The sea chest is a common piece of material culture seen among stereotypes of pirates and sailors in the Age of Sail. Many people imagine a variety of items locked away within these chests, from fascinating tools of the seafaring trades to treasure plundered during many adventures at sea. In the realm of stories about pirates, Billy Bones owns the most famous sea chest of all fictional pirates. In Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, originally published as a serial in Young Folks magazine from October of 1881 to January of 1882, Bones was the first mate of the pirate Captain John Flint. The exterior of Billy’s sea chest was, “somewhat smashed and broken as by long, rough usage,” with a “B” burned to its top. Stevenson described the contents of the sea chest in detail, including items concerning the story’s treasure, such as Bones’ account book, a bar of silver, a bag of coins, and a treasure map. Beyond these pieces concerning the treasure, the chest contained a suit of clothes, “a quadrant, a tin canikin, several sticks of tobacco, two brace of very handsome pistols,…an old Spanish watch and some other trinkets of little value and mostly of foreign make, a pair of compasses mounted with brass, and five or six curious West Indian shells… [and] Underneath there was an old boat-cloak, whitened with sea-salt on many a harbour bar.”1 Contents such as these are typical by the standards of the modern stereotype of sailors and pirates in the Golden Age of Piracy. When compared to the historical record, with exception to the treasure items, how accurate is Stevenson’s depiction? What did Anglo-American sailors or pirates of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries own? Broadly speaking, some sailors of the era did own the kind of items seen in Stevenson’s stereotypical sea chest. However, examining the historical record for traces of sailors’ possessions provides some insight into the lives of mariners in this era.
What possessions a sailor owned depended on their financial circumstances, voyage length, and destination. Sailors fallen on hard times, frivolous spenders, or mariners forced into the British Royal Navy might own nothing more than the clothes on their back. These desperate cases did not apply to all sailors, with many finding ways to afford supplies ahead of voyages. For any mariner preparing for sea, clothing sat high on the list of essential supplies. Longer voyages required more clothes. Expeditions to cold climates required the use of warmer garments, while sailors headed to tropical regions might buy lighter clothes. Clothing did not last long at sea. It took only a matter of months for garments to deteriorate into rags because of wear from use and the harsh maritime environment. It did not take long for mariners to deplete some garments such as shoes and shirts. On land, shirts and footwear usually wore out after six months of heavy use. The saltiness, dampness, and potential humid air at sea contributed to quicker periods of deterioration. Outer garments, especially those of wool, fared little better with lifespans of one or two years.2 A detailed description of the garments sailors wore in this period could fill an entire book. For those fortunate enough to have funds, credit, and time before a voyage, a mariner might spend £2 or more on clothes. It took common sailors over a month to make this sum of money when earning wages at sea. In the 1710s, sailor John Cremer, with the help of a friend’s wife, purchased, “Shirts, Stockings, Hankerchifs &c, with a Chest, which she did anuf Suitabile for me for two Years,” for forty shillings.3
Sailors also obtained clothing and supplies while on voyages. Service at sea frequently posed the threat of debt in addition to the dangers of drowning or battle. If a mariner did not possess enough clothes, both the navy and merchant services featured pursers and ship owners willing to sell sailors clothing, at a steep cost. The navy and civilian ship owners deducted the cost of these clothes from wages, to the disadvantage of sailors often paying well beyond production cost and typical retail prices for these new garments at sea. For this reason, sailors tried to purchase clothing and supplies onshore. The purser stood as the last option for many mariners, some waiting as long as possible before purchasing the overpriced clothes. Sailors could also buy extra alcohol, food, or tobacco at sea against their wages. Some sailors purchased so many things that they fell into debt. Ship owners in New England often forced their mariners operating in the fishing industry off Newfoundland into debt servitude through the sale of clothing and supplies to their crews.4 Some sailors did buy extra food and drink before setting out to sea. When mariner John Hedley borrowed money from his brother to outfit himself for a voyage, Hedley purchased fifteen gallons of brandy and fifty pounds of cheese.5 Patrick Cardills also purchased brandy and “strong waters” in addition to, “shirts capps and other cloths and necessaries” when he obtained forty shillings worth of credit to prepare for his sea voyage.6
