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. 

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