Outlaws of the Atlantic (II)


Edward Barlow, “Poor Seaman”

Edward Barlow plied the oceans of the world for almost half a century. The only thing more remarkable than his ability to survive so long in a dangerous, often deadly occupation was the record he left of that survival. His journal, located in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, is an extraordinary work of 225,000 words and more than 150 drawings and color pictures. Self-educated in literacy and art (“I could not write before I came to sea”), Barlow wrote so that others might “understand what dangers and troubles poor seamen pass through.” Even though he made no apparent efforts to publish his work in his lifetime, perhaps he had family or friends in mind; perhaps he wrote for posterity, which is to say, for us.

Barlow sailed the seas during momentous times. His career (1659–1703) parallels almost perfectly England’s “Commercial Revolution,” the exponential and increasingly vital growth of trade between 1660 and the 1690s. During these years, unprecedented numbers of seamen were mobilized in the shipping industry in order to move the commodities of the world, and in navies in order to protect those profitable movements. Barlow was thus a member of one of the largest and most important occupational groups that comprised the first generation of international free wage laborers. He worked on the ship, where free and fully waged workers were employed, segregated, and taught the semiskilled work of using machinery within a complex division of labor, and where workers were disciplined to the task of orderly collective production. The concentration of labor on Barlow’s ships was huge by the standards of the day, reaching as many as one thousand sailors on the largest man-of­war.

Barlow’s astonishing journal illuminates what it meant to be a sailor in the late seventeenth century. Here we can hear a man from the lower order speaking in his own voice; his words are not mediated or distorted by authorities—the merchants, naval officers, judges, and royal officials on whom we often depend for information about working people. We do not, for once, have to ask repression to recount the history of what it was repressing. Instead we can learn of the seaman’s life as set down in the crooked hand of an autodidact, a man who valued his observations so much that for many years he carefully protected them from the elements in a wax-stoppered joint of bamboo. His triumph over the voracious seas allows us to undertake an exercise in biography and identity formation from below.

Early Life

Born in Prestwich, England (near Manchester), in 1642, Barlow early on had all the makings of a sailor. He had humble origins amid a large family of “poor people” who struggled as farmers. The family with six children had an annual income of eight or nine pounds (a little more than $1,200 in 2014 US dollars). “I never had any great mind to country work,” admitted Barlow, “as ploughing and sowing, and making hay and reaping, nor also of winter work, as hedging and ditching and thrashing and dunging amongst cattle and suchlike drudgery.” He had also worked in the coal pits. Without money or connections, Barlow was unable to get an apprenticeship to a decent trade: “the tradesmen would not take us without money or unless we would serve eight or nine years,” an unreasonably long term. In any case, Edward never had a “mind to any trade [from the time he was] a child.” Instead he had eyes that longed to see the world, and he had feet given to wandering. After hearing neighbours spin yarns about their travels, he wanted to see places remote and “strange things in other countries. ”

Although he did not know what a ship was the first time he saw one, he had in fact laid eyes upon his fate. Over the initial objections of family members, he signed an apprenticeship to a naval captain at the age of thirteen. He spent the remainder of his life working his way around the world, sailing merchant and naval vessels to Europe, the East Indies, and the New World. He spent many years living on the unforgiving element called the ocean, and left an unparalleled record of his working life.


At Sea

Barlow’s integration into the labour system of the wooden world upon the high seas was jarring. One of his earliest and most emotional comments about his new work life concerned his painful separation from loved ones. As he prepared to leave London, he ruefully noted, “Here hath the husband parted with the wife, the children from the loving parent, and one friend from another, which have never enjoyed the sight of one another again, and some by war and some in peace, and some by one sudden means and some by another.” Work at sea meant painful distance from family and friends, in the short term and, for many, the long: all relationships involving sailors were haunted by the Grim Reaper— captains drew the death’s head, a symbol of mortality, into their logs to record a sailor’s end, far from home.

