When signed on to a ship’s books, a man was given a rating according to his experience. Freshmen to the sea were known as landsmen, those with limited experience were ordinary seamen, while knowledgeable sailors were rated able seamen.
Petty or Warrant Officers
From the pool of able seamen came the candidates for promotion to higher duties. Petty Officers and Warrant Officers included mast captains, gunner’s mates, quartermasters, master-at-arms, carpenter, bosun and cooper, the ship’s master, chaplain and surgeon.
Midshipmen were effectively on board a ship to help lieutenants control the crew. If good enough, they could take command of small boats or prizes. Winning promotion to lieutenant was the aim of most young midshipmen who entered service in their early teens. Some, however, were still in their lowly rank in their 30s, 40s and even older.
Lieutenants were the backbone of a ship’s command structure, despite only being on the first rung of the commissioned officer classification. As a lieutenant, officers could expect a regular half-pay income, if put in reserve by the Admiralty, but had numerous tasks to fulfill for the security. They would command small boats, gun divisions in battle, oversee a watch, and were most likely to lead dangerous boarding or cutting-out parties. Depending upon the rating of a Royal Navy vessel, there could be up to six lieutenants on board.
The next step up from lieutenant was the rank of commander. Usually on remote duty, a commander was effectively a captain in all but official title.
The absolute ruler on his ship, a captain had the power of life or death over the crew. Some made ship-board life hell for all, while others inspired a love from those they commanded. The captain was responsible for the well-being of the crew, ensuring there were enough of them to have the ship ready for service, and even paying for extras to keep them happy. Elevation to admiral was pretty automatic for captains and depended only upon seniority based upon their date of commission.
A commodore was a captain promoted temporarily to take charge of a detached naval squadron. Commodores on active service were usually the ones the Admiralty had earmarked for the most senior ranks.
Unemployment on half-pay was often the lot of a British admiral. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars fewer than a quarter of those available were on duty. If an admiral went to sea, his flagship was usually that of the fleet’s junior captain.
Courtesy of The Napoleonic Guide.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading:
- An Introduction to Patronage and Promotion in Aubrey’s Royal Navy
- An Introduction to Pay and Prize Money in Aubrey’s Royal Navy
- An Introduction to Punishment in Aubrey’s Royal Navy
- An Introduction to Life, Death and Health in Aubrey’s Royal Navy
- An Introduction to the Watch System in Aubrey’s Royal Navy