Sailors also required hammocks and bedding for service at sea. By 1680, sailors no longer slept on the ship’s decks and used canvas hammocks for their beds.7 While sailors could sleep in their simple hammocks without bedding, sailors often owned mattresses, blankets, and pillows to use in their hammocks. Bedding was a common possession for sailors, second only to clothing. The captain of John Cremer’s vessel in 1710, looking out for his new young crewmember, allowed Cremer to charge twelve shillings for the bedding he would need for their voyage against his wages so Cremer could use the rest of his funds for clothes and other supplies.8 Some wealthier sailors expended money for the luxuries of pillowcases, sometimes referred to as pillow beres (or pillow beers), and bed sheets. The navy sold bedding to their sailors as well. The Admiralty’s General Printed Instructions provides one of the few descriptions of this bedding: “the Bed is to be five Feet eight Inches long, and two Feet two Inches broad; both the Bed and Pillow to be of good Hammel’s Cloth, and not to have in them less than eleven Pounds of good clean Flock, nor to weigh together less than thirteen Pounds; and the Coverlet to be six Feet two inches long and four feet nine inches broad, well wrought, and not to weigh less than six Pounds, at the Rate of eleven Shillings for each Suit.”9
For sailors, and much of the lower class, clothing and bedding made up the vast majority of the possessions and wealth they owned. It was common for a sailor’s total assets to be worth £10 or less.10 Many of the inventories of deceased sailors’ possessions during the late seventeenth and early eighteen centuries only list clothing and bedding. This is not surprising, since many sailors often found themselves in situations where they lived a precarious hand-to-mouth lifestyle, preferring good drink or better food to clothes and wealth while at sea. Sailors during this era had a reputation for trading away their clothing and leaving themselves short of spare attire later on in their voyages. It is likely why period satirist Edward Ward said, “if he [the sailor] have Money, or Credit, or but a Rag to his Buttocks, he’ll part with all, to purchase a sucking Bout that Night, where he drinks to the Memory of his Concubine so heartily.”11
Not all sailors found themselves impoverished, as probate inventory collections demonstrate. While inventories over represent the wealthiest sailors in the maritime community, they also show the variety of items a sailor of means could own outside of clothing and bedding. Many members of the lower class could not read or write, but not all were illiterate. Those sailors who owned books, including bibles, prayer books, books used in navigation such as atlases or waggoners, journals, texts on seamanship, and other publications demonstrated the possession of literacy. Sailors with journals and those who wrote letters home carried pens or quills, pen-knives, ink, ink pots, paper, and other writing supplies.12 The sailors that owned books about navigation often owned navigational tools as well, including gunter scales, quadrants, forestaffs, dividers, and compasses. While none of these inventories noted the ownership of wooden plates or mugs, which might be an indicator of not having enough value to warrant inclusion on inventories or that sailors used tableware owned by the ship, the ownership of metal utensils and equipment did appear on some inventories. This included forks, knives, spoons, scissors, porringers, plates, mugs, and basins. To repair clothing, an essential task for mariners at sea, some sailors owned needles and thread. The inventories found for this survey did not mention the kind of tools sailors used at sea for working on sails and ropes, such as sailmaking needles, hooks, marlinespikes, and fids. One possible explanation is these tools belonged to the ship, which is often the case with sailmakers needles since they appear in several list of supplies obtained for vessels.13 Another explanation is the inventory keepers did not deem it worthwhile to record the presence of these tools since they held little financial value and concentrated on more traditional probate inventory items such as clothing or bedding. Some of these sailors recorded in inventories might also not be in positions warranting owning these tools, such as mates, gunners, or cooks. Other small personal items such as towels, walking canes, or simple rings for fingers are also not unheard of among sailors.
