Treasure Island: In search of the real Jim Hawkins

Diving into the historical archives, in search of the real-life versions of Stevenson’s ship’s boy Jim Hawkins, reveals how the boys in the Georgian Navy struggled between heroism and madness.
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Diving into the historical archives, in search of the real-life versions of Stevenson’s ship’s boy Jim Hawkins, reveals how the boys in the Georgian Navy struggled between heroism and madness.

Remember reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island as a kid? Some have, in a romantic fit, even dug it out a second time to read it to their kids. Others have evolved from a boy, who was sabotaging his time by dreaming up pirate adventures, into a dusty historian, who wonders how close his treasure-hunting childhood hero Jim Hawkins comes to the historical reality. The latter would be me.

The lives of the boys who enlisted in the Royal Navy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Britain’s golden age of sail, were no less adventurous than that of their fictional counterpart Jim Hawkins. Most boys were a mere thirteen or fourteen years old when they went on board a man-of-war, unsure if and when they would return to their families. Some of Jim’s mates were not volunteers in the purest sense. Though the Navy’s sailor-snatching ‘press gangs’ were only after proper seamen not boys, local authorities on land always thought that the best solution for juvenile misfits was to send them to sea. Unruly and unemployed youths had increasingly become a concern for eighteenth-century society, and the sea appeared as the most practical ASBO.

If we were allowed to step back in time and go on board a Georgian warship, we would be amazed how many Jim Hawkinses we would find: boys made up near ten percent of a crew. The common wisdom was that a man had to get used to the hardships of a sea life from an early age, else he would never turn into a hardened British sailor. Due to his small stature, there was one job on board for which Jim was more qualified than anybody else: Jim was quick in manoeuvring through the narrow spaces of the ship, and this was made best use of during combat, when the boys were employed as ‘powder monkeys’. In the heat of the battle, Jim had to run to and fro between the guns and below decks to fetch the powder, where it was kept for safety reasons. Fourteen-year old Sam Leechgraphically recollected his first battle as a powder monkey:

The roaring of canon could now be heard from all parts of our trembling ship, and, mingling as it did with that of our foes, it made the most hideous noise... the whole scene grew indescribably confused and horrible; it was like some awfully tremendous thunder-storm, whose deafening roar is attended by incessant streaks of lighting, carrying death in every flash, and strewing the ground with the victims of its wrath. (Sam Leech, A Voice from the Main Deck - London 1857, 1999 p73-4).

What stuck in the boys’ memories was their first encounter with death. Thirteen-year old David Farragut vividly remembered the first casualty he witnessed:

I shall never forget the horrid impression made upon me at the sight of the first man I had ever seen killed. He was a boatswain’s mate, and was fearfully mutilated. It staggered and sickened at first; but they soon began to fall around me so fast that it all appeared like a dream, and produced no effect on my nerves.

Loyall Farragut, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut - New York 1879, p40)

David’s comments suggest that the boys soon numbed towards the slaughter. Reading such statements today, one immediately thinks of the child soldiers in modern-day Africa. Evidently, the Navy needed to recruit their men at a very young age not just to get them used to the natural hardships of a sea life, but also so that they got immune to the horrors of war. Facing perils without fear, even with intentionally displayed unaffectedness, was the culture the Navy fostered. It was perhaps the only mental defence mechanism to cope with what was the most dangerous profession of the time.

"Unruly and unemployed youths had increasingly become a concern for eighteenth-century society, and the sea appeared as the most practical ASBO."

Remarkably, the enemy was by no means the greatest threat to Jim. Most of his mates died without an enemy ship in sight. As naval surgeon James Lind remarked in 1762: ‘The number of seamen in time of war, who die by shipwreck, capture, famine, fire, or sword, are indeed but inconsiderable, in respect of such as are destroyed by the ship diseases, and by the usual maladies of intemperate climates.’ Keeping ships and sailors at sea and healthy was the biggest challenge for all navies.

Years had often passed when Jim eventually returned home. In times of war, the Navy rarely allowed any shore leave, fearing its sailors would desert at the slightest opportunity. By the time peace finally arrived, some of Jim’s mates had matured so dramatically at sea that their mothers failed to recognise their sons. Peacetime brought new challenges. Sailors were less in demand. Until 1853 there was no continuous service in the Royal Navy, and sailors were only hired or pressed when needed. In peacetime, Jim now faced the decision whether to try to settle down on land, or to carry on living, as the sailors termed it, like a ‘Rowling Stone’ at sea.

Something that emerges only when looking more carefully at the historical documents is that Jim’s biggest challenge in settling down might not have been on the job market but in his own head. Some of his battle scars went deeper than a wooden leg. Dependency on alcohol, the medication that had helped many to cope with the cold and cruelty of a sea life, was one of the long-term damages. To a degree, the Navy even fostered regular alcohol consumption and preferred it to giving out tea, as the latter allegedly reduced the men’s fighting spirit. Now back on land it would come out whether the sailor’s bravado, the defiance of death and mutilation celebrated in so many sailor songs, had been genuine or just a show. The boys had been exposed to slaughter at a very young age – had they really ever digested this, or had they just locked it away in a sea chest deep down in their memory, hoping that it would never be opened?

On land, Jim was without his shipmates, the family that had surrounded him every day in his adolescence. Unlike his age-peers on land, Jim had not yet learned how to relate to people outside his core family. He only knew friend or foe, but no grey-tones. That is perhaps why sailors were such a tightly-knit group. People noticed unusually high numbers of ‘lunatics’ among sailors. During the war against Napoleon, physician Sir Gilbert Blane observed that insanity was at least seven times more common in the Royal Navy than among the general population. Blane struggled to find an explanation, but presumed it had something to do with sailors frequently banging their heads against the ships’ beams.

Of course, banging ones head on a Georgian man-of-war was easily done; many tourist visitors to HMS Victory in Portsmouth have painfully figured that one out. But there were plenty of other physical and psychological impacts that could have negatively affected Jim’s mental health. It was not just battle stress. There was, for example, Jim’s abrupt and early separation from family and home, the sudden loss of attachment figures; furthermore sexually transmitted diseases, malnourishment and high alcohol consumption could all have affected his mental health.

At the start of the eighteenth century, sailors became the main patients of Bedlam, London’s infamous madhouse. Here the most unfortunate of Jim’s mates ended as a cheap spectacle for voyeuristic Londoners: for one penny, visitors gained entry to the hospital and laughed at the ‘freak show’. Some of the visitors brought long sticks, so that they could poke and provoke the patients. They were laughing at Jim, whom they had sent to sea to fight for Britain’s empire and whose emotional wounds they did not understand. They had not seen the carnage his young eyes had to digest; they had not felt the tremendous thunderstorm carrying death in every flash.

Roland Pietsch’s book The Real Jim Hawkins is out in September 2010 (Seaforth Publishing) and can be bought at Pen and Sword or at Amazon below.

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