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    Re: Master & Commander
    From: Trevor Kenchington
    Date: 2003 Dec 9, 23:41 +0000

    Jan Kalivoda asked:
    > please, can you explain the passage repeated below in more detail? I am 
    sorry, but don't understand your interesting statements and I wish to 
    understand them. Thank you.
    >>Midshipmen, incidentally, were not one rung up from seamen but (in some
    >> ways) one rung down from Lieutenants. In theory, they stood lower in the
    >> on-board hierarchy but simultaneously they were seen as Sea
    >> Officers-in-training and treated accordingly. So were those
    >> ex-Midshipmen who had passed a Lieutenants and were serving as Master's
    >> Mates while awaiting an appointment to commissioned rank, while those
    >> seamen who had risen to Master's Mates on their way to a Master's
    >> warrant were not.
    A full explanation would need to be book length and the best way to
    provide that is to refer those interested to the definitive study: "The
    Wooden World" by N.A.M. Rodger. (Required reading for anyone seriously
    interested in 18th century fighting sail -- and a necessary treatment
    for anyone still misled by Churchill's grossly erroneous "rum, sodomy
    and the lash".) Rodger explained the workings of the Royal Navy during
    the Seven Year's War. Much had changed by the end of Nelson's life and,
    for the period supposedly portrayed by the "Master & Commander" movie,
    one really should supplement "Wooden World" with other reading. There
    are a number of recent relevant books, of which I have Lavery's
    "Nelson's Navy" on my shelves. (It is as unreliable as Lavery's other
    works but still a good starting point.) Others may prefer one of the
    alternative titles.
    In (relatively) brief summary:
    We are speaking of a navy which was a specialized offshoot of a
    stratified society. A man's place within that society was very largely
    (though not entirely) set by his birth. If he was born into the gentry,
    his role was one of decision-making and command and that was as true
    while he was a boy as it was when he was a grown man. That distinction
    of class lay alongside, complementing yet separate from, the
    distinctions of formal rank within the shipboard hierarchy.
    Boys of appropriate class who sought a naval career first went to sea as
    ratings: most commonly "captain's servants" but also as "ordinary
    seamen", "able seamen" or in such other rating as offered a convenient
    vacancy. At some point, almost all of them served some time as
    Midshipmen (they were required to do at least two years as either
    Midshipmen or Master's Mates) but they could move to and fro between
    that rank and "ordinary seamen" without it altering their actual duties
    or status. As "young gentlemen", they were clearly gentlemen (and so in
    one sense above any non-gentleman aboard) and yet were also young (and
    so very junior). To draw a parallel: At the same age, their brothers
    might still be in school, where the schoolmaster would beat them with a
    cane for any misbehaviour (since they were young and since such violence
    was sanctioned by the boy's father). But should the schoolmaster's
    brother (clearly not a gentleman since gentlemen did not teach in
    schools) beat a young gentlemen with his fists, it would have been a
    gross affront to the social structure -- an inferior offering violence
    to his social superior.
    So young naval gentlemen enjoyed the status of being gentlemen but were
    taught the harshness of naval life, by the sanction of their social
    equals and professional superiors, without their status as gentlemen
    being compromised. [When Vancouver felt the need to physically punish
    the Honourable Thomas Pitt, the future Lord Camelford, Vancouver beat
    Pitt himself and did so in the privacy of his cabin. Pitt was rated a
    Master's Mate but clearly was a gentleman (indeed an aristocrat). Had he
    been from the working class, he would have been flogged by the
    Boatswain's Mates in full view of the whole crew but that would have
    been unthinkable for a gentleman, even one as deserving of a flogging as
    This odd duality between rank and social status reached the point that a
    warrant officer could be brought before a Court Martial on the charge of
    striking a superior officer if he hit a Midshipman. In the hierarchy of
    rank, a Midshipman fell below anyone who had a warrant. However, in the
    hierarchy of class, he was clearly superior and that was what counted in
    a matter of inter-personal quarrels. (Clearly, a Midshipman who
    disobeyed a warrant officer's order would find himself on a charge of
    disobedience to the orders of a senior officer. If that doesn't seem to
    make sense, don't be surprised!)
    The other aspect that Jan may not have understood is that the Royal Navy
    had a dual command structure. Its executive command was exercised by the
    Lord High Admiral, whose duties were generally exercised by the Board of
    Admiralty, rather than by a single individual. Admiralty appointed
    Captains and Lieutenants to ships by issuing Commissions. Since the
    gentlemen on the Board (or the few aristocratic Lord High Admirals)
    could not be expected to understand or trouble themselves with technical
    details, the provision of ships ready and stored for war was the
    responsibility of the Navy Board (along with the Ordnance Board, the
    Victualing Board and several others), which was itself subject to the
    authority of Admiralty. These lesser boards appointed Masters, Surgeons
    and many other specialists, by issuing Warrants. Hence, a Commissioned
    Sea Officer exercised executive command. A warrant officer was a
    technical specialist.
    Young gentlemen, after putting in their sea time and spending some time
    as Midshipmen, had to pass an exam that showed that they were qualified
    as Lieutenants. Unless they were very lucky, they then had to spend yet
    more time waiting for a vacancy at that higher rank. While waiting, a
    common status in which they were parked was Master's Mate. (Think
    Fletcher Christian on the "Bounty".)
    The Master was, in effect, the ship's navigating officer but he held a
    Warrant from the Navy Board, not a Commission from Admiralty. (In
    earlier times, the monarchs had hired armed merchant ships, whose
    Masters continued to run their ships, while upper-class warriors were
    put aboard to command the fighting. Something of the concept still
    survived in an era when Lieutenants and Captains were themselves
    required to be competent in the technicalities of sailing and navigating
    their ships.) Not that the Master was in any sense a junior member of
    the ship's company. In the ship's hierarchy, he stood above all but the
    Captain, Lieutenants and the Captain of Marines (if one was aboard). In
    professional responsibility, he was second only to the Captain and on a
    par with the First Lieutenant. In social status, however, he would
    always stand below even the youngest who had been born a gentleman.
    The Master's Mates were the Master's assistants (as Mates still are on
    merchant ships) and some of them were seamen working their way up to
    being Masters in their turn. The others were Sea Officers in training,
    either working towards their exams or, having passed, waiting for an
    opportunity to be commissioned as Lieutenants. Hence, two very different
    types of men held the same rank.
    One thing to understand about the structure of 18th-century English
    society: It was the way it was because that worked. It made no sense. It
    conflicts with modern ideas. It was riddled with corruption and
    inefficiency. But it still functioned.
    Hope this helps explain things a bit. And my apologies for straying so
    far from the work of the navigators and into their social relationships
    with one another.
    Trevor Kenchington
    Trevor J. Kenchington PhD                         Gadus{at}iStar.ca
    Gadus Associates,                                 Office(902) 889-9250
    R.R.#1, Musquodoboit Harbour,                     Fax   (902) 889-9251
    Nova Scotia  B0J 2L0, CANADA                      Home  (902) 889-3555
                         Science Serving the Fisheries

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