More fiction has been written about naval officers aboard British warships during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, I would guess, than any other single period in history. The protagonist is typically a young gentleman who, through a multi-volume series, rises in the military ranks to Captain or Admiral, while out-gunning, out-maneuvering, and outsmarting the French and the Spanish. This sub-genre of historical fiction remains popular, as evidenced by the many book titles, series, games, films, and on-line forums that endure. Fortunately, authors of historical naval fiction set in this era have many primary sources — first hand accounts — to draw upon, should they desire to add verisimilitude to their settings, plots, and characters.
Among my personal favorite primary sources are those memoirs from “the lower deck” — that designated section of a warship that is inhabited by the warrants, seamen, and the landsmen. Even at sea, British society was highly stratified. Landsman Hay is one of those revealing memoirs.
Robert Hay began his nautical career as a “shoe boy,” or officer’s personal servant. He was fourteen years old, unskilled and inexperienced as a mariner. Although young Robert would acquire specialized nautical skills over the next eight years, including rudimentary navigation and ship carpentry, he identifies himself in the book’s title as “Landsman Hay.”
His story begins in Paisley, Scotland, where Robert lived with his parents and siblings. Here, he worked with his father as a weaver, memorized multiplication tables to relieve the boredom at the loom, and read whatever fiction he could get his hands on. Robinson Crusoe was a novel he read “over and over with avidity and delight.” The story might have been the catalyst for his life-changing decision. He writes “I regretted that I was not following that line of life which would put me in the way of meeting similar adventures.”
In the very next sentence Hay tells us he left his parent’s home that July of 1803, the summer he turned fourteen, setting out for the port of Greenoch on the River Clyde, more than 25 miles from Paisley. He intended to join the navy, and succeeded. A short time later his father and sister Jean followed him to Greenoch and found him aboard the press tender. His father tried to buy him back from the navy, but hadn’t the means. He gave him a Bible to read. His sister Jean gave him some sewing supplies for mending, a set of seaman’s clothing, and “a little bread of my mother’s preparation.”
Hay’s autobiographical account is interesting on many levels. That the son of Scottish weaver was an avid reader, had dreams beyond shuttling a loom, and ran away at the age of fourteen for the sake of adventure (and perhaps to improve his lot in life), rings out through the story. The author describes this brief, last meeting with his father:
“On deck I found, to my great surprise, my father. At our meeting, at which both joy and grief mingled, I also observed in his paternal countenance a mixture of anger and pity, in that he had been to much expense and toil in bringing me forward thus far, and now when I might have begun to be useful to him, and of financial assistance in bringing up the younger branches of the family, I had basely deserted him. Still, he looked on me with a kind tenderness and immediately applied with urgency to the captain for my discharge. But this would not be obtained without advancing a sum of which he, alas, was not master.”
Throughout the memoir the Scotsman Hay gives us a candid look at life below-decks of British Naval Warships during the Napoleonic War era. Hay doesn’t try to regale the reader by recounting well-known historical events, glorifying British officers, dissecting battle strategies or analyzing campaigns. His story is a personal one; his intended audience is his children. The writer is concerned with his own existence and purpose, and therein lies its charm, its believe-ability, and its importance and interest as social history.
Robert Hay begins his shipboard life as an officer’s servant. On first being inducted, he was sent on board the Salvador del Mundo, a three-decker taken from the Spanish and anchored in the harbor as a guard ship for temporary accommodation of seamen. Hay describes the lower deck as a marketplace of commodities of every description: “groceries, haberdashery goods, hardware, stationery, everything, in fact, that could be named as the necessities or luxuries of life. Even spirituous liquours, though strictly prohibited, were to be had in abundance, the temptations of the enormous profits arising from their sale overcoming any fear of punishment.” Hays goes on to say the greater number (of the regular ship’s crew) kept their wives and families on board, it was pretty much crowded day and night.” Indeed, this presents a different picture of a naval ship in wartime than we are generally given in historical naval fiction of the period.
After eight years at sea (his adventures include his desertion from the navy and subsequent impressment) Hay returns home to Paisley to find that his father has died. It is rather like an odyssey, an epic adventure of an 18th century British seaman. Yet, written for his children, not for a commercial audience, making it all the more believable.
Upon his return, a young man of twenty-two, Robert’s mother provides him the means to continue his education in navigation and bookkeeping. In chapter one Hay had credited his mother as being very economical. After her husband’s death she made the decision to provide an advanced education for her son, newly returned from the wars. As a result, the former landsman Hay got work as a steersman before becoming captain of one of the trading boats on the newly completed Ardrossan Canal (a railroad, in this century).
A year later he advanced to company clerk and storekeeper, married, and started a family. Hay describes his wife as a woman of “neither beauty nor fortune but as I myself possessed neither, I had no reason to complain of the want of them on her part… She had a pair of excellent hands, an amiable disposition, and an agreeable temper, and indulged, moreover, a strong desire to promote my comfort and happiness. What more could I desire?” Notice how he remarks on her hands, a landsman’s most important feature.
Robert Hay wrote his memoir between September 1820 and November 1821. Afterward, he repurposed some parts of the manuscript for a series of articles for the Paisley Magazine, under the pen name ‘Sam Spritsail.’ It appears Robert Hay was not only a seaman but a writer as well.
Landsman Hay; The Memoirs of Robert Hay is available from Seaforth Publishing. The 2010 edition includes an editorial note and introduction by author, BBC editor and radio producer Vincent McInerney, a map, and end notes. Highly recommended.