- Lancaster, John
- Ship design and development, History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
(‘He that would go to sea for pleasure, would go to hell for a pastime.’ Old proverb.)
It is sometimes difficult for Guides to explain to the public that we haven’t got it wrong; “…and yes ‘the Bark Endeavour’ is spelt B-A-R-K.”: let alone the reason why. On one occasion Mannering even had a retired Admiral turning florid, beating one hand into the other, insisting on the ‘QUE’ bit.
And then in the early days there were the well intentioned letters advising us of our spelling mistake, no doubt the [Society’s] Sydney office still finds the odd one in the mail bag today. The Media of course, continues to make its own arrangements which keeps the pot boiling.
Perhaps, to set the record straight, it would be helpful for Guides to know the background to the vocabulary of names and words which has evolved over the centuries and is used to identify and describe ships and boats?
So back to basics. First came Adam and Eve and somewhere along the sealanes of history emerged ye first boat. This eventually grew into ye shippe, a merchant ship, and in the language of the day these vessels were commanded by Shipmasters.
While this was evolving armed bands (the soldiery) were engaged across the globe with each other on foot and on horseback. Later came the strategic requirement to get about, across the waters and do a bit of exploring and pillaging and eventually invading. This period of history saw the introduction of military transports, which were merchant ships taken out of trade but still commanded by their Masters.
Someone on the receiving end of one of these military incursions got the idea of stopping invaders at sea, before they could land and have a plunder. To do so meant embarking men-at-arms in trading ships and building platforms in them from which the soldiers had a better chance of aiming and using their weapons against people in enemy ships. So our ship, whilst remaining a merchant ship commanded by its master, had now become a fighting ship.
It didn’t take long to find the antidote to the fighting ship. Some oriental had recently invented gunpowder so now we had a merchant ship converted with fighting platforms and armed with cannon. Our merchant fighting ship had become a war ship (later to be called a Battle Ship) and with it came another problem.
The need for someone to take charge of and direct the actual fighting, while the Master managed and sailed his ship.
This had to be someone with the necessary skill-at-arms, obviously a soldier. Now emerges The Captain, for by then we didn’t have Colonels and Generals.
It was not long before the Captain, in order to better fight in the merchant ship or warship, needed to control the ship in action. This introduced the system whereby the military commanded the ship in and eventually before and after the battle, whilst the Master remained in charge and worked the ship to meet the requirements of the military Captain. Ships engaged in trading were unaffected by this convention, their Mercantile Marine Masters remaining firmly in command at all times.
With the introduction of purpose built warships, without a commercial capacity or role, a band of professional military marines emerged to man them. We are now witnessing the development of another navy, as far as this account is concerned, the Royal Navy.
Finally, before we move on to our subject it should be explained that the Navy during its evolution modeled itself very much on Merchant Navy lines. Carpenters Sailmakers and Boatswains were retained as Warrant Officers whilst other military ‘skills’ were introduced such as Gunners, Armourers, Master-at-Arms, Quartermasters and so on up the ladder of the hierarchy to the senior of the Warrant Officers on board; The Master.
The Master as a position and appointment in the Navy lasted for quite a long time and the title still survives in some areas of the various Commonwealth Navies to this day. To identify the Master’s position in shipboard naval society it is fair to say that he was the senior noncommissioned officer in the ship and was the specialist responsible for advising the captain on navigation, pilotage, shiphandling and to some extent, sail handling.