The sailor’s aspirations in the seventeenth century
Life at sea, according to an eighteenth-century eyewitness, was at least as hard as life in prison. Why then did sailors not seek a more pleasant life on land instead of squandering the money they had scraped together, often over the years, in taverns within a few weeks? To show what being a sailor or a merchantman was like, Caroline Hanken has created an imaginary character, Sebald, whose experiences at sea are based on those recorded by real sailors.
For a common sailor, with only a hammock and a footlocker for his things, it was not easy to keep a journal aboard a crowded, tossing ship. Though many sailors were able to read and write, keeping a diary was often hard, tiring work and only a few of their diaries have come down to us. But we also have detailed accounts of what the crew ate, how duties were allocated and tasks performed in the course of the day – largely thanks to the scrupulous records kept by the great trading companies.
Sebald’s Voyages affords us a fascinating glimpse of the initiation of a young boy from Amsterdam into the rough and miserable life of seamen on board ship and in various ports. The ‘naval culture’, as Hanken calls it, ‘was characteristic of a nomadic society whose first objective was survival in hazardous surroundings.’ This loose collection of shiftless men was completely dependent on their fellows at sea, and even on land sailors sought each other out. In appearance, mentality and status (or their lack of) seamen constituted a world apart, one that stretched from Amsterdam to the Cape, from Batavia to Ceylon, from East to West.
Hanken has Sebald act as a flesh-and-blood guide to this adventurous existence. Apart from learning about daily life on board ship in the company of seamen, the reader learns about the effects of that life on the individual sailor. Sebald’s Voyages is a colourful account of a seaman’s life during his peregrinations on the seven seas at the end of the seventeenth century.