History of the World According to the Movies: Part 28 – The Age of Sail and Other Things

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I know that Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World takes place during the Napoleonic Wars, but if there’s any film that embodies the Age of Sail, it’s this one. Of course, this movie was based on the Aubrey-Maturin bromance series by Patrick O’ Brian with the characters played by Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany. Nevertheless, this is a fairly more accurate film than a lot of Age of Sail films Hollywood has made. Nevertheless, by the standards of his day, Jack Aubrey is a fairly good captain though the contentedness of his crew may not have been typical on a British war ship. I mean there has to be at least many British seamen on the HMS Surprise who didn’t want to be there since many were kidnapped by press gangs at the time, especially since the British Navy’s habit of abducting American sailors led to the War of 1812.

In a way, the age of Colonial Empire in movies could never complete without discussing the Age of Sail which spanned from the 1400s up to the mid-19th century. It was an era of great big wooden ships with high masts, billowing sails, and a crew of jolly old sailors. Of course, these ships were among the primary methods of long distance transportation for nearly 400 years and it’s usually with these ships that European nations were able to become rich, build navies, and create a colonial empire ushering an age of globalization. Nevertheless, naval strength in the Age of Sail also made countries powerful, explaining why Great Britain managed to become a world superpower with an empire that lasted so long. Since Hollywood has made pirate movies and adventure films in the era of colonization or Napoleonic Wars, you will certainly see ships like these time and time again. The Age of Sail is also a highly romanticized era because of how much it has been depicted in movies, books, and television despite that life aboard these sailing vessels wasn’t all that it’s cracked up to be since these were the days that people didn’t have refrigeration, modern medicine, proper sanitation, adequate pest control, or even swimming lessons. Oh, and there were so many things that could kill you.Not to mention, many of the ships in movies tend to look too much alike and are sometimes much bigger than what many of these seafarers would’ve actually used. Yet, this is mainly because smaller ships wouldn’t be good filming locations. Nevertheless, movies continue to romanticize this era and this is where inaccuracies come to play.

The Age of Sail:

Navigation:

Maps were always accurate and precise. (Many times they weren’t. Also, remember that until the mid-18th century, there was no such thing as longitude.)

Ships:

Steel haul tall ships existed in the late 1700s. (They came into fashion 100 years later.)

Late 16th century Dutch ships had arched type sterns. (They had high castle-like sterns. Arched type sterns came a century or two later.)

Wooden sailing ships sailed in every direction in all kinds of weather with the main and topsails square to the masts at all times. (They only did this when navigating by the wind in their favorable direction, and only in good weather.)

Fully rigged wooden sailing ships could be turned simply by spinning the wheel. (There’s a whole array of multi-man complex procedures to turn a ship, even for a close change. They didn’t operate like cars do today. Steam engines and electric motors didn’t exist before the 19th century.)

Disabling the rudder chain cables on a large wooden ship only took a single man a few minutes. (Disabling a rudder chain took a single man days and only with the proper implement.)

A large wooden ship could be successfully operated by a small crew. (I’m not sure if one could be operated by less than ten guys. Then again, one of Magellan’s ships was successfully crewed by eighteen guys by the end {though he had died in the Philippines}. Still, no pre-19th century naval officer would worry about two men trying to steal a ship because it couldn’t be crewed by two guys.)

All British Men of War ships were painted in the “Nelson Checker” pattern around 1720. (This pattern wasn’t common until the Napoleonic Wars when used by Admiral Horatio Nelson.)

18th century wooden ships had a Plimsoll line. (This wasn’t used until the 19th century.)

Wooden ships were always impeccably clean. (These were notoriously filthy and infested with vermin.)

Wooden ships always consisted in wood that was in the best condition whether submerged or not. (Wooden ships weren’t in nearly as ship shape upon returning. They had barnacles on the hull and perhaps rotting wood. Plus, if it’s a warship, there would need to be some repairs and cannon blasts through it. Also, a ship’s carpenter was perhaps the second most valuable person on the ship next to the doctor.)

Damage caused by naval warfare could be fixed in a jiffy. (Somehow in movies, the ship’s carpenters never seem to get killed or they’re able to patch up a ship very quickly. I don’t think fast repair work is possible without power tools.)

