Privacy at Sea

Last week, on November 7, my colleague Jesper Jakobsen invited me to a seminar at the Saxo Institute (University of Copenhagen). In this seminar, Dr Catherine Beck was presenting her work “Understanding madness at sea in the eighteenth-century British Royal Navy”. After working on a project about superstitions surrounding shipbuilding at the Arquivo Municipal de Vila do Conde in 2015, I was very excited to get in touch with sea-related research again.

In her presentation, Dr Beck discussed how the idea of “madness at sea” was portrayed in surgeon’s logs and court martial transcripts of the late-eighteenth-century British Royal Navy. Discipline, obedience, and self-care were crucial to survival in the context of a Navy vessel, especially due to the limited space and only occasional access to land. Life at sea was tough, and sailors were generally perceived as being resilient, but also superstitious and naïve. At the shore, sailors represented almost the opposite of the Enlightenment ideals, being associated with drunkenness and absence of “reason”. In a certain way, to the world outside the ship, sailors were already “mad”. So what would constitute “madness” at sea?

Night Alarm, Prepare for Action, 19th-century caricature

Looking at her medical and legal sources, Catherine Beck could identify different “marks of insanity”. Acting in inexplicable ways, incoherent speech, and non-conforming appearance were associated with madness, but also physical signs like red eyes, indigestion, and fevers could be indicators. Interestingly, these marks alone would not necessarily be correlated to insanity at first glance. Madness at sea was less a matter of the “acts”, and more a matter of the “actor”. Similar symptoms would be understood differently depending on the ranking, responsibilities, and social background of the individual. The accumulation of several “marks of insanity” was crucial to a sufficient diagnosis. These contingencies of diagnosis were also related to the individual’s usefulness within the ship. Official diagnoses of madness were mostly used for temporary discharges after trial, in order to avoid executions that would waste experienced sailors.

These sources, however, have their limitations. The cases that came to court were the ones in which the individual’s actions became too extreme, and some trials show that the person’s mates usually managed the symptoms by themselves, creating dynamics to protect the “mad” person and each other. This idea of social dynamics within the ship being a critical factor in how the individual was treated led me to think that these dynamics probably played a massive role in the creation of privacy at sea.

Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease”

While high-ranking officials would have their own quarters, most of the crew had to share their space. As someone who lived for almost a year in a student commune that was just a large room filled with bunk beds to accommodate people, I can imagine that the sailors would find ways of creating privacy, just as us students did. While the materials (or lack thereof) onboard imposed difficulties, sailors improvised walls with sheets and created spatial definitions for themselves. Even in crowded sleeping quarters, one’s own hammock became their private space.

Ship deck, 1768, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In his work “Boys at Sea: Sodomy, Indecency, and Courts Martial in Nelson’s Navy”, B.R. Burg describes how sailors would use the ship’s space to try to conceal acts of sodomy. Efforts to keep sodomy as private as possible in the Navy would take place especially due to article 29 of the Articles of Wars, which dictates: “If any person in the fleet shall commit the unnatural and detestable sin of buggery and sodomy with man or beast, he shall be punished with death by the sentence of a court martial”. But given the spatial constraints, where would people engage in sodomy?

Sodomy trials show that members of the fleet would take advantage of any chance of seclusion, using any spatial nooks that could conceal them. A particularly important element of privacy at sea was darkness. Burg describes how the trials regularly mention the need to “grab a lantern” when people suspected of being committing sodomy were found. “Hidden places” were a bit harder to come by. Usually, the spaces described are between the ship’s guns, behind chests, or in burrows between shipboard gears (p. 66). However, the information we have at hand are of those cases in which people failed to conceal themselves. Or more importantly, they failed to conceal themselves from the wrong people. It is safe to assume that just as crewmates accommodated their mentally ill colleagues, they also found ways of providing privacy for other acts as well.

Privacy was not (and could not be) a matter of isolation from the others. Privacy was the systems created to allow everybody “their space” – not necessarily physical, but also mental. These dynamics of privacy did not depend only on spatial definitions, but of intentional acts that enabled one’s privacy: to turn one’s back, to avoid looking at something, to use one’s own body to become the “wall” for someone else, to ignore or keep secret information about others.

I am by no means a specialist in maritime history, so I would love to hear from my fellow historians about what kind of dynamics of privacy at sea they see in their sources. Any comments are more than welcome, but please bring your best “privasea” puns or keep them at bay.

Settling things like gentlemen – duelling as private justice?

