Playing At Command: Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the Royal Navy, 1793 – 1815

One of the most difficult things for modern-day readers to understand about the hierarchy in Aubrey’s Royal Navy is the fact that boys as young as nine were sent to sea and actually given authority over men as old as their parents with decades of seafaring experience. Even more incomprehensible is the fact that these experienced men accepted the boys’ authority. There are many factors that went into this, such as the fact that adolescence as we know it didn’t really exist, but there are other reasons why this seemingly horrible idea was actually very effective.

In her master’s thesis, Samantha Cavell proposes and analyzes an alternate theory that I found very interesting, and gives fascinating in-depth background about life in the Royal Navy during our era at the same time. The thesis is 115 pages, and therefore something of a commitment to read, but it’s so totally worth it if you’re a real enthusiast. I really think some of the best research into maritime history is being done by graduate students these days, and Ms. Cavell’s thesis is there with the best of them. The abstract of the thesis is below, as well as a link to download the entire thing.

Playing At Command
Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the Royal Navy, 1793 – 1815
By Samantha A. Cavell

The golden age of the Royal Navy, which saw its apotheosis at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, also presented one of the great paradoxes of modern naval organization. “Young gentlemen,” some as young as eight or nine, were placed in positions of authority aboard His Majesty’s ships and expected to command veteran mariners with decades of sea experience. The effectiveness of this system, and the continued success of the Royal Navy as an institution, tended to belie the obvious disadvantages of placing adolescent recruits on the quarterdecks of active men-of-war.

This study examines two aspects of the process that allowed midshipmen and quarterdeck boys to function within the shipboard hierarchy and offers explanation by way of J. C. D. Clark’s theory of a persistent ancien régime mentality in English society.

Part I examines the selection of boys destined for command. A trend that began in the late 1770s saw a dramatic increase in the number of “Honorable” boys, those with significant social and or political “interest”, entering the service. Many senior officers lamented the preferential treatment granted these young notables and its deleterious effect on subordination. Within the context of Clark’s theory of a “patrician hegemony,” the desirability of a naval career during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars meant that, increasingly, opportunities benefited the elite. The natural authority granted by birth was also widely accepted by the men of the lower deck, despite social unrest stirring in France and the effects of the Great Mutinies of 1797.

Part II looks at the sources of a young gentleman’s authority. Those institutions, both naval and civilian, that granted young gentlemen their practical and theoretical status as officers-in-training, also reinforced the structure of the old order.

The increasing social status of young gentlemen in the Royal Navy of the Great Wars and the processes that maintained their authority reflected wider social and cultural trends – developments that confirmed the view of Georgian England as an ancien régime.

Playing At Command: Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the Royal Navy, 1793 – 1815 by Samantha Cavell

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Courtesy of Samantha Cavell and LSU.
Image: Sketch by Capt. Frederick Maryatt. Courtesy of the Joyful Molly.

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1 Comment on Playing At Command: Midshipmen and Quarterdeck Boys in the Royal Navy, 1793 – 1815

  1. Alex Jackson // June 27, 2012 at 3:50 am //


    Interesting article and thesis. I am currently writing my MA dissertation on the perception of British sailors in the late eighteenth century and was wondering where the image at the top of the article was from, who was it by etc.

    Any feedback would be really useful.


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