Separated from kith and kin, Barlow had to adjust to the new spatial order of the ship. From the beginning of his long life at sea he compared the seaman’s lot to that of the man who “endures a hard imprisonment.” His sleeping place, for example, resembled nothing so much as a “Gentleman’s dog kennel.” And for good reason: after he was impressed into the navy in 1668, Barlow did not set foot on land for seven months. When he finally did feel the ground beneath his feet, it was in “a place where they knew I would not run away, it being a heathen country” (in North Africa). The Admiralty’s fear of desertion, especially in wartime, made this a common fate among sailors. Long incarceration on a ship was a favorite complaint among naval sailors.

Barlow soon began to see that the seaman’s life was a running duel with fear. He discovered the hard way that the work of a maritime laborer was extremely dangerous. Before he had mastered “sea affairs,” he suffered a serious accident: he fractured his skull while working at the capstan (a winch for heavy lifting). He also faced raging storms, including a hurricane, a fire in a ship with four hundred barrels of gunpowder, leaky vessels, cruel and abusive masters, capture by the Dutch navy and a Spanish privateer, and the ever-present threat injury, disease, and epidemic. Barlow counselled “young men to take any trade rather than go to sea, for though he work hard all day, he may lie safe at night.” Lucky seamen might live as well “as many ordinary tradesmen, yet they must go through many more dangers.” Peril and premature death, Barlow found, were the seaman’s shadows while working on the vast and unpredictable ocean.

Another important part of Barlow’s initiation into the world of deep-sea sailing was learning to live on his wage, which he now required for subsistence itself. His family, although humble, always managed to produce a little food for themselves, but for Barlow and others aboard the ship, this fundamental fact of life had changed. He now depended upon that customary part of the wage that was food, always a topic of serious interest to Barlow, who dearly loved to eat. When he first went to sea, Barlow thought the food was better than what he had eaten among his poor rural family at home. But later he repented of such thoughts, recalling how he left his apprenticeship to a bleacher because of bad fare: “Though it was sometimes coarse, yet it might serve any ordinary man to live by, and many times since I could have wished for the worst bit of it.” Compared to the sailor’s traditional rotten salt beef and biscuit so full of vermin that it could self-locomote, his previous diet at times looked kingly. At sea he dreamed of the “pleasures those had in England who had their bellies full of good victuals and drink, though they never worked so hard for it.”

Barlow also complained about the monetary portion of his wage, especially after he had worked off his apprenticeship. He never considered his wages equal to his trouble and suffering, and worse, he found that he often had to fight for what was lawfully his. Many merchants, it turned out, bilked seamen of their wages in order to cover the cost of damaged cargo and oceanic transport. Barlow also discovered, much to his dismay, that the navy illegally held wages in arrears as a means of labor control, to prevent desertion. As we shall see, Barlow had serious misgivings about the ways in which money increasingly governed human relationships. His own dependence upon the wage taught many lessons on this score.

All of these problems—isolation, incarceration, danger, and wage struggles—led Barlow to conclude: “There are no men under the sun that fare harder and get their living more hard and that are so abused on all sides as we poor seamen.” He was even moved to write an imaginary dialogue with young men who were thinking of becoming sailors. He warned them away from the sea, saying that he found himself “wishing many times I had never meddled with it.” He approvingly cited “the old saying”: “whosoever putteth his child to get his living at sea had better a great deal bind him prentice to a hangman.” He went on to lament, “Yea, I always knew that the worst of prentices did live a far better life than I did, for they had Sundays and other holy days to rest upon and take their pleasures; but all days were alike to us, and many times it fell out that we had more work on a Sabbath day than we had on other days.”

This last comment is crucial, for it shows how the very necessities of work at sea weakened or stripped the seaman of attachments to local and regional land-based cultures. Life at sea, for example, nearly obliterated the plebeian calendar rich with holy days and breaks from work. By Barlow’s reckoning, labour at sea even made difficult the observance of basic Christian rituals such as a proper Christmas dinner. Working as a seaman also had other, more subtle cultural effects. Barlow found that he had less control of his own time, his schedule, and his hours and activities of work, play, and rest. Seafaring, like disciplined wage labour in general, represented a brave new world.