Sailors:

Most wooden-ship era sailors volunteered to go out to sea and were lawful, clean-cut, and loyal members of the crew. (Being a sailor was one of the shittiest jobs in the era of wooden ships. Most sailors in the Royal Navy were kidnapped by thugs as a four-limbed drunk at a local tavern and were forced to serve on merchant ships. “Pressed men” were paid less than volunteers {if paid at all}, shackled onto ships while on port so they wouldn’t escape, and were whipped for any minor offense in the navy rulebook they didn’t get to read. They also had little or no chance of advancement and lived in appalling conditions. And of course, they had to deal with storms, crowded quarters, being away from their families, and tropical diseases. 75% of pressed sailors were dead within two years. Also, many Golden Age pirates started out as British sailors.)

Most sailors were content with serving on board a ship. (Most ship crews weren’t really content because many sailors didn’t want to go to sea in the first place. The British Royal Navy recruited press gangs to kidnap four-limbed men on a regular basis. Also, the British Navy’s impressment of American sailors was one of the reasons for the War of 1812.)

Sailors mostly swabbed the deck on ships. (They did a lot of other stuff than just that.)

Most sailors knew how to swim. (Most of them didn’t and very few captains offered swimming lessons to their crews they didn’t really think it was worth it since swimming would just delay the inevitable or that it would encourage them to jump ship and desert when close to shore {remember this is a time when sailors were treated poorly and many were forced at sea against their will}. Many sailors usually expected a quick death if they were thrown overboard anyway. 16th century chroniclers of sea-life described that swimming and diving skills were valued because they were so rare.)

Drunken sailors were looked down upon. (Actually all sailors were looked down upon whether they were drunk or not. Also, officers thought a drunken sailor was less of security risk because drunk sailors were less likely to mutiny under horrific conditions. Yet, this doesn’t mean they were less likely to get flogged though.)

Most sailors were heterosexual and were willing to delay sexual gratification. (Maybe some sailors but it didn’t seem to prevent them screwing whores at ports, contracting STDs, and having a reputation of being sodomites. And sometimes in situations with a crew full of men, let’s just say there’s so many naval related gay stereotypes for a reason. Not to mention, there may be some gay homoerotic undertones in Moby Dick and Billy Budd. Make that what you will.)

Sailors were usually clean shaven by the time they returned home. (During the Age of Sail, most of them would’ve returned with a full beard since shaving requires fresh water and supplies were limited on a ship. Most pirate captains would certainly have had one.)

Most seamen were very healthy, well fed, and well cared for on a wooden ship. (Medicine before the 19th century wasn’t very reliable and naval seamen didn’t really have a long lifespan since there were so many ways to die on the ship like drowning, disease, starvation, or cannonball. Also, sailors on lawful vessels were usually treated rather shitty.)

Sailors almost never got seasick. (Many did including Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson {yet he was still a very capable officer who rose through the ranks and earned his noble title}.)

Seamen were punished by flogging most of the time. (They could also be tarred and feathered, keel-hauled, or other things and the whole crew was made to watch. Flogging was the most common punishment though and even that could be deadly. However, good captains would try not to punish their men this way unless it was necessary.)

Sailors on wooden ships always had quality food. (Maybe at first, but the quality would deteriorate as the voyage went on and could be infested with vermin. Yet, for some, the ship cuisine would’ve been better than what they ate ashore.)

All seamen were white. (There was a sizeable number of black sailors during the 18th century since officers were willing to take all the healthy four-limbed men they could get even if they were runaway slaves. Practically every harpooner in Moby Dick is non-white.)

There were no children on board. (There were powder monkeys who assisted gun crews, ship’s boys who carried ammunition, and boy cadets as young as twelve or nine. )

Officers:

Captains on ships usually dished out orders on deck. (They also relied on their helmsmen to do such tasks.)

Captains on wooden ships would halt a thousand man ship of the line battle to rescue a single enlisted man who had fallen overboard. (Captains would’ve done no such thing since a naval battle was impossible to stop. Also, seamen were viewed as expendable in those days. A ship’s carpenter or doctor was more likely.)

Sadistic captains got away with everything. (Captain Bligh would’ve been court-martialed for tying a guy to the masthead during a storm, which he most certainly didn’t do.)

There were no child naval officers. (Most Royal Navy officers up until after the Napoleonic Wars {as far as I know} started as midshipmen  as early as their teens or younger. Midshipmen could be as young as twelve or even nine while lieutenants could be as young as eighteen. Of course, many of these kids were from prominent naval families, aristocrats, or the professional class. Master and Commander is perhaps one of the few movies that shows this. So yes, many seamen had to follow orders from teenagers believe it or not.)

Weaponry:

Triple cannons could fire multiple shots around the 17th century. (Cannons were muzzle loading at this time and couldn’t be reloaded.)

No wooden warship ran out of cannon balls.

