Spinning a Yarn: Maritime History in the Age of Sail

Common sailors had their own ways of recording maritime history during the Age of Sail, in colorful and surprisingly practical yarns.

Sailing ship

Spinning a yarn or two during routine work and in off hours was an integral part of shipboard life in the Age of Sail.

Photo by Fotolia/James Steidl

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Marcus Rediker offers a dramatic view of the Age of Sail in Outlaws of the Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2014) through the stories of common sailors, slaves, indentured servants, pirates, and other outlaws. He demonstrates the importance of maritime history in understanding the formation of the modern Western world, from the bottom up. The following excerpt from Chapter 1, “The Sailor’s Yarn,” deals with the development of a distinct storytelling genre among sailors.

Maritime History According to the Sailors

Let us explore briefly the genesis of the sailor’s yarn, which grows from four related worlds of work: textile manufacture, fishing, rope making, and seafaring. The term “yarn” in its original definition refers to spun fiber—cotton, wool, silk, or flax—prepared for use in weaving or knitting. On the eighteenth-century waterfront the meaning shifted to cord and rope: a fisherman’s net is made of yarn, as are the strands (eighteen-, twenty-, and twenty-five-thread yarns) in rope making. We are getting closer to the ship.

“Yarn” soon takes on a meaning in nautical slang: spinning a yarn is telling a story or tale, usually one of maritime adventure, about dramatic shipwrecks, bloody battles, tyrannical officers, or determined resistance. These were often long, complex, and colorful narratives, incorporating humorous, marvelous, and fantastic elements as well as communal lore, practical knowledge of class and work, and death-defying experience. The yarn is perpetually invented and reinvented in each and every maritime setting, whether at sea or ashore, as individual storytellers add their own talents and fashion their tales for an ever-changing audience.

The maritime story is called a yarn because of a specific labor process on the ship, where work was collective, lonely, and noncontinuous. Ships were isolated for long periods, and the crew lived in close, forced proximity. Many times there was nothing to do. This could happen in the doldrums, when there was little or no wind, and it could happen when the ship was clipping along at a good pace in high winds. Captains therefore created “make-work” of various kinds to fill the porous workday, holy-stoning the deck (scrubbing and whitening it with sandstone) being one of the most dreaded and infamous among sailors.

Another was “picking oakum.” The running rigging on a deep-sea vessel was made of hemp rope covered with tar. When the tar wore out (and the rope went slack when wet), the rigging had to be replaced. The old hemp rope would be cut into short strands, a couple of feet long, and sailors would gather on deck to pick it apart—picking oakum. This was dull and tedious work, hard on the fingers, even though the hands of sailors were rough to begin with from hauling rope. The sailors sat together and untwisted the hemp rope to individual fibers, then they rolled and twisted the hemp fibers back together. The oakum would then be used on the ship for caulking: mixed with tar, it would be forced by the ship’s carpenter, using special tools—a caulking iron and a mallet—between the seams, or intervals, of the hull planking, to stanch leaks. (Picking oakum always had low and slavish associations. It was often part of “hard labor” in a workhouse or a prison. It was historically linked to coerced, unfree work, as sailors well understood.)

As sailors sat together picking apart the yarn of their ropes, someone would spin a yarn for a bored, unhappy, unwilling, ready-made audience of common labor. The yarn, then, was in several ways a spoken-word equivalent of the work song. One of its purposes was to entertain, to help to overcome drudgery, to make the time pass, to transport both speaker and listener to a different, better place. It was, in short, born of alienation at work aboard the ship, which proved to be a nursery of narrative talent.

Forms and Functions of the Yarn in the Age of Sail

Sailors’ yarns took many forms and served many functions in the wooden world of the deep-sea sailing vessel. They helped to recruit and socialize new sailors into the shipboard order. They taught fundamental knowledge about the ship and its social relations, not least about survival in a deadly line of work. As part of that survival they imparted the history and practices of resistance, which shaped the politics of the ship and the larger Atlantic society. They engaged and inflamed the imagination; they fueled fantasy. In doing all of these useful and important things and more, they entertained.

Entertainment

An engraving titled Saturday Night at Sea represents a yarn-spinning occasion on the lower deck. Seventeen sailors gather on the gun deck of a man-of- war, around a bearded storyteller who holds a tankard of grog in one hand as he gestures expansively with the other. His fellow tars relax, taking in the tale while seated on overturned buckets, boxes, cannon, and the deck itself. The sailors have made the workplace their own. Heads are cocked in rapt attention to the spoken word; faces beam with smiles. This is a significant moment in the social life of the ship.

