Guns, Gales & God: Elizabeth I’s ‘Merchant Navy’

Ian Friel argues that popular ideas of the nature of Elizabethan seapower are distorted by concentration on big names and major events. Elizabethan England’s emergence on to the world stage owed much more to merchant ships and common seamen than we might think.

During the night of August 29th, 1577, a young English sailor named William Smyth had a nightmare. ‘He dreamed that he was cast overboard, and that the boatswain had him by the hand, and could not save him.’ Smyth was master of the Gabriel, a 30-ton bark which had sailed in the explorer Martin Frobisher’s second voyage to Arctic Canada and was now heading home through stormy weather. The tiny ship was rigged with chest-high safety ropes but, despite these precautions, the following day both Smyth and the boatswain were washed overboard. The boatswain had grabbed a rope and tried to save the young man, but could not hold him. 

Smyth mentioned the nightmare, apparently as a joke, to his captain, Edward Fenton, and an account of the tragedy was later published by the Elizabethan chronicler Richard Hakluyt.Whatever the truth of it, the story contradicts the traditional ‘blood and thunder’ image of Elizabethan seafarers. It shows one shipmate trying to save another, a concern for safety measures and an easy relationship between master and captain (a captain was normally the overall commander of a ship on an expedition or war voyage and not always a seaman; a ship’s master was a seaman in charge of sailing a ship and usually also the commander of a merchant vessel). The nature of Smyth’s secret terror is less surprising, for it underlines why so few 16th-century seamen lived, as one contemporary put it, to ‘grow to grey hairs’. 

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