Sea battles were fairly clean affairs starting with cannons firing at close range eventually with crews engaging in close combat. (Most of the time there would be debris everywhere due to cannon balls at close range.)

Loading cannons on ships took seconds. (It took longer than that.)

Naval:

The 18th century British Navy used Semaphore code with holding two flags in different positions. (They set up different flags on the masts on ships.)

British fleets in 1720 could have some 10 3-decked ships in a single line. (The Royal Navy had only six of these ships on commission worldwide in 1720.)

Royal Navy officers could be promoted to Commodore during the 18th century. (This wasn’t a rank in the Royal Navy until 1796.)

Royal Navy officers could be promoted to Lieutenant Commander during the 18th century. (This wasn’t a rank in the Royal Navy until 1877.)

Royal Navy press gangs only kidnapped adults into naval service. (They also abducted boys as young as eleven to serve as powder monkeys or teenage seamen. Powder monkeys assisted gun crews and learned most of the ship basics but were paid little {if anything}, treated poorly, and were expendable. Most boy pirates probably started out as powder monkeys.)

Royal Navy midshipmen went to school to learn how to become officers during the Age of Sail. (They didn’t attend school but learned on the ship as children.)

Other:

Ship surgeons performed slow and careful surgery. (Most ship surgeons usually cut limbs as fast as they could in order to spare the patient extra pain because they didn’t have any anesthesia in those days {except maybe alcoholic beverages}. Nevertheless, I don’t think that kid in Master and Commander would’ve been so laid back while Maturin was taking his freaking arm off since the pain would’ve been excruciating. I’m surprised this boy wasn’t screaming like a little kid getting a vaccination.)

Natives:

‘Wild Indians” were vicious, or at least more vicious than Europeans.

Tropical island locals and Africans practiced cannibalism and were headhunters. (Not really. Also, accounts of cannibalism among Indians in the Caribbean were greatly exaggerated and stemmed from the notion of a tribal practice keeping the bones of one’s ancestors in their homes so their spirits could watch over them. There has never been any evidence of indigenous cannibalism ever found in the Caribbean.)

Native warriors were usually bare chested and were threats to civilized society.

Natives had loose sexual customs.

Natives were primitive and savage. (Many indigenous cultures were rather complex as well as sophisticated and not all consisted of hunter-gatherer societies.)

Only converting to Christianity made Indians less violent and savage. (I don’t think this is the case since Indians all had their reasons of whether to convert to Christianity. Indian women in French territories even had French husbands like Sacajawea.)

Indian princesses (or a chief’s daughter) usually ended up with a white protagonist. (Many cultures didn’t have hereditary royalty. However, there were plenty of normal native women who ended up with whites as well.)

Native women were scantily clad. (I’m sure some women from indigenous tribes wore more than a bikini made out of coconuts.)

Natives believed white people were gods. (White people would like think native tribesmen did. However, many natives weren’t that naïve.)

Native Polynesian women wore grass skirts and coconut bras, especially in Hawaii.

Miscellaneous:

Martini Henry rifles had repeating ammunition. (They were single shot breech loading weapons.)

Singapore was a metropolis during the 18th century inhabited by Chinese. (It was a minor fishing village called “Temasek.” Also, it would’ve been inhabited by Malays and nobody would’ve heard anything about it. Singapore as we know it was founded Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles {love the guy’s name} in 1819 on behalf of the East India Company.)

Archaeologists were adventurers who discovered legendary artifacts, lost cities, and fought bad guys. (Even in the time of Imperialism a lot of archaeologists weren’t like Indiana Jones. T. E. Lawrence may have been an exception of this, however. Still, there were plenty of archaeologists with not so glorious discoveries as well.)

Old timey big game hunters were real manly men. (Yet, they somehow put a lot of animals on the endangered species list. Nowadays, many are known as “poachers.” However, Lieutenant Colonel Patterson at least didn’t kill those maneating lions for sport.)

All adventurers, archaeologists, and hunters wore safari outfits in Africa. (Some were in conventional dress.)

In 18th century Tortuga, women could safely walk around without any fear of being raped. (Considering that this was one of those hangouts for pirates who had no qualms about murder and spend long periods of time without women around, would I consider Tortuga safe in the 1700s? Hell, no.)

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2 responses to “History of the World According to the Movies: Part 28 – The Age of Sail and Other Things

  1. I guess the sailors life has been a bit romanticized! Sounds awful! Don’t forget that many of them died of scurvy before they realized that they needed to eat foods that contain vitamin C during long voyages.

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