Life on a ship

October 16, 2016 Posted by: Angela Izzo

Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday: we the interpreters would dress up in our 1812

Powder Monkey pencil drawingWomen dressed as sailor pencil drawing

 "navy uniform" and discus the Battle of Lake Erie, the Muskets, and the different uniforms that people wore who fought in the war. The one thing that really struck with me while doing this was realizing the hardship people had to face while on those ships. The two groups of people that had it the worst were the young boys and the female tars- women disguised as men.





Telescope, compass, & sextant

There was no Naval Academy during the War of 1812. Sailors were fisherman and men from Europe who jumped ship at port in America. Sailors were men who knew how to tie knots, handle the sails, maneuver the waters, and read the direction of the wind; they also had the skills and knowledge to read the navigational instruments like a compass and a sextant. There were few men who actually had these skills.

To teach the next generation about sailing, seasoned sailors would take young boys on as apprentices employed to ships as powder monkeys. These boys left home and would work on these ships for months if not years at a time. As powder monkeys their jobs would be to run black powder and the projectiles up to the main deck to the cannons, carronades, muskets, and rifles if they had all of them.

Painting of powder monkey in battle.

Drawing of Powder Monkey helping wounded sailor

Powder Monkey sleeping on gun deck.

Lake Erie is the shallowest lake out of all the great lakes. At its deepest point, it drops down to only about 210 feet. This means the ships were built more compact then the ocean fairing ships. Below deck averaged about 4 ½- 5 feet tall, so during battles these young boys, some no older than 8 years old, would become powder monkeys. That's because they had lots of energy and were short enough to continuously run below deck without getting tired or hitting their heads. That meant that they were key targets for enemy fire though. Without black powder the sailors could not return fire making them have to either retreat, surrender, or die. Imagine having to kill young boys for a war that didn't change anything.


Female sailor climbing rigging- color drawingLady in white regency dress with gold colored shawl- sketch
The other group of people living with hardships upon ships where the female tars. These women sailors where disguised as men for one reason or another: perhaps revenge for killing their husband or son, burning down the house meaning she has nothing left to lose, or the fact that the cultural restrictions on women during this time was so suffocating and making them dependents throughout their life.


Some questions that I am always asked during talks are how were they able to stay in disguise, like when they showered, menstruated, or wounded, then what would happen to them if they were discovered. 

Sketch of female sailor revealing herself to another sailor

After some research (Women Abroad Ships in Age of Sale, Female Tars. By Suzanne J Stark) I discovered that sailing was easy to join in the late 17th and 18th century. Men on the ships rarely showered so that Medical tools from 18/19th century Black and white photowasn't a big issue. Women would go to the "Head" or bathroom when it was empty, they went by themselves. If/when the women menstruated abroad, sailors had a "Don't ask, Don't tell" mentality. If they saw someone bleeding they would just think it was an STD or Vernal disease, which was common during this time. 

Color sketch of sailor showing symptoms of ScurvyAnd because healthcare was so poor the doctor would only looked at the effected body part, they wouldn't strip the patient down naked. If women were found out they would be sexually harassed, imprisoned, stranded or killed. These women, behaved like men, looked and sounded like men, and some even identified as male.











Pencil sketch of female sailor smoking and acting like male sailor

It was not an easy way of life for anyone on a ship. The malnutrition, disease, and threat of death at every turn was a risk for all sailors at sea. But because of them we have our longest, undefended, peaceful border between any 2 countries in the world, and the Perry's Victory and International Peace Memorial.

Photo of sailors walking and carrying muskets and flags with memorial column in background

war of 1812, historic rowing crew, Royal Navy, women, boys, children, sailor, disease, medical care, disguises, Battle of Lake Erie

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Last updated: October 16, 2016

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