Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700–1750
Here is a letter that came out of the blue, from a former seaman. It has always meant a lot to me:
Nov. 23, 1992
I’ve recently read your book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. I felt I just had to write to thank you, and tell you that I thought it was absolutely fuckin’ brilliant! Outstanding!
I spent twenty years in the British Merchant Navy. I joined my first ship, (a conventional, five-hatch general cargo ship) as a boy of 17 in 1964. We went away for thirteen months, and went all over the place. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I did that trip in the catering department as a pantry-boy. That was enough to convince me that I wasn’t cut out to be a steward, waiting on officers! So, as soon as I got home, I went down to the Pool and changed over to deck, and shipped-out on my next job as a deck boy. Eventually I became an A.B.
I finally packed it in after three successive trips on container ships (such soulless vessels, utilitarian, lego-like monstrosities; totally lacking in character, and that profile of beauty, harmony, and elegance of earlier ships) which brought home to me the fact that it was ‘all over.’ All the old conventional cargo ships, which I had mostly sailed on, were gone by then, along with all of the old docks, and their communities, and most of the old seamen too of course.
It amazed me, on reading your book, to realize how many echo’s from that period were still around while I was at sea. I had first been struck by this when I read Richard H. Dana’s book, Two Years Before the Mast. But that was of a later period. Things like the mens’ attitude to the work, and going ashore etc. The structure of the working day, which was basically the same for me. (This was all very much changed by the container ships) And there were always interminable arguements and disputes about overtime, food, accomodation, working conditions, etc. The British Merchant Navy always lagged far behind most of the rest of Europe in its treatment of its seamen. That is something that can be said in its favour, the food, the pay, and accomodation are better these days. And so they bloody well should be. But if the price to pay for such things is ship-out in a ‘box-boat,’ no thank you. But I also can’t help thinking that it’s all come a bit late. Given the fact that Britain hardly has a merchant navy these days, or seamen to reap the benefits.
But with all this enormous change, there’s one thing that’s still the same, (and probably always will be) and that’s the attitude of the officers toward the common seaman. Even though for the most part British Merchant Navy officers would be from the same socio-economic background as the crew, they invariably strut around in their uniforms giving the distinct impression that, like the aristocracy, they think their shit don’t stink, and that they are our social, moral, and intellectual superiors. (I had to put a number of them straight on that score over the years.) And it was nearly always the case that when they realized that you didn’t accept this, and that you weren’t overawed and intimidated by their authority and uniforms, they really didn’t like it! Although, occasionally, it would lead to them treating you with a bit more respect, it usually lead to you being marked down as a ‘trouble-maker’ or a ‘bad influence’ on the rest of the crew. I met a few officers who were decent blokes, but they were few, and far between. I have to say that I’m sure a number of officers I’ve sailed with, had they been at sea in the period you wrote about, would have been thoroughly nasty and brutal bastards. Human nature hasn’t changed that much in the past three hundred years. By the same token, I’m sure I would’ve probably gone “upon the account”!
I love that phrase.
I’ve come across very few books about life at sea, of the period you dealt with, or any other for that matter, that have told it from the point of view of the common seaman. Yours is, by far, the best I’ve read.
Well, now I live over here. I’m from London originally but I hate it over there now. The noise alone, apart form anything else, is enough to drive you crazy. It gets so you can’t think straight. So I got out a few years ago. It’s nice and peaceful and quiet here. A beautiful part of Ireland, too. Rugged coastline, with dramatic cliffs, and quiet little bays & beaches tucked away. The sea is only a few hundred yards away, and you can hear it when it’s ‘up,’ with the wind in the right direction.
I’ve enclosed a copy of a photograph for you of my first job, the HUNTSVILLE. A bit blurred I’m afraid. This was taken during the trip I did on her.
Again, thank you very much. Be lucky mate.
Lots of love,
(Co. Donegal, Ireland)