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English and American Shipboard Carpenters.ca. 1725-1825


Brenda Joseph McDermott
Thesis: May 2000
Chair: Crisman


Maritime Historians who write of life at sea have tended to focus their research either on the seamen or on the chief officers. Little has been said about the group of lesser officers situated between those two groups. These men were mainly specialists who helped maintain the ship and did much to ensure its smooth operation. The carpenter was one such specialist, and this thesis employs an interdisciplinary approach combining history, archaeology, and ethnography to illuminate the shipboard duties of the carpenter, and to explore where he fit in the crew hierarchy; how he was compensated; where he worked and lived aboard ship; what types of tools he used and for what purpose; and even gain a glimpse of his personal character. The historical research consists of a comprehensive review of eighteenth-and early nineteenth-century maritime documentation (e.g., British Admiralty regulations, ships logs, sailors' diaries). The archaeological analysis includes a catalog of artifacts, mainly carpentry tools, from two shipwrecks dating to the American War for Independence: the American privateer Defence in Maine, and the British collier Betsy in Virginia. The ethnographic analysis consists of several surveys from this century of how shipwrights used specific tools in constructing wooden vessels.

            The evidence indicates that in the various maritime services examined, the Royal Navy, the Continental Navy, the American state navies, the United States Navy, privateers, and merchant ships, all carpenters performed the same basic duties and generally worked under the same conditions. It was in terms of compensation and career possibilities that the Royal Navy seems to have possessed an advantage over the others. As for the specific shipwrecks, it is concluded that defence had a professional carpenter in its complement, but that  Betsy likely had a regular seaman performing those duties.

PDF not available by request of the author.