One of the main advantages of working together in a “laboratory of the humanities” is how we instigate each other to think outside our disciplinary boxes. “Privacy” is an excellent catalyst to this kind of interdisciplinary discussion, especially in historical terms. At the Centre for Privacy Studies, we are continually questioning the different ways in which each of our research specialities encompasses aspects of privacy and how we can approach these aspects in a non-anachronistic way. One of the methodologies proposed by the Centre for Privacy Studies is to identify priv* words (“private”, “privacy”, and other variations) in early modern sources, and to analyse in what context they are used. In my case, my first instinct was that I had never encountered any priv* words within my German sources. The words “Privat” or “Privatheit” were not commonly used in early modern German dialects (with few exceptions). My research is mostly on popular healing practices, so most of the books and treatises I examined would use terms like “Geheim” when talking about things that could be considered “private.” But on further inspection, one of my sources was hiding a priv* word right under my nose.

In one of the chapters of my PhD thesis, I worked on the treatise “Magiologia: Christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und der Zauberey.” Written by Bartholomaeus Anhorn von Hartwiss – a Lutheran pastor from Switzerland – and published in 1674 in Basel, this treatise described in detail the use of charms and ritual healing by the population. Since my focus at the time was on how this kind of practice was depicted in religious writings by Lutheran and Catholic authorities, I missed the minutia of a chapter of this treatise dealing with the morality of duelling.

Gioacomo de Grassi, True Art of Defense (1594)

In this chapter, Anhorn described how duelling is unchristian and goes against the laws of both God and Men. The justice of a duel would imply that God would have to interfere in defence of the innocent during the fight, therefore testing God’s will. Even if the righteous person wins, they still have taken a life, which is always a sin. After legal and theological arguments, Anhorn stated that duels should be forbidden as a form of proving innocence, but also as a practice to resolve disputes, to compare strength, to entertain, and to perform private retribution.

Anhorn, Bartholomaeus. Magiologia: christliche Warnung für dem Aberglauben und Zauberey. Basel: Johann Heinrich Meyer, 1674, p. 383.

The idea of “private” retribution (Privat-Raach) is fascinating in the context of duelling. We usually think of duelling as a matter of honour, as one-on-one combat to clear someone’s name. That would require formal arrangements, mostly with witnesses and established parameters for the fight: an ordeal of “gentlemen”.

Joachim Meyers Fäktbok (MS_A.4º.2), 1560s.

A duel between gentlemen would be a more “private” form of enacting justice or of settling between parts. The judicial system was slow and required proof that sometimes would be impossible to provide in cases of defamation. In this case, the “private” justice provided by the duel would have the desired public consequence of clearing a dispute or a personal offence that would affect how the community at large perceives the individual. However, Anhorn seems to be talking about this kind of duel more in item 1 in the list above (when the fight to death is not decided by a judge), or even 2.b (a duel as a way to resolve disputes). So why is he highlighting “Privat-Raach” in his list?

It turns out the term “Privat-Raach” seemed to be in vogue in the late 17th century. One of the first sources I found using the term is from 1644, the “Vinculum gratiae, Das ist: Heiliges und Starckes Bandt Deß Innerlichen und Eusserlichen Gottesdienstes der Glaubigen im Newen Testament”, by Wilhelm Christoph Heim. In this treatise, Heim wrote directly against the idea of justice as “an eye for an eye”, and stressed that the Scripture warns us against such private retributions (“Personal Privat-Raache”, p. 121). For Heim, the true Christian should prefer to suffer injustice than to let himself be moved by impatience (“Der gläubige Mensch soll ihm viel tausendmal lieber unrecht tun / als sich zur Ungedult und Privat-Raache bewegen lassen”, p. 123). In late 17th century legal sources, Privat-Raach seems to refer to all forms of vigilante justice.

Following my own stereotypical view of duels as nobles drawing each other’s blood for honour, I never thought of duelling as a form of vigilante justice. While I was surprised to find duels listed among practices like soothsaying, healing by prayers, and harvest rituals in a treatise against superstition, it makes sense that the idea that God would look down to ensure the victory of the righteous part could be seen as superstitious. Besides, if duelling were enacting one’s own sense of justice, it would go against divine punishment and undermined due process by the legal system. It would be interesting to investigate what is happening during the late 17th century that instigated the discussion over the morality of “private retribution”, and how it relates to other forms of judicial control in German-speaking areas during the same period.

Please leave any ideas or comments below, and disagreement is more than welcome. We can always settle things like gentlemen.