Since Barlow continually bemoaned his occupation, why didn’t he leave the sea? At the end of each voyage Barlow faced the question anew. It seems his inability to leave the sea did not turn on lack of effort. Indeed, he felt his life at sea was a race against the clock, not least because he deeply feared having to go to sea after he reached forty years of age. Barlow kept trying to “drive a trade ashore,” but he kept failing. He faced enormous obstacles. The English economy in the late seventeenth century offered little to the “swollen mass of the poor.” The situation did not improve until late in the century, by which time Barlow was in his fifties and was unlikely to be able to switch occupations. His fears notwithstanding, Barlow was still battling the elements and “proud, imperious, and malicious” captains as he moved into his middle fifties. This was relatively uncommon among seamen, but far from unknown.

Work and Thought

How did work at sea affect Barlow’s consciousness and identity? Did it foster class consciousness? Did it foster national consciousness? International consciousness? How did he think about the world and his own place within it? We can answer these questions by analysing the evidence of social conflict in Barlow’s journal, and more specifically the language he uses to describe and discuss the power relationships that governed ever-roving travels around the globe.

Barlow took great pride in his global seafaring, which transformed him from a provincial farm laborer into a man of the world, a genuine cosmopolitan. Indeed he looked back from his worldly perch at sea to scorn his neighbours: “Some of them would not venture a day’s journey from out of the smoke of their chimneys or the taste of their mother’s milk; not even upon the condition that they might eat and drink of as good cheer as the best nobleman in the land, but they would rather stay at home and eat a little brown crust and drink a little whey.” Barlow would return home as Walter Benjamin’s man from afar to tell stories of strange and fascinating things he had seen overseas.

One of Barlow’s most dogged habits was his insistence upon blaming authorities for the problems he experienced. Whether his difficulties were personal or political, small or large, he usually managed to find a culprit. Not surprisingly, he always had special venom for those who exploited and oppressed “poor seamen.” Actions by the lesser officers of the vessels on which he sailed rankled him from time to time, particularly with their privilege of first choice of the ship’s food. When the officers took their cut of the salt beef, they “left for the poor men but the sirloin next to the horns.” They also left the tars “Hobson’s choice”—that or nothing. Barlow also disliked the surgeons on the larger ships, whose prescriptions, he said, “doeth as much good to [the sick sailor] as a blow upon the pate with a stick.” Even when Barlow became an officer later in his career, his view of the world reflected his origins on the lower deck.

Barlow reserved special wrath for the purser, who stocked the king’s ships with food and drink. This greedy figure “never buyeth that which His Majesty alloweth, but always buyeth the worst and putteth thee rest of the money in his own pocket.” Corruption was rife throughout the Royal Navy. Even more galling—and dangerous—was a purser in unholy alliance with the ship’s captain, for “if a poor seaman do but speak [his complaint], then he is in danger of being beaten, for the purser and captain holding together and sharing all the gains that cometh that way, a poor man must not be heard for that which is his right.” Anyone who dared to speak for such right risked “twenty or thirty blows on the back.” In extreme cases, “poor men’s lives” were “taken away for speaking for what is their due. ”

Masters and captains did not have to unite with pursers to excite Barlow’s wrath, for oftentimes they were quite unbearable on their own. Barlow railed against “proud and ambitious masters” of merchant vessels, who cheated tars out of their lawful wages, made unreasonable demands, and found fault with every little thing the crew did. He had contempt for cowardly commanders of naval ships, “who can swagger and curse and swear, damn and damn, with their great periwigs and swords, huffing about when [none of their enemies] is near them.” Such pretentious aristocrats, Barlow thought, belonged more in “some dung boat than in a good King’s ship.” Barlow was never reluctant to judge his “superiors,” and his judgments were often harsh.

Barlow aimed his most bitter denunciations at “merchants and owners of ships in England.” These figures did not stock their vessels with enough food for transatlantic voyages, and they thereby profited from the sailor’s “hungry belly.” They also docked the seaman’s hard-earned wages to pay for damaged cargo, even when the damage had been caused by a leaky ship, which a carpenter might fix but a common sailor could not. Barlow did not confine his criticism to single owners of ships or to small companies. He went after the East India Company, which he felt consistently took advantage of the “poor man” before the mast. To Barlow and his mates, the company’s customs officers were always “as welcome to us as water into a ship which is about to sink.” Barlow had nothing but a sneer for Sir Josiah Child, a leading light in the company and a leading mercantile thinker of the day. His fortune, not surprisingly, had come from being a merchant victualler to the Royal Navy in Portsmouth.

