In the waters between Europe, Africa, and the Americas, captains abused sailors, which expressed the power of colonial hierarchies. Captains hoisted sailors by their ankles, turning rigging into an instrument of torture. Captains whipped sailors with the stinging cat o’ nine tails. Captains struck the sailors in their employ and pushed their sailors off the quarterdeck on to the main deck below. As long as their abuse did not leave lasting damage, admiralty laws allowed captains to perpetrate violence against their sailors with impunity. These laws underpinned and reinforced the hierarchies that defined early-Americans’ lives. Yet, Captain Card paid William Pearce not to bring suit against him. The legal reality makes it all the more surprising that Captain Card compensated Pearce for the abuse he endured.
Perhaps Captain Card simply felt guilty and desired absolution. Yet, he required Pearce to refrain from bringing charges against him, which suggests more self-centered motivations. The simplest explanation is that William Pearce had a family member or benefactor with powerful connections in the merchant community whose wrath Card wished to avoid. However, there are at least two other possible explanations. Captain Card may have compensated Pearce because hierarchical relationships entailed reciprocal responsibilities. Though the power dynamics inherent in the master-seaman relationship limited a sailor’s recourse if a captain failed to provide for his sailors, captains were legally and culturally responsible for their sailors’ well being. Wide scale abuse might have been viewed among land-dwellers as a failure to perform the captain’s half of the social contract. Alternatively, while impressment cooled after the 1763 Treaty of Paris, finding experienced, skilled, and effective sailors proved a perennial problem for mercantile captains. Captain Card may have paid Pearce to stave off threats to his reputation among the sailors he wished to employ. The latter explanation seems the most compelling given that the social world of sailors invited intelligence-gathering and sharing while in port.
William Pearce’s paradoxical pledge is one of many maritime documents including wage disputes and successfully defended mutinies that illustrate how long-distance trade and the maritime environment challenged landed systems. Card’s concession shows that human relationships and market forces limited the power of cultural hierarchies. On a systemic level sailors followed their masters’ orders, could be abused by their masters without recourse, and found it difficult to successfully sue when captains violated contracts or failed to pay the wages due them. But studying the hierarchical systems that ordered colonial society encourages us to ignore the concessions some men gained from their masters. The case of Captain Card and William Pearce shows how the clash of the market and landed cultural systems allowed sailors like Pearce to carve out spaces for themselves amidst a rigid social order. It also illustrates that in port captains sensed the broader implications of their actions. While in the Bay of Honduras his power was uncontested and, thus, Captain Card made no concessions. But after arriving in Newport, Card recognized that Pearce could damage his reputation as an employer and an honorable trader.
Even rigid colonial hierarchies provided outlets for discontent to prevent large-scale social upheaval. This phenomenon played out repeatedly in the maritime Atlantic when captains gave their sailors bonuses to lengthen the voyage, ignored their mutinous oaths, or, as in the case of Captain Card, compensated a sailor for violence perpetrated against him. Documents like Pearce’s testimony do not reject colonial hierarchies but they illustrate its limitations. For individual sailors like William Pearce, those limitations made all the difference.
Transcription:Newport May 3, 1765“Then rec’d of Capt. James Card Junr fifty Pounds old Tenor in full satisfaction for his striking me in the Bay of Honduras & also for his Beating me this Day on Bourd the Sloop Rising Sun for Which aforesaid Sum Received I promise that I will not Commence any Action or Suit in the Law against the Said James Card Junr. but do freely forgive him for the abused recd as above saidWilliam PearceWitness Martin Howard”
Post by NERFC FellowHannah Knox Tucker
[i] After 1750 £1,000 Old Tenor = £100 Sterling. John J. McCusker, Money and Exchange in Europe and America, 1600-1775: A Handbook, (Williamsburg, VA: University of North Carolina Press, 1978), 133. Sailors made approximately £2 per month, Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 304-305.