A very important crew member aboard a sailing ship would be the Boatswain, or ‘Bosun’ as more often written. In the Royal Navy, a Bosun would be a standing or ‘warrant’ officer ranking above midshipmen and master’s mates. He would by nature have to be a very experienced seaman, having served at least one year as a petty officer and gained the written satisfaction of his Captain before getting his ‘warrant’ from the Admiralty itself - and he would have to be able to read and write. Only two exceptions to this can be found within the Georgian period.

The Bosun was responsible aboard ship for all boats, sails, running and standing rigging, colours, anchors, cables, cordage and supervise the storage of all ships’ stores to ensure they were stowed away properly. A Bosun would be expected to inspect all the rigging of a ship and replace any worn or frayed item before the ship sailed, reporting any spare or requirement not aboard ; having done this, he would inspect all the above responsibilities daily and arrange for any work required to be carried out. The Bosun would be on duty on deck virtually all day every day from sunrise to sunset - but in return he did not have to ‘stand a watch’ and he could sleep at night unless called. He would be allotted a space below with double the room ‘to sling his hammock’ of those crew members below him in rank. A Royal Navy or Merchant Service Bosun often had a small cabin in which to both stow his gear and sleep in.

In the Royal Navy, a Bosun’s place when the ship ‘beat to Quarters’ would be on the foredeck, which he would then ‘command’ during any action. During more peaceful days, he would take great care to look after the ships general appearance ; making sure that the crew didn’t hang out their washing to dry on the rigging - or use the ships’ drinking water to wash these clothes in. If at anchor or moored in port, the bosun would ‘trim’ the ship outboard, keep the sails tied securely and the yards square, watching out for any sheet or line left uncoiled on deck or even worse, a rope hanging loose from above or overboard which might be seen by a bosun or Captain from another ship nearby. If the ship was ‘laid up in Ordinary’ - not in commission in port - the bosun would remain on board to supervise any re-rigging or re-fitting.

Crew members assisting the Bosun in these duties would include a sail-maker, a rope-maker and a carpenter. He would also have picked men from the crew in the form of bosun’s mates, with the senior of these being known as a Bosun’s Yeoman ; all these men could be his equal in seamanship but lower in rank without ‘warrant’ - these men would motivate the crew to their duties when sails were reset, when extra speed was required or during any emergency on board ship such as a fire. The Bosun’s mates also had extra sleeping-space but had the unpleasant task of ‘flogging’ any seaman disciplined on board ship with the whip known as the ‘cat o’nine tails’. A Bosun carried a small cane with which to thrash any laggard or slow-coach in the crew not pulling his weight and bosun’s mates had smaller canes or a ‘colt’ for the same purpose. These canes and colts fell out of use gradually after the year 1815. A Bosun also carried a whistle - which eventually became a sort of ‘badge of office’ - on a chain or string around his neck with which to sound any order given to him by a ships’ officer ; he and his mates would then see the order was carried out in good order and good time. A Bosun would be utterly familiar with everything on board a ship, all gear and tackle, guns and carriages, masts and spars and be able to ‘rope, splice and steer’ to a very high standard. A Bosun had charge of at least one of the ships’ boats when launched, with the exception of the Captain’s gig or similar which would fall under the care of the Coxswain. Because of their ability to read and write, it was not uncommon to find that a typical Bosun was also a competent navigator


As a pirate Bosun would not be required to make out any reports to the Admiralty for obvious reasons so he need not be able to read and write - but a bosun was just as necessary aboard a pirate ship. Having the same responsibilities would mean that any seaman elected to serve at this post would require the same experience and training as without this the ship and crew would be in great danger at sea. At least two recorded events leading up to the capture and questioning of a pirate bosun exist, but on average these men would have served in similar roles aboard merchant or navy vessels, perhaps changed or been enlisted by a privateer ship and when the ‘letter of Marque’ the privateer sailed under or the actual conflict they were employed in ceased to exist, simply became pirates instead. A pirate Bosun would have the advantage that the vessel he sailed on had a crew numbering far more than the average merchantman - and slightly more than a warship - so there were plenty of idle hands aboard to be employed in necessary maintenance at sea or in port.

At the two busiest times for a pirate ship - re-fitting, re-rigging, ‘careening’ the hull or attacking and capturing a prize - the bosun and his assistants would arrange and supervise the laying-up of the vessel, the removal of the guns and the hauling on ropes and tackles needed to get the ship over first on one quarter then on the other for a mixture of hot tar and tallow to be slapped onto the hull below the water-line. In warm waters such as the Caribbean, this would need to be done around four times a year to prevent the hull being seriously damaged by the teredo worm and to scrape off the weed and barnacles that gripped the hull and if not removed regularly would seriously slow the ship down under sail by as much as fifty per cent. If in capturing a prize, the pirate crew chose to abandon their primary vessel to take over the prize, the Bosun would have two primary concerns : firstly, to persuade, force or press any member of the prize crew who had required knowledge or skills to work the ship into pirate service - either wilfully on the part of that person or otherwise ; and secondly, to select and take from the pirate ship any spare or stores, guns or tackle required before it was abandoned or given to the former crew of the selected vessel. This change would require extra rigging from the yards to facilitate loading and unloading (though ‘unloading’ generally meant throwing anything unwanted over the side into the sea).

A Bosun on a pirate ship would gain a bigger share of plunder than a crew member ; perhaps as much as a share and a half. But ; if the bosun or his work was seen to be sloppy or indifferent he would be instantly ‘deposed’ or demoted back to the ranks by the crew. In matters of discipline, ‘flogging’ did not exist aboard a pirate ship - only very rarely did ‘Moses Law’ as flogging was known by pirates was applied to a crew member as a punishment for a breach of Articles - and a Bosun would not be able to exercise the same motivation towards the crew aboard a pirate ship as he did on board a Royal Navy or Merchant Marine vessel - although a pirate bosun may still have carried his whistle any use of a cane or similar on a crewman would see him getting a quite different reaction. Discipline or punishment amongst the pirate crew in action was left to the Pirate Captain to exercise and to him alone - discipline and punishment on board a pirate vessel at any other time fell to the Quartermaster to supervise or apply.


(To read about individual crew members tasks click on their title below)
Captain - Quartermaster - Gunner - Surgeon - Navigator

Photo supplied by & all text © Copyright of Richard Rutherford Moore.

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