Barlow occasionally ventured beyond the maritime world altogether in his expression of antagonism. He was not shy about criticizing “the rich,” or at least some of them. He argued that “great Lords and earls” who lived in “pomp and vanity” amid their “moneys and pleasures”—and who were often “traitors” to their country—should have their property expropriated and given to “some poor true-hearted seaman that goes to sea for want of means.” He also thought that “many of our English gentry and such as lie at home in their beds of down, in their ease and pleasure, eating up the fat of the land, and studying treacheries” should have to change places with seamen “for a month or two.” Barlow fiercely detested the refusal of wealthy people to help “a poor lame or old seaman” who had “lost his limbs and suffered shipwreck and imprisonment” while defending the rich and their country and who was now reduced to begging. Barlow’s desire to turn the world upside down by changing the places of rich and poor proceeded from his understanding that one of the primary functions of the state was to protect the wealthy and their property. Barlow several times referred to the misfortunes and dangers suffered by seamen on the high seas so that the rich “may lie glutting themselves at home in all manner of pleasures.” In fact, many were poor because a few were rich and vice versa, in his sophisticated conception of the relations between classes.

There was one last villain on Barlow’s black list, and that was the English state itself. Barlow ranted against the “evil custom” of impressment, which affected so many seamen and so many of the poor as a whole. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteen centuries the Admiralty used forced labour to man the navy and fight the wars of empire. Many a “poor man” lost “his chest and clothes and several months’ pay” when pressed, all of which were “more to him than he can make good again in a twelvemonth time, considering his small wages and the uncertainty of it before he received it.” Barlow himself was impressed into the Royal Navy, as were many of his shipmates. They told their yarns of battle against the press gang. The state itself oppressed the tar by its use of coercive and involuntary labor.

Barlow spoke of conflict largely in a religious idiom taken from the Bible. His contestants in conflict were sometimes “the rich” and “the poor,” both Biblical concepts, but more often they were the powerful and the powerless, with the former designated according to position of power (merchant, captain, purser), and the latter as victim (“poor seaman,” “poor man,” “poor soul”). The notion of “the poor” is utterly central to Barlow’s language of class. Barlow used “the poor” to designate not only the afflicted and the unfortunate in temporary need of relief, but all those with “want of means,” those who had no independent way of getting a living, even though they did not, as in Barlow’s case, lack employment. Barlow’s poor were the labouring poor, who multiplied rapidly with enclosure of common lands and other forms of expropriation in seventeenth-century England. Living in a society fundamentally organized through patronage and preferment, Barlow’s poor also lacked connections. When Barlow himself was on the verge of realizing a lifelong dream by setting up as captain and getting his own ship, his patron in the arrangement suddenly died: “It proves many times thus with a poor man, when he most depends upon the fair words and slippery performances of many men, their words being wind which passed away without any hold to be taken of them.” The “poor” or “ordinary” man, forced to sell his labour power for a wage because he owned no land, skills, or tools was thus repeatedly buffeted by forces beyond his control. This, along with the sheer weight of difficult material circumstances, led to a certain fatalism in Barlow’s treatment of rich and poor. He noted that “riches always forget poverty,” and that “he that is poor shall be poor still.” Here as elsewhere Barlow paraphrased a common biblical observation: “For the poor always ye have with you.”

Alongside or within his beliefs about the ubiquity of “the poor,” Barlow also had a certain levelling instinct, as he consistently expressed values of equality and justice in many of his complaints and critical reflections outlined above. For example, he placed rich and poor upon the same plane of spiritual equality. He believed that “there is no question that the Lord will hear the praise of the poor as well as the rich.” God was “no respecter of persons,” which meant that he did not favour the rich over the poor, men over women, white over black. He also pointed out that rich and poor were equally subject to “death’s stroke.” If Barlow could not always see how the poor might achieve parity with the rich, he was at least able to comfort himself with the evanescence of riches, which “have wings many times, and fly away from many.” Barlow also expressed his levelling instinct in action. He returned to his hometown after years at sea, in clothes which, he said, were “too high for my calling.” But the clothes had the desired effect: all of his old neighbours asked about the identity of the visiting “gentleman.” Barlow snickered to himself: “if they had seen me many times before and since on such condition as I was many times in, they would sooner have asked what beggar or what gaol­bird I had been, or from what prison I had come out of.”

