yearning bowels of a mother" could be written without thoughts of other connotations.

Coxere also describes the period of time he spent as a slave, having been captured by the Turks. As bad as he makes it sound, even worse is his imprisonment in England after becoming a Quaker and refusing to swear oaths.

He describes the personalities of different shipmates, including a captain who's constantly trying to get drunk. Several times he describes having to rig sails and whole masts in disastrous battles or during storms. At one point he describes holing up in a gunroom and drinking wine during an attack.

The copy I found for a few dollars on Amazon is a lovely little 1946 edition marked "discard" from a school library in Montana. It includes a foldout map and Coxere's original illustrations.

setsuled: (Mouse Sailor)

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.


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