A Short Life and a Merry One: Empire, Family, and Confraternity in the Journal of Captain Jack Cremer

“’If youth did know whate Age doth Crave Manney a penny they would save.’ But I was always for a Short life and Merry one.” – Ramblin’ Jack

By the eighteenth century, Britain had solidified its status as a nation heavily supported by sea trade. In the previous century England had emerged as an imperial power, with vast amounts of wealth and land that testified to its willingness to exploit the most vulnerable: the poor, the enslaved, the common worker. Encouraged by the economic theories of mercantilism and capitalism, Britain in the 1700s was highly invested in the growing culture of maritime identity, depicted in one of its most popular tropes: the sailor.  

Our protagonist Ramblin’ Jack typified this eighteenth century seagoer. Born John Cremer circa 1700 into a middling family living in the suburbs of London, Ramblin’ Jack’s journal, written as he reached the ripe old age of sixty-eight, exemplifies the mythology constructed around seamen beginning in the seventeenth century. John was vivacious, adventurous (in some ways, picaresque), and bawdy to the point of censorship. The journal’s transcriber notes that one Mrs. Prudentia Bellamy/Cremer, a relation of the captain, took it upon herself to be his self-appointed censor. Anything particularly off colored or irreverent was, unfortunately, snipped out by her judicating scissors. His “ramblings,” recorded from age eight to around age twenty, demonstrate the precariousness of the life in which he and other Tars (the common nickname for sailors) led, one that hinged in part to their broader place in the construction and expansion (at home and abroad) of the British Empire and its oceanic identity. Through an evaluation of the journal John left behind of his seagoing days, we can synthesize a better picture of how, through age, class, and confraternity, this British maritime identity was established and defined.

To understand John’s life and the cultivation of British maritime culture, it is important first to locate the place his family held in the hierarchy of mainland England and their longstanding connection to maritime ventures. As noted above, John’s family was middling; unlike many of his fellow sailors, John got his start as a mariner not through desperation over debts or the ever-looming specter of naval impressment (although such a terror was one that would recurrently hang over his head later in life), but through his family. In introducing himself to the reader, John narrates his family background, emphasizing that his father was master of a galley during Queen Anne’s War and his uncle Henry was a captain in the Royal Navy. Early on in his life, he was sent back and forth from his mother’s house to various relatives, and then eventually handed off to his uncle-in-law on his mother’s side, a first lieutenant of the ship the Dover, then serving in the War of Spanish Succession. This placement would eventually provide John with three important lessons: basic schooling, maritime training, and indoctrination to the wider eighteenth century nautical culture. 

By the eighteenth century, literacy was increasingly widespread in Europe and especially amongst sailors. Historian Marcus Rediker estimates that as many as three fourths of sailors could sign their own names; an essential skill for those heavily invested in the contractual nature of serving aboard ships and of wage-earning labor. Despite this, and as John’s life suggests, there remained a significant division within the larger cultural identity of sailors regarding class. Those with family ties to maritime work, or with some measure of previous schooling, were more likely to become ship officers as the position required the ability to read, write, and do basic arithmetic among other skills. Over nine out of ten officers were literate, whereas fewer than seven out of ten common sailors, those that made up the bulk of the labor, received that level of education. John’s family ties ensured he was one of the literate officers, even if his schooling was somewhat uneven. As the clarity of his journal testifies, by age sixty-eight he was more than competent in his letters and understood basic arithmetic and Latin as well. 

Alongside his scholastic education, John’s placement as his uncle’s cabin boy also ensured that he received training in navigation, ship maintenance, and maritime warfare. John was also apprenticed out to many other maritime trades such as tarring, cooping, and shipbuilding, before settling permanently into the life of a sailor. He reached the status of chief mate aboard a trading vessel before the journal ended, and the title of his work suggests that he eventually made captain. Not all sailors, even if they had spent considerable time aboard naval or merchandising vessels, developed these skills. As historian Jared Hardesty aptly demonstrates, mutinies by common sailors aboard sailing ships often required them to keep one or two officers alive in order to make port safely, as they themselves lacked the navigational knowledge required, thus demonstrating the class divide between these two groups. Although (as far as his journal relates) John never had the misfortune of being caught in a full mutiny, tensions aboard his third cousin’s vessel the Goodfellow caused constant antagonism with the first mate, who was chosen over him to be captain following his cousin’s death from smallpox. John made the extent of his dislike of the first mate known via his colorful choice of language, which included referring to him as a “scunderell,” a “Judas Villian [sic]” and the declaration that he (the first mate) “Loved a hoar in private.” His cousin’s death reveals the degree to which family could be a major determiner of status aboard a vessel; John expected, and was expected to, be elected captain despite being younger than twenty due to his competence in nautical knowledge, as well as his familial proximity to power. 

John’s relationship, antagonistic or otherwise, to the first mate betrays the culture of masculinity and authority that went into developing the identity of the sailor, which was then perpetuated by the ship’s crew and reflected onto their younger counterparts during the course of their tenure as cabin boys. John himself was heavily antagonized both by grown sailors such as his tutor, as well as by a group of boys aboard his first ship, the Dover, one of whom was the captain’s son. Throughout his stay aboard the naval vessel, the boys served as both his tormentors as well as his companions; there are just as many instances of the boys harassing him as there are instances where he joins them in harassing unfortunate crew members, such as the ship’s doctor. In an amusing anecdote involving too much drink, the boys drug a recently deceased corpse in the path of the ship’s doctor after dark. Already falling down drunk, the doctor tripped over the corpse and “began to beat the corps and call out for help, and held the dead man down and Swoar he pushed him down.” Although such activities undoubtedly caused harm to their targets, they also served to foster a sense of solidarity amongst the crew members in an dangerous and sometimes deadly line of work.

John Cremer died around 1774, having led a rather long and prosperous life for his time and choice of employment (in defiance of his favorite saying). This success had as much to do with luck as it did his family. Although death through disease or violence, as evidenced by his cousin’s untimely end, was a looming threat to both officers and common sailors aboard the eighteenth century ship, the opportunities provided to John as a youth, including those of basic education, maritime training, and hierarchical superiority, meant the chance of advancement to captain and therefore to a larger wage and better benefits, was well within reach. At the same time, these opportunities invested him into a wider maritime culture that relied, cyclically, upon the induction of youth by more experienced sailors that contributed to the expansion of British maritime identity in the eighteenth century. 

Works Cited

  • Cremer, John. Ramblin’ Jack: The Journal of Captain John Cremer, 1700-1774. ed. Richard Reynell Bellamy. London: Jonathan Cape, 1937.
  • Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
  • Hardesty, Jared Ross. Mutiny on the Rising Sun: A Tragic Tale of Slavery, Smuggling, and Chocolate. New York: New York University Press, 2021.

About the Author

Mia Swenson is currently a master’s student in the History Department at Boston College. Her research focuses on the early modern Atlantic world circa the 17th and 18th c. Specifically, Mia is interested in colonialism, trade, enslavement, and the ways in which the early modern world redefined the boundaries between centers and peripheries, as well as order and disorder on these societal edges. Find Mia on Twitter @Skye_Swenson.

To stay up to date on all things Annotations & Abstracts, follow us on Twitter @bchistcommons.

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