Barlow’s attitude toward concentrated riches and the money that increasingly shaped England’s social and political life was largely negative, sometimes violently so. His consciousness expressed a moral economy of fair treatment and decent subsistence for all. The advance of free mobile waged labour was part of a broad process of social change and polarization, part of the early establishment of capitalist relations of production in England and its empire. Such relations featured prominently in the merchant shipping industry and the Royal Navy, where Barlow and many thousands of others like him worked. As more men and women began to work for wages, money became more central to getting a living and thus to social life as a whole. Barlow found this process by which “all matters are balmed with money” to be deeply disturbing. The rapid accumulation of wealth was considered by many to be a corrosive, even illegitimate process. Barlow explained, “it is an old maxim, and I do believe a true one, that he that makes haste to be rich cannot be innocent.” The lust for wealth thus produced an amoral drift in social life. Some men, Barlow said, “do anything for a little money, not caring how or which way they break their oath, so that they get gain.” Although Barlow aimed these words at those who abused their authority in search of gain, they struck perilously close to home: many poor people found themselves in the desperate position of having to “do anything for a little money.” Keeping body and soul together required it. But the real offenders to Barlow were not the poor, but rather the powerful. Merchant captains, Barlow insisted, “care not how much or what way they can get all to themselves, and care not what little other people get that are under them.” Barlow clearly felt that proper social relations were being deranged by the advancing competition, materialism, and “possessive individualism” of the age.

Near the end of his life, in 1703, Barlow issued a thundering damnation after a great storm that sank hundreds of vessels and killed thousands of his brother tars. To Barlow, the meaning of the storm was straightforward: it was a “warning of God’s anger” and a sign of moral corruption. He wrote, “No man values his word or promise, or matters what he doth or saith, so that he can but gain and defraud his neighbour. All commanders and masters of ships are grown up with pride and oppression and tyranny.” He concluded in frustration drawn from his own life experience: “I want words to lay out the business and unworthy dealings of many men I have met with, not acting like Christians.” It would be no exaggeration to say that Barlow criticized, and often battled, ship captains throughout his long labouring life.

Edward Barlow was not a radical, at least not according to the standard meaning of the term in the mid- to late- seventeenth century. He apparently harboured no antiroyalist sentiments; other than his complaints about impressment, he made no sustained critique of “kingly power.” In fact he proclaimed the accession of Charles II in 1660 “with great joy.” (It must be noted, however, that it is hard to tell how much of the joy came from satisfaction that the monarchy had been restored and how much came from the free wine, the piece of gold worth nine shillings and sixpence, and the extra month’s pay given to the men in the Royal Navy to encourage their joy, celebration, and loyalty.) Barlow had no apparent association with the radical sects of the revolutionary era. He mentioned such groups only once, in 1661: there were “troubles arising about the Fifth Monarchy men, so called, and other disturbances, which put us in fear for the ships in Chatham, and we were forced to keep a watch very strictly every night. ”

Despite such differences Barlow shared something of a mental and moral world with the radicals, for both were products of the same wrenching social changes that shook seventeenth-century England. Most significantly, both expressed great awareness and experience of social power and difference. The language used to discuss such matters fused politics and religion within a militant Christianity. Indeed Barlow sounded like the True Digger Gerrard Winstanley, one of the most radical voices of the English Revolution, when he wrote that the docking of seamen’s wages was “a custom too long used in England to the oppression of poor seamen,” depriving “the poor man of his lawful hire.” Later in life, perhaps when his ability to fight his own battles had waned, Barlow invoked an angry and avenging God who “in His time will reward [the East India Company’s] doings to oppress the poor and the hireling.” It is of crucial significance that Barlow, like the most extreme of the radicals, identified not with “the people” (the middling elements of English society), but rather with “the poor. ”

