Meet the Crew: the Boatswain

22nd February 2022
Meet the Crew: the Boatswain

The boatswain (or ‘bosun’) was an important officer onboard ships like The Golden Hinde. Their responsibilities included overseeing discipline and managing many of the day-to-day activities of the crew.

 

The boatswain was in charge of all deck activities which included ship maintenance and the preparation of sails, cordage and rigging. Each day, he would decide what tasks needed to be done and assign jobs to each member of the crew.  

Boatswains would carry a whistle around their neck called a ‘boatswain’s call’. The call consisted of a pipe (called a gun) connected a hollow sphere with a hole in the top (called a buoy). The boatswain would blow through the gun and open and close their hand over the top of the buoy to change the pitch. The call was easier to hear over the sound of the sea than the human voice, and so it was used to give commands to the crew. Different combinations of pitches meant different things.

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If the boatswain thought a crew member was misbehaving, being too slow or dodging their duties he would discipline him. Sometimes, a boatswain might resort to violence to encourage better behaviour and would lash a crew member with a stick or a rope. Even a small crime, like missing a religious service, could result in a flogging!

Like many higher-ranking members of the crew, boatswains often had boys as apprentices. The Boatswain would teach the boy the skills of a seaman, but unlike ship’s masters, the boatswain could only pass on the more basic elements of navigation. In return for their education, boys would work for them as indentured servants. If the boatswain died before the boy had passed his apprenticeship, the boy might have to enter the service of the boatswain’s family.

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