The time has come for another animal-on-a-ship story (a few posts ago, I talked about William Tubb’s mastiff dog appearing in a warrant). As usual, this one comes from the High Court of Admiralty, and it gives Captain Zachary a run for his money as ‘favourite find of the Ph.D.’
On 27 May 1643, while the Houses of Lords and Commons sat in Westminster debating the weighty matters of civil war, two mariners, John Gootts and Richard Chiles, came to Doctor’s Commons on the wonderfully named Knightrider Street, just south of St Paul’s, where the admiralty court sat. Their depositions were written down in HCA 13/58. They seem like most of the other depositions – they start with a preamble introducing the witness: Gootts was fifty, a seaman from Wapping; Chiles was just eighteen, and didn’t say where he was from. The depositions are framed as a series of responses to the ‘articles’ or ‘positions’ of another document, the libel or allegation. These are kept in a separate series, HCA 24, but I haven’t tracked down the relevant one yet.
Both Gootts and Chiles had been sailors on the ship Good Successe – Chiles was apprenticed to the master, William Lee – which had been moored in the Thames back in March. This is where the fun begins. Not far away was moored the Mayflower, of which one Harrigate was master. Harrigate had a pet: an ‘ape munkye or baboone’. Can you see what’s coming next?
Alexander Keirincx, ‘View of the Thames’, c. 1637-40, © The Trustees of the British Museum .
According to Gootts, ‘an ape, munkye or baboone is a wilde beaste and of such a nature that if it bee not chained upp and made fast will fall uppon and bite any person unknowen to yt that comes within its reach’. Worse, between the Mayflower and Good Successe were six other ships ‘which laye so close one to the other that the beast might easilye leape or skippe from one shippe to the other’. One day ‘the said beast was not chained upp or fastened at all or as it ought and should have bine or at leaste did break its fast and gott loose’.
Chiles agreed with Gootts that a ‘Munkye or baboone…oughte to be keepte upp on a chaine’. This he had ‘founde by sadd experience’, because the ‘munkye’ in question, having escaped the Mayflower, leapt and skipped to the Good Successe. Then it came into the ‘Cookeroome’, and ‘without any provocation given or offered him’, ‘bitt [Chiles] by the shoulder or arme’.
The whole escapade probably wasn’t very funny for Chiles. In fact, the bite ‘put him into an exceedinge feare of further mischeife which made him crye out for helpe’. The bite left ‘twoe greate holes…as bigge as a man might have layed his finger in each’, and Gootts said that Chiles was ‘under the surgeons hands’ for six weeks. That was the real point of these depositions. Physical strength and health were extremely important for labourers like sailors, who were often economically insecure. Time off for injury, and a doctor’s bill, could be financially devastating for a mariner and his family. The implication was that this was all Harrigate’s fault, and that he ought to pay compensation. No one says what happened to the ‘munkye’.
This is just one of the many fragments to be found in the papers of the admiralty court, but there are two reasons why I especially like it, apart from it making me laugh. First is the way it gives such a vivid picture of how busy the Thames was in the seventeenth century. It really seems to have been chock-a-block with ships, and lawsuits about collisions were pretty common. Contemporary illustrations, such as the Keirincx drawing above, or the Vissher print below, tend to show some ships but don’t quite give the same, traffic-jam impression (perhaps because they focus on the stretch of river up by London Bridge, while anchorages and wharves stretched all the way down past the eastern suburbs).
Claes Visscher, ‘View of London’, 1616, © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Some physical fragments survive too, such as a ship’s rudder reused as a wharf, found by the London Historians while mudmooching in Bermondsey. Another written fragment is a description by Edward Barlow, a sailor from the late seventeenth century who wrote a beautifully illustrated journal (National Maritime Museum, JOD/4) which was published in 1934. Barlow came from Prestwich, and of his first sight of the Thames he said (p. 23) ‘I looking below the bridge upon the river, and seeing so many things upon the water with long poles standing up in them and a great deal of ropes about them, it made me wonder what they should be’. Writing later in his life, Barlow perhaps exaggerated his youthful bewilderment for dramatic effect, but there is a real sense of a ‘forest’ of masts and rigging – perfect for a ‘munkye’ to ‘leape or skippe’ through.
The other, and perhaps more fundamental, aspect of this case that appeals to me is the slightly different perspective it gives on the 1640s than historians normally take. Gootts and Chiles might have heard the rumours of a Danish fleet supposedly supporting Charles I and ready to threaten parliamentarian London, circulating in the press during May 1643, and probably noticed the scarcity and increasing price of sea-coal in the city because Newcastle was under royalist control. They may have picked up the news of fighting across the country. Yet the two sailors had presumably recently returned from, or were preparing for, a voyage when they met the ‘munkye’ in March, and for them, 27 May 1643 was spent pursuing compensation for the time Chiles had been unable to work. This case shows that, though the civil war had an undoubtedly massive impact upon the population of the British Isles, it did not stop the ordinary and not-so-ordinary incidents and accidents of everyday life. It might seem a prosaic thing to say, but I think it is important for those of us who work on the 1640s, or any ‘revolutionary’ period, to remember this from time to time.