View Full Version : 18th Century England Question about Ships and Passengers

09-02-2008, 05:18 PM
Suppose someone in England during the mid 18th century wanted to take a ship down to Africa. He's not a sailor, nor does he have any real experience with ships. He's an educated man, but hasn't yet fully completed his studies. And suppose the ship is concerned with transporting cargo, not so much people. What might a person like this Englishmen do in order to secure a spot on a ship? What are the options?

Could he pay?
Could he be hired to help on deck (Or is that too unlikely)?
If he knew the ship's doctor, might he hook up with him?

My second question is this: Where would a man like this sleep? Would he sleep with the crew? Might there be some kind of passenger quarters?

I'm still trying to accumulate information about this subject and would love to obtain anything anyone might have to offer concerning this point of interest.

Many thanks,


09-02-2008, 05:34 PM
Where in Africa do you want him to go?

09-02-2008, 05:37 PM
do you mean England or the UK? His options would differ depending on which port he travelled from and where he was going to.

09-02-2008, 06:02 PM
In those days you couldn't just sail wherever you wanted, you had to land in a friendly port. Hence the question above, where in Africa do you want him to go?

As far as the general question, I'm sure he could arrange it if he paid the right price.

09-02-2008, 06:04 PM
Wylander: He will be traveling to the western coast of Africa, ending up in either Benin or maybe clear down to Angola. Think transatlantic slave trade route. My story is flexable, as it is still in its early stages.

pdr: I was thinking of England, although the nature of my narrative could alter without too many problems if something else would work better.


09-02-2008, 06:12 PM
Depends on several factors. Simply hanging around a naval port could get him press-ganged and the he doesn't have to pay.

Lots of international commerce at that time all via ship. Some legal, some not. It would NOT be hard to buy a ride. At that point pretty much all the African coast has been explored and there are lots of ports, but these tended to change hands between the colonizing nations. So you might go to a port one year and find that it was English, the next year the French or Dutch have taken over.

At any point while at sea, the Navy (and to some degree the East India Trading Company - which had possibly more power than the government at that time) could demand the assistance of ANY ship, and board any ship at will. Additionally all ships were likely to be attacked by rival nations.

Then you have pirates (not just in the Caribbean) in the area and these would also work in fleets and had the power to over-run ports. These would
pop in and out of legal status.

Speaking of, often ships would have passage papers (origin of the the passport) from various governments. They would pull out the one they deemed the best if they feared being boarded.

But you could buy passage.

If the ship was a merchant ship, then if you paid enough, you might get your own quarters, but you should remember that ships was VERY small and a full crew didn't have much space (sleeping was done in shifts). However, often times, ships would leave port without a full crew, so....

However, there were really no passenger ships per se.

He could be hired. But all he was guaranteed at the time was food and a hard life. Payment was usually done at the end of the journey, though there would often be a signing bonus (usually to get the crew drunk and on board easily).

Hope this helps.

09-02-2008, 06:28 PM
Many thanks, Wordmonkey. Many thanks.

It looks like there's plenty of wiggle room for creating the scenerio I'm hoping to construct. The other bits of information you provided are certainly fascinating too.

Well, off to writing more... or maybe I should say, staring at my monitor, hands ready to type :-)


09-02-2008, 06:47 PM
If he is a gentleman -- and he would be if he is a university student -- I can't really imagine him helping out on deck.

09-02-2008, 06:53 PM
Bristol would be a fairly obvious port for him to set out from

09-02-2008, 07:55 PM
Bristol, yes, that does sound good.

And a gentleman helping out on deck is hard to imagine as well. It looks like the only reasonable option is passenger... though a passenger sailing upon a merchant ship for Africa might not afford the best conditions. In other words, I want this gentleman to get a little dirty.


09-02-2008, 09:12 PM
Does he know any Bristol merchants? He could maybe swing a fairly soft passage if he were going to be doing something at the destination on behalf of the owner/hirer of the vessel.

If you can find 'Flash for Freedom' by George MacDonald Fraser it may be useful. The MC spends time on a slave ship going down to West Africa and then across the Atlantic. The era is rather later than your setting, but I doubt too much would be dramatically different on the ship.

And it is a really good read

09-02-2008, 10:32 PM
Not a bad idea, Waylander. And I looked up that book at Amazon, going directly to the "look inside" portion. I liked it at once! Clearly the man knows how to write. Thanks for the recommendation!


09-02-2008, 11:42 PM
Here's a possibility.

If your MC has money, he could either buy a ship or buy a partnership in a ship (he would then hire a captain and crew). A variant on this would be that he funds an expedition/venture.

