The precise span of his long and turbulent life is a matter of some dispute. Some say he is to be seen as early as 1577, among the 166 seamen who circumnavigated the globe with Francis Drake on the Golden Hind. He was certainly recognizable by the 1650s when Britain went to war at sea against the Dutch as well as the Spaniards. At Trafalgar, he emerged fully formed: the common man as national hero. What concerns us here, however, is an era – the century from 1740, when Foremast Jack, the man who went aloft under the British flag, established his country’s command of the oceans.
Also known as Jack Tar, his very name proclaimed him a man of the people – Jack being a generic term for the common man. Yet among them he was an outsider, almost another species. At a time when others of his class might never stir beyond their native valley, he roamed the world like one of the exotic creatures he encountered on his travels, returning home bearing fabulous tales – some of them actually true – as well as curious objects and even stranger beasts. Although while at sea he was as poor as any rustic labourer, ashore he knew spells of brief wealth. Then, fired up with back pay and prize money, he would eat, drink, cavort and fornicate like a lord. Habitually profligate and with a terrifying thirst for alcohol, he was loyal to his ship, his country and his king, roughly in that order. Most of all, though, he was loyal to his mates, and it was this kinship, as of a tribe, that made him capable of the endeavour and boldness that marked him in his golden age, under Horatio Nelson.
He was, simply, the most successful fighting man ever produced by his native land which, with its taste for booty, pugilism and foreign adventure, is saying quite something. So profoundly did he believe in himself, and so deeply did he awe the enemy, that defeat was never contemplated and rarely experienced. His spirit earned him the respect, the admiration, and sometimes even the love, of his officers.
It was not only in action that he was tested. Voyages of exploration, of trade and of imperial expansion took him to the farthest reaches of the globe. Jack was with Captain Cook in charting the South Seas. He joined in the discovery of a Pacific idyll, and helped to cast Captain Bligh adrift when the dream turned to nightmare. He went aloft in the East India Company’s ships, venturing to lands of outlandish peoples and mystifying customs. Among the cargoes he shipped were humans – African slaves to the Caribbean and convicts banished to the ends of the earth. In doing so he encountered perils every bit as dire as those he faced in battle; for if one thing about his existence is plain, it is that he was far more likely to be carried off by disease or shipwreck than by a cannonball.
The dangers and hardships – even sufferings – of his life are well known, and were certainly enough to deter most of his compatriots. Samuel Johnson spoke for baffled landlubbers in general when he declared: ‘No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a gaol; for being in a ship is being in a gaol, with the chance of being drowned.’ One clergyman who joined a man-of-war – and fled as soon as he was able – could not fathom how human beings dwelt ‘in a prison within whose narrow limits were to be found Constraint, Disease, Ignorance, Insensibility, Tyranny, Sameness, Dirt and Foul air: and in addition, the dangers of Ocean, Fire, Mutiny, Pestilence, Battle and Exile’.
Still, we do well to challenge received truisms that are confined to the wretchedness of existence below decks, most notably that glib old chestnut about rum, sodomy and the lash. While obviously there was a great deal of rum, many hands went years at sea without being flogged, and sodomy was a capital crime scorned by almost the entire tribe. The bleak monograph that portrays Jack as a hapless sufferer does no justice to his individuality. He might be a press-ganged hostage, yet he could also be an enthusiastic volunteer; as often as he was a noble simpleton he was a cunning devil; the drunken dolt was sometimes a thoughtful and, yes, literate, traveller. And at a perilous moment in Britain’s history, he showed a capacity for rebellion and defiance that utterly terrified his superiors and countrymen.
Stephen Taylor is a writer of maritime history, biography, and travel. He has worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times, The Observer and The Economist, and is the author of The Caliban Shore, Storm and Conquest, and Commander.