Recruitment

A major purpose of the yarn was to reproduce maritime culture, that is, to emphasize the adventurous, sometimes heroic aspects of the work so as to lure young men to go to sea and join the fraternity of deep-sea sailors. Many went precisely because they had heard a good yarn, as explained by Samuel Robinson, who recalled that as a boy growing up in Garlieston, Scotland, “my fancy for a sea life was excited by the long yarns which James Cooper [an older schoolmate] used to spin to us after being a voyage to the West Indies.” Thereafter “an irresistible desire for a seafaring life so completely carried me away, that it became a matter of perfect indifference to me where the ship went, if not to the bottom, provided I was aboard her—or in what trade engaged, if not a pirate.” Robinson wanted not only to hear stories but to acquire the exotic experience that would allow him to tell them.

An early-eighteenth-century London sailor named Walter Kennedy took the same route to a different end. Kennedy was known during his time in the Royal Navy to have a special love for pirate stories. He endlessly requested them of his shipmates, listened carefully to them, memorized them, and retold them himself, avidly and repeatedly. Then he acted on them. He found out in 1718 that Woodes Rogers had been commissioned by the British government to sail to the Bahama Islands, a notorious pirate haunt, in order to reestablish proper British government and hang a pack of sea robbers there if need be. Kennedy signed on to the expedition, not to help Rogers establish good order in Providence but to desert him as soon as he got there and to join the pirates! This he did, sailing under the black flag for more than two years and indeed dying under it as the Jolly Roger was raised above the gallows on which he was hanged, back in London, on July 21, 1721.

Education

Yarns also served to socialize new workers into the social order of the ship by teaching basic knowledge about the ship in its technical or social dimensions. Sailors had to learn to face danger with courage and to live with want, to endure and survive in harsh, dangerous, often deadly conditions. Yarns might convey what a sailor should do in storms, in battle, or after shipwrecks. Stories would also help to promote common values, especially the necessity of cooperation and solidarity in such an insecure work environment, in which no one had much control over life and death, whether by disease, accident, weather, or warfare.

Stories imparted useful information, as demonstrated again and again by William Dampier, the famous buccaneer turned explorer, naturalist, and popular writer, who led the historic process by which sailors’ yarns appeared on the printed page. His book A New Voyage Around the World, first published in 1697 and reprinted many times thereafter, was one of the best-selling books of the era and indicative of how voyage literature was the single most popular genre of writing in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. In that book Dampier recounted an incident that took place on Mindanao in the Philippines, where a sailor found a special leaf, which he boiled and pounded to make “an excellent Salve,” which many of the sailors used to treat skin ulcers with “great benefit.” The man who found and prepared the leaves “had his first knowledge of them in the Isthmus of Darien, from one of the Indians there.” Here was a kind of practical knowledge, embedded in a story, that circulated around the world, from Central America to East Asia, on board a ship, carried in the memory of a sailor. Many yarns had a basis in science. Indeed Dampier himself has been lauded for his many contributions to scientific knowledge.

Dampier also captured the political and economic effects of storytelling. He noted that on the Coromandel coast of southeastern India the captain had all kinds of trouble getting sailors back aboard their ship after shore leave: “Our seamen are apt to have great Notions of I know not what Profit and Advantages to be had serving the Mogul [the king of western India]; nor do they want for fine stories to encourage one another to it. It was what these Men had long been thinking and talking of as a fine thing; but now they went upon it in earnest.” Through their yarns—“fine stories” with “great notions”— seamen circulated among themselves useful information about the maritime labor market in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean, and, as Dampier indicates, they did not talk only: their yarns were guides to action, much to the chagrin of an English master in a place where maritime labor was scarce.

Rebellion

Spinning a yarn also taught resistance, beginning in many cases with the human body, when, for example, sailors used the scars on their backs as prompts to tell of a mutiny, strike, desertion, defiance, or any other transgression of shipboard social order. The common sailor, observed Ned Ward in the early eighteenth century, was, after a sharp sting by the cat-o’-nine-tails, “as proud of the Wales on his Back, as a Holy-Land Pilgrim is of a Jerusalem Print.” Indeed, sailors called those scars their “tiger stripes.” Scars of punishment became the marks of honor and distinction through stories. Sailors could therefore “read” the bodies of their shipmates; it was never difficult to see who had been, and likely still was, a troublemaker. The scars themselves and the yarns about them were important markers of identity on the lower deck. Like ritual scarifications in many stateless societies, these marks signaled initiation into a broader community, in this case that of international deep-sea sailors.


Reprinted with permission from Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, Pirates, and Motley Crews in the Age of Sail by Marcus Rediker and published by Beacon Press, 2014.