The Ship's Crew
No vessel could operate properly without an adequate system for the organisation of its crew. Ships often carried considerable numbers of men, who could not be expected to perform usefully as a single entity. A first rate, for instance, contained over 800 men, and the larger frigates over 300, with some proportion being unwillingly occupants, while others were unable to read, disaffected or lazy. There were also some affected by illness, tiredness or drunkenness, or who harboured grievances of one sort or another. In the face of all these obstacles, the ship, in all its complexity as something of a small floating village, had to be managed. As the same crew might remain aboard the same vessel - in extremely cramped conditions - year after year, with consequently little in the way of new social contacts, an exceptional degree of discipline and intelligent organisation was required to keep the ship running efficiently.
The crew was divided into groups and assigned specific tasks, often several at a time depending on the mission of the ship at any given time. A sailor could be assigned to a specific part of the rigging, serve a particular gun during battle, or work the pumps if necessary. When the ship docked or disembarked, he might play some other role, and even this might change - for instance to duties connected with his mess at mealtimes - depending on which watch it happened to be. Whatever his responsibilities, usually assigned to him by the first lieutenant who first considered the man's aptitude and fitness for the job - and these could be a dozen or two - a seaman was expected to perform them quickly and efficiently.
It was the first lieutenant's responsibility to ensure that enough men were on duty at any given time so that the ship was safe and functioning well. He normally divided the crew, therefore, into two or three watches. The majority of ships used the two-watch system, which resulted in nearly every man belonging to one or other, in nearly equal numbers, with the watches known as larboard and starboard. If both watches were on deck, those men assigned to the larboard watch might be responsible for the ropes and line their side of the ship (the left-hand side as one faces the bow), while those of the starboard watch manned the other side.
Those men who were not a part of one of the watches were known as idlers, the name given to those whose services were needed on a constant basis during the day, and therefore were not expected to keep any of the night watches, unless of course al hands were summoned on deck at night. Idlers constituted about 7% of the crew on a first rate and about 10% on a sixth rate. Idlers included the master at arms and the various corporals, the armourer sailmaker, cooper and the mates working along with them, the yeoman of the boatwain's carpenter's and gunners store rooms. Other idlers included the cook and his assistants, butchers, hairdressers, barbers, tailors, pursers, poulterers, the first lieutenant's secretary, the pursers steward and various officer's servants (not domestic servants - though they did perform menial services from time to time - but rather young officer hopefuls). Some of the marines would fall under the category of idler, as well, plus tailors, shoemakers, painters and bakers.
Apart from the idlers, the rest of the crew were assigned part of the ship for which they were responsible, a designation that gave rise to nicknames which reflected the area in which they carried out their tasks. Thus, the topmen, the most skilled seamen, worked aloft in the masts and amongst the rigging. Ships of the line had three types of topmen, one each for the fore (forwardmost), main (middle) and mizzen (rearmost) masts. Aboard smaller ships, the mizzentopmen formed part of the afterguard, which will be described later. The topmen, maintopmen, foretopmen and mizzentopmen had to be extremely fit and agile, for they had to perform work in the highest masts, sometimes in the face of high winds and rain and a rolling ship. Their numbers varied, but, instance, aboard the San Domingo, a 74, there were 25 foretopmen, 27 maintopmen and 25 mizzentopmen in each watch. Each group was led by a petty officer, known as the captin of the foretop, mizzentop or maintop, as appropriate.
Owing to their specialist abilities and knowledge, the topmen enjoyed a virtual monopoly on work aloft, with the remainder of the crew rarely permitted (or indeed able) to go into the rigging. The forecastle men worked towards the front of the ship, know as the forecastle (pronounced 'foc-sul'), and handled, amongst other equipment, the anchors. They were often the oldest and heaviest sailors, since they were depended upon for both skill and strength, not dexterity; nor were they required to act with particular swiftness, like those in the tops. A 36-gun frigate contained about 20 forecastle men, all but perhaps two of whom were petty officers or able seamen, led by a captain of the forecastle for each watch.
Large and medium-sized ships were also organised into divisions to enable the officers to administer the ship's company along logical administrative and social lines, as opposed to the system previously described, which concerned their duties only. According to the Admiralty Regulations and Instructions, the captain, aided by his officers, was to:
Divide the ship's company, exclusive of the marines, into as many divisions as there are lieutenants allows to the ship; the divisions are to be equal in number to each other, and the men are to be taken equally from the different stations in which they are watched. A lieutenant is to command each division; he is to have under his orders as many master's mates and midshipmen as the number on board, being equally divided, well admit; he is to sub-divide his division into as many sub-divisions as there are mates and midshipmen fit to command under his orders.
The division enables the captain and his officers to monitor the health and welfare of the ship's company. Proper sanitation aboard the ship was essential in order to ward off sickness and disease, and thus the officers inspected the clothing and bedding of their division, and were responsible for seeing that the men did not swear or get drunk - no simple task. Petty officers and midshipmen kept lists of the men for whom they were responsible within a given division, each list indicating every sailor's duty and the number of his hammock. When in port, those in charge of a division mustered their men each evening, and conducted inspections for health and cleanliness every Sunday morning.
To find out more about the Ranks and Rates of the crew, click on the images below
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