Two other categories of items that some, but not all, sailors possessed are trade goods and weapons. Merchant vessels engaged in trade might see some of their sailors make their own financial ventures by obtaining goods cheaply in one port and then sell them off in another port where there was higher demand. The kinds of goods a sailor might acquire in the course of a voyage included sugar, ivory, East Indian spices, cloth, trade beads, and trinkets. For sailors onboard commerce raiding privateers that held commissions as private men-of-war, some vessels offered extra shares to men who provided their own weaponry. Instead of one share, a sailor bringing his own musket might gain an addition fraction of a share at the end of a voyage.14 Pirates also obtained their own weaponry. This is particularly notable in accounts of Bartholomew Roberts’ pirate crew, which features rules demanding crewmembers keeping personal weaponry fit for service in combat and awarded firearms to men who sighted potential prizes.
Sailors who owned more than the suit of clothes on their backs used canvas bags, sea chests, and their pockets to store their private property when not in use. If the sailor had only a few possessions, a sailor likely kept his possessions in his pockets or inside hammocks when packed away. The mariner’s pockets likely held some of his smaller possessions regardless of wealth, including their knives. The sailor’s knife was an essential tool at sea. Even in the navy, mariners could soon expect to gain a knife. By the 1690s, the proverb of “going to Sea for a Knife and Sheath,” floated around those who served in the navy. Mariners entering the navy service often received little more than a knife for their work in the navy because of deductions for purchasing clothing and the use of the ticket system to pay off sailors at their discharge.15 If they owned enough possessions, sailors might sew together canvas bags to store their possessions. As time progressed, navy vessels encouraged sailors to use bags over sea chests. Chests took up more room and made it more difficult to clear ships for battle. The keeping of sea chests up on decks rather that down in the hold for the duration of voyages required the navy to regulate the number of chests allowed onboard. On the HMS Assistance, the captain regulated each mess of sailors to only two sea chests and had any additional ones stoved in and thrown out.16 The merchant service did not restrict sea chests like the navy. Mariners with many valuable possessions, including trade goods, desired sea chests for the security, room, and the protection they offered. Chests also doubled as benches and tables while at sea. These chests featured a simple design consisting of six boards. Some chests included a small till box just below the chest’s lid. Construction of these chests did not take long for veteran carpenters. Probate inventories tended to value used sea chests at a modest three or four shillings each, further suggesting simplicity and use of inexpensive materials in their construction.
Sailors could own a variety of goods and possessions in their service at sea. A large portion of their private property was either clothing or bedding. Some mariners, specialists, and rising civilian officers, owned more than the essentials. Returning to the fictional example of Billy Bones’ sea chest, each item Robert Lewis Stevenson lists in the fictional pirate’s chest is plausible, excluding those related to the story’s treasure plot. Bones former role as a first mate explains his ownership of the quadrant, compass, and even the account book he paired with the treasure map. The tin canikin refers to a drinking can made of tin, a relevant item for a sailor. Billys’ tobacco would have been common among sailors, mariners being some of the first Europeans to smoke this imported New World addiction. Since Bones was a pirate, owning the two braces pistols is reasonable, since pirates and privateers alike personally armed themselves. As for the Spanish watch, pocket watches did exist during the Golden Age of Piracy among the wealthy, though said watches did not keep time well compared to ones in the later eighteenth century. Bones likely gained the watch as a piece of plunder during his pirate career. Finally, shells and trinkets are plausible items since a sailor can sell them, but might hold sentimental value to the owner. Even the sea chest itself bears markings similar to a chest mentioned in a probate inventory of another first mate. Billy Bones marked the outside of his chest with, “the initial “B.” burned on the top of it with a hot iron.”17 John Chapman, the chief mate of the slave vessel Daniel and Henry, died of a sickness, potentially malaria, at sea on October 9, 1700. He owned two sea chests, both marked with his initials, “J C.”18 Treasure Island is known for its role in establishing many stereotypes about pirate history and mariners of the Golden Age of Piracy that exist to this day. Though contained within a story with these stereotypes, the description of a sea chest’s contents still stands as reasonable. Why did Stevenson get this depiction correct? More than likely, Stevenson had close familiarity with sea chests and their contents that the sailors of his own time used. Since sailors of the late nineteenth century faced many of the same needs and circumstances of mariners from two hundred years prior, it is not surprising that Stevenson constructed an accurate version of a sailor’s possessions.