Like many of the radicals, Barlow considered himself both an English patriot and a Protestant internationalist, and as such he was often concerned with the doings and “plottings” of “papists.” He called himself a patriot, a “true-hearted Englishman,” a product of high civilization, and he tended to look down on the strange customs practiced in “heathen countries.” It troubled him immensely—as Protestant, European, and free labourer—to hear about the selling of Christians as slaves in Algiers, where men were bought and sold “like so many sheep.” He did not express the same objection to African slavery, though it must be noted that in his many voyages he never sailed in a slave ship, which must have reflected an important personal choice. He also expressed sympathy for the enslaved Africans who rebelled near Port Royal, Jamaica, in 1678: they “live under so much torture and hardship that rather than endure it they will run any hazard, for they are very hard worked. ”

Yet Barlow’s patriotism and Protestantism had limits. Like some radicals in the English revolutionary movement of the 1640s and 1650s, Barlow had doubts about the civilizing quest of the English empire. In 1689, after voyages to Brazil, China, and the East and West Indies, Barlow wondered about the world outside Europe: “But for foreign nations to come and plant themselves in islands and countries by force, and build forts and raise laws, and force the people to customs against the true natures and people of the said places, without their consent, how this will stand with the law of God and the religion we profess, let the world judge.” His scepticism about the “civilizing” project of imperialism was palpable. Barlow also thought on occasion that England was “grown the worst kingdom in Christendom for poor seamen.” His experience in the international maritime labour market undercut whatever nationalist sentiments he may have harboured.

Another important commonality in the worldview of Barlow and many radicals was the utter absence of belief in “the dignity of labour.” Despite his Protestant identity, Barlow gives not a shard of evidence to suggest that he attached any moral meaning whatsoever to work at sea. There was nothing dignified about the wage dependency and the harsh, degrading relations of authority Barlow experienced as a seaman. In fact, his condition seemed so bad at times that he likened the seaman’s plight to that of the slave. He noted that “all the men in the ship except the master [were] little better than slaves, being under command.” Barlow also fantasized about changing places with a beggar: “I was always thinking that beggars had a far better life of it and lived better than I did, for they seldom missed of their bellies full of better victuals than we could get, and also at night to lie quiet and out of danger in a good barn full of straw, nobody disturbing them, and might lie as long as they pleased.” Of course “it was quite the contrary with us”: Barlow never got his “belly full”; he never slept more than four hours (often it was less) because of the watch system at sea. Bitter comparisons to slaves and sweet fantasies of beggars are not the stuff of belief in the dignity of labour. Barlow saw work as “sweat and toil”; he got his living “by hard fare and sore labour. ”


Christopher Hill has shown that seventeenth-century ideas about the dignity of labor were most popular among people of middling property, who, as independent farmers and craftsmen, owned their own land and tools, their means of independent subsistence. At the other end of the social scale there existed a contrary attitude, a hostility to wage labour and a desire to escape it. Hill writes, “Theories of the dignity of labour had little appeal for those who had evolved out of serfdom into wage labour.” Further, the “antithesis of freedom was the stultifying drudgery of those who had become cogs in someone else’s machine.” This was precisely the situation in which Edward Barlow found himself. The drudgery was the monotonous and closely supervised work in the wooden world; the machine was the ship; the someone else to whom it belonged was the merchant and the shipowner, those ungodly people against whom he railed bitterly throughout his journal of four decades.
In the end, Edward Barlow’s precious account of his long life at sea offers a remarkable glimpse into the mind of a late- seventeenth-century sailor. Fundamentally shaped by his experience of labour, he combined in his thinking and doing a potent mix of the national and the international, the religious and the secular, the moral and the political. Given the present state of research, it is impossible to say whether Barlow was “typical” of his brother tars or English working people more generally. But we can say that his journal allows us to study a particular consciousness and set of beliefs in a concrete and nuanced way, to see how Barlow’s work experience helped to create a personal disposition that included egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, and moralistic tendencies. It might be argued that in certain ways Barlow’s thought reflects a form of plebeian antinomianism, a set of beliefs that by the late seventeenth century had lost both some of its millennial religious fervour and its overt political meaning. In any case, Barlow’s journal illuminates a horizon of possibilities within a popular world of work and consciousness, a world still only poorly understood.