Merchants would not specifically own a fleet of ships, but they would commission/fund a journey. They would pay money to sometimes buy a ship, or just crew and supply it. For this, when the ship returned, they would take the vast majority of the profits. (Hence the saying, "Waiting for his ship to come in.)

If your MC has the contacts, it is possible he could buy a stake in such a venture, then wangle his way onto the ship itself.

As an owner, he might well be able to lay claim to the Captain's quarters.

One thing to remember. The more legal and legitimate the ship, the more draconian the rule. Actually pirate ships were true democracies. On a navy ship, or one owned by the EITC the rule of Captain was final and often brutal.

Additionally, private merchants were likely to run afoul of the EITC who had the power to declare a smaller independent merchant a pirate and thus put that ship under risk of attack from any and all navies.

You should also do a little research about the things like the doldrums and the political situations in Africa. Depending one when you specifically set the story there is a lot going on in the Atlantic and a lot of potential to find yourself in a fight just because you are running the wrong flag. Britain, France, Spain, and Holland were all major players, but you had lesser powers looking to build empires and the troubles brewing (or exploding) in the colonies.

One final thought that occurs to me. If the ship is making a primarily slave run, there is every chance that after collecting it's "cargo" (which the captain will buy then sell and bring back the profit - possibly in the form of another resource) the ship is likely to head West and sell the Slaves in the Colonies. Possibly buy goods and head North to the New York area. Trade again, then head back to the Britain. It is also likely that on an independent ship, the crew would change significantly with only the Captain remaining the same.

Of course, if your MC is just hitching a ride to Africa, some of the above won't be an issue.

09-03-2008, 02:06 AM
Wordmonkey, you're a barrel of information, mate. Thanks again.

If I may pull a bit more tap, let's talk about Africa. After doing some research, it seems plain that by the mid 1700's there were many ports along West Africa. No doubt the presence of outsiders played a major role in Africa (Slave trade being an obvious factor). But my question is this: Would it be unreasonable to suppose that some of the native Africans would speak English, or at least broken English?

Naturally, some of the slaves picked up English, but again, what about native Africans? Do you know anything about that?



Tsu Dho Nimh
09-03-2008, 03:33 AM
If he was educated, helping out the cargo master with the bills of lading and other bookeeping is a possibility to pay or partially pay for the passage. The "ships surgeon" wa susually a part-time position for somone of the crew, so if he has doctoring skills (no matter how poor) he could be one.

He would be expected to bring ALL the necessities, including toiletries, sheets and such. He'd probably have his own medical kit, books, etc.

A few Africans spoke English, more spoke Portuguese.

He could also be sent by a merchant to keep an eye on the profits, without having the expense of becoming an owner, as a hired hand.

09-03-2008, 04:38 AM
he did own a share of the trip he'd not get the Captain out of his cabin!

My suggestions would follow the others, Bristol, own a share in the trip, and watch out for the French and the Spanish.

09-03-2008, 06:38 AM
You would probably find that most ports, unless specifically built to be military installations were VERY cosmopolitan. These places would change hands as the colonial powers ebbed and flowed.

The most secure places were maintained by the EITC because they could afford the muscle. Something to consider is that the British Empire was maintained and built by these guys. Follow the money around the globe and the British Empire owned it... funded (and bled-dry) by our friends tne good ol' EITC.

If you do some research on the major colonial powers and look where they controlled that'd be a good place to start.

And you should also consider that some Africans sold other Africans. Local politics at play there too.

Not sure if that answered your questions, hope it was close.

09-03-2008, 09:36 AM
If it helps, I would suggest looking at Darwin, as the scenario you suggested sounds awfully similar. He booked passage for roughly 1000 pounds (paid for by the local bishop), and was able to book passage aboard the HMS Beagle. He had no share of the ship's chores, allowing him to do pretty much as he wanted.


09-03-2008, 05:08 PM
Darwin, eh? Yes, of course. Didn't think of that. Thanks.

It sounds like paying passage is the way to go. Bristol, cramped merchant ship, mysterious Afirca, here we come!


Tsu Dho Nimh
09-03-2008, 06:49 PM
Check into the diaries of the owners and others from slave ships from the 1700s. If he's going to central Africa, it's going to be on a slaver or a military ship, unless he is en route to the Cape or India.

Slave Ships and Slaving By George Francis Dow is one good one. It has lots of journal extracts from the period.

There was a large change in the slave industry after England declared it illegal. The large, slow transports with plenty of room for people and supplies were swapped for cramped, fast "dash across and hope the cargo survives" ships. Dow records some journal entries where there were no fatalaties among the slave cargo, and many with low fatality rates - no higher than one would expect from any ship of the time during the 1700s.