Postscript: This post was inspired by a question asked by Tim Clark of the State of Michigan, the United States of America. Considering I frequently encountered the possessions of sailors in my study of maritime clothing for my Master’s thesis, I concluded this would be a good question to answer in the form of a post on this blog.
- Robert Lewis Stevenson,Treasure Island (London: Cassell and Company, 1883), 32-33.
- John Styles, The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England (New Haven,CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 72-73.
- John Cremer, Ramblin’ Jack: The Journal of Captain John Cremer, 1700-1774, transcribed by R. Reynell Bellamy (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1936), 75-76.
- Daniel Vickers, “Maritime Labor in Colonial Massachusetts: A Case Study of the Essex County Cod Fishery and the Whaling Industry of Nantucket, 1630-1775,” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, 1981), 175; Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 143.
- Probate Inventory of John Hedley, of the Joseph and Jacob, June 19, 1699. PROB 5/204, TNA.
- Probate Inventory of Patrick Cardills, Mariner of the HMS Royall Sovrainge, February 17, 1693. PROB 32/32/76, TNA.
- Brian Lavery, The Arming and Fitting of English Ships of War, 1600-1815 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1987), 179-180.
- Cremer, Ramblin’ Jack, 75-76.
- The Commissioners for Executing the Office of Lord High Admiral of Great Britain and Ireland, &c and of all His Majesty’s Plantations, &c. General Instructions to be observed by [the Captains] appointed [to his Majesty’s Ships] ([N. p.], [c.1715].), 39. The “Bed” here refers to the mattress, and “for each suit” refers to a set, which included a mattress, pillow, and coverlet (or blanket).
- Peter Earle, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen, 1600-1750 (London: Methuen, 2007), 55-56.
- Edward Ward, The Wooden World Dissected (London: Printed by H. Meere, 1707), 102.
- Sailors wishing to raise up the ranks to command or navigate a vessel needed to be literate for management and navigation. Determining a more exact ratio of literate to illiterate sailors is difficult, though some historians have attempted and failed to accomplish this task by using signatures as an indicator of illiteracy.
- Des Pawson, Sailmaker’s Needles, Museum of Knots & Sailor’s Ropework: Monograph #3 (Ipswich, UK: Footrope Knots, 2010), 10-11.
- “Deposition of Thomas Larimore, October 28, 1695,” in John Franklin Jameson, Privateering and Piracy in the Colonial Period: Illustrative Documents (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1923), 152-153. See also the Notes and Errata of The Sea Rover’s Practice by Benerson Little published online May 6, 2013 for page 33.
- George St. Lo, England’s Safety: Or, A Bridle to the French King, 2nd ed. (London: W. Miller, 1693), 17.
- Henry Teonge, The Diary of Henry Teonge, Chaplain on Board His Majesty’s Ships Assistance, Bristol, and Royal Oak, 1675-1679, G. E. Manwaring ed. (London: Harper & Brothers, 1927), 42.
- Stevenson, Treasure Island, 32.
- Nigel Tattersfield, The Forgotten Trade: Comprising the Log of the Daniel and Henry of 1700 and Accounts of the Slave Trade from the Minor Ports of England, 1698-1725 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1991), 163, 165.