Chronicles of America 

Life Afloat in Tudor Times

Two stories from Hakluyt's "Voyages" will illustrate what sort of work the English were attempting in America about 1530, near the middle of King Henry's reign. The success of 'Master Haukins' and the failure of 'Master Hore' are quite typical of several other adventures in the New World.

'Olde M. William Haukins of Plimmouth, a man for his wisdome, valure, experience, and skill in sea causes much esteemed and beloved of King Henry the eight, and being one of the principall Sea Captaines in the West partes of England in his time, not contented with the short voyages commonly then made onely to the knowen coastes of Europe, armed out a tall and goodlie ship of his owne, of the burthen of 250 tunnes, called the Pole of Plimmouth, wherewith he made three long and famous voyages vnto the coast of Brasill, a thing in those days very rare, especially to our Nation.' Hawkins first went down the Guinea Coast of Africa, 'where he trafiqued with the Negroes, and tooke of them Oliphants' teeth, and other commodities which that place yeeldeth; and so arriving on the coast of Brasil, used there such discretion, and behaved himselfe so wisely with those savage people, that he grew into great familiaritie and friendship with them. Insomuch that in his 2 voyage one of the savage kings of the Countrey of Brasil was contented to take ship with him, and to be transported hither into England. This kinge was presented unto King Henry 8. The King and all the Nobilitie did not a little marvel; for in his cheeks were holes, and therein small bones planted, which in his Countrey was reputed for a great braverie.'

The poor Brazilian monarch died on his voyage back, which made Hawkins fear for the life of Martin Cockeram, whom he had left in Brazil as a hostage. However, the Brazilians took Hawkins's word for it and released Cockeram, who lived another forty years in Plymouth. 'Olde M. William Haukins' was the father of Sir John Hawkins, Drake's companion in arms, whom we shall meet later. He was also the grandfather of Sir Richard Hawkins, another naval hero, and of the second William Hawkins, one of the founders of the greatest of all chartered companies, the Honourable East India Company.

Hawkins knew what he was about. 'Master Hore' did not. Hore was a well-meaning, plausible fellow, good at taking up new-fangled ideas, bad at carrying them out, and the very cut of a wildcat company-promoter, except for his honesty. He persuaded 'divers young lawyers of the Innes of Court and Chancerie' to go to Newfoundland. A hundred and twenty men set off in this modern ship of fools, which ran into Newfoundland at night and was wrecked. There were no provisions; and none of the 'divers lawyers' seems to have known how to catch a fish. After trying to live on wild fruit they took to eating each other, in spite of Master Hore, who stood up boldly and warned them of the 'Fire to Come.' Just then a French fishing smack came in; whereupon the lawyers seized her, put her wretched crew ashore, and sailed away with all the food she had. The outraged Frenchmen found another vessel, chased the lawyers back to England, and laid their case before the King, who 'out of his Royall Bountie' reimbursed the Frenchmen and let the 'divers lawyers' go scot free.

Hawkins and Hore, and others like them, were the heroes of travellers' tales. But what was the ordinary life of the sailor who went down to the sea in the ships of the Tudor age? There are very few quite authentic descriptions of life afloat before the end of the sixteenth century; and even then we rarely see the ship and crew about their ordinary work. Everybody was all agog for marvellous discoveries. Nobody, least of all a seaman, bothered his head about describing the daily routine on board. We know, however, that it was a lot of almost incredible hardship. Only the fittest could survive. Elizabethan landsmen may have been quite as prone to mistake comfort for civilization as most of the world is said to be now. Elizabethan sailors, when afloat, most certainly were not; and for the simple reason that there was no such thing as real comfort in a ship.

The anonymous author of a curious composition entitled "The Complaynt of Scotland", written in 1548, seems to be the only man who took more interest in the means than in the ends of seamanship. He was undoubtedly a landsman. But he loved the things of the sea; and his work is well worth reading as a vocabulary of the lingo that was used on board a Tudor ship. When the seamen sang it sounded like 'an echo in a cave.' Many of the outlandish words were Mediterranean terms which the scientific Italian navigators had brought north. Others were of Oriental origin, which was very natural in view of the long connection between East and West at sea. Admiral, for instance, comes from the Arabic for a commander-in-chief. "Amir-al-bahr" means commander of the sea. Most of the nautical technicalities would strike a seaman of the present day as being quite modern. The sixteenth-century skipper would be readily understood by a twentieth-century helmsman in the case of such orders as these: "Keep full and by! Luff! Con her! Steady! Keep close!" Our modern sailor in the navy, however, would be hopelessly lost in trying to follow directions like the following: "Make ready your cannons, middle culverins, bastard culverins, falcons, sakers, slings, headsticks, murderers, passevolants, bazzils, dogges, crook arquebusses, calivers, and hail shot!"

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