Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Digging for Gold at the Research Center: Knives!

(by Gina Bardi, Reference Librarian)

For my birthday (I’m still accepting gifts... feel free to mail them in) my husband got me a beautiful sailor’s knife.  What makes a sailor’s knife a sailor’s knife and not just a regular ol’ knife? For one thing, it has a hole drilled into the end so it can dangle from a lanyard around your neck- For another and this is the more pertinent part, it is blunt on one side of the tip.

The knife opened

The knife closed

There is a very good reason for this. Sea going vessels are dangerous places; not the least so for some of the men aboard. Sailors needed knives, but it was a good idea if they had a knife that was more suited for cutting ropes than for stabbing.  

In The Ashley book of knots, Clifford Ashley makes note of this feature saying:

A sailor’s knife frequently has a blunt point and, in addition to its professional uses, is the sailor’s only eating utensil. On long voyages a cautious shipmaster will lead the whole crew aft to the carpenter’s vise and have the point of each knife snapped off to resemble the rigger’s knife (20).

In the book Shanghaiing Days by Richard Dillion, tells of an 1851 voyage of the Challenge (which would prove to be an extremely memorable voyage… for the crew who made it back alive). Before she sailed and during the captain’s “long-drawn-out harangue” his mates, on his order, “industriously and diligently ransacked the crew’s sea bags and chests in the forecastle”. Once this was done, “Captain Waterman chose the watches and had each man lay his sheath knife on the main hatch where the carpenter neatly broke off the point of each blade.” (85-86). This act rendered the knife useless as a quick weapon. I found another story in the book The Making of a sailor by Frederick Pease Harlow which is almost an exact retelling of the Challenge’s. In an 1875 voyage of the ship Akbar, the mate, Mr. Burris, has each man on his watch hand him his sheath knife. Much to some of their surprises, he breaks the tips off.

              You probably didn’t have the mate, in your last ship, break the point off
of your knife, “ said Mr. Burris, “But I always keep a ship sweet and clean
by seeing that every knife aboard the ship has no point. This is for your own
protection. If you get into a fight with a shipmate you know you can’t stick
him with your knife or he, you. Knowing this you both will fight like men and
use your fists, the weapons God has given you to fight with (91).

As opposed to the captain of the Challenge, Mr. Burris was only doing his job. In 1866, 15 years after the Challenge and 11 years before the Akbar, a statute was written which banned sailors from carrying sheathed knives, meaning they had to carry pocket knives instead. Sheathed knives were determined to be too dangerous.
The statute reads:

SEO 4608: No seaman in the merchant service shall wear any sheath knife on shipboard. It shall be the duty of the master of any enrolled or licensed under the laws of the United and of the person entering into contract for the employment of a upon any such vessel to inform every person offering to ship himself provisions of this section and to require his compliance under a penalty of fifty dollars for each omission to be sued for recovered in the name of the United States under the direction of Secretary of the Treasury one half for the benefit of the informer the other halt for the benefit of the fund for the relief of sick and seamen.
(46 USCA. Sec. 710. 1866.)

This was a long time coming, apparently for in 1838, there is an article in the Army and Navy Chronicle which states that ship-masters met in Philadelphia to have “measures adopted to prevent the dangerous and unchristian practice prevalent amoung sailors, of wearing sheath knives or daggers, while engaged in their ordinary work” (204).

Unfortunately, I don’t know how well these provisions worked.  A quick search of the California Digital Newspaper Collection using the search terms “Sailor” and “stabbed” and setting the date after 1866 brings up 646 results! Now granted many of those are about sailors being stabbed on shore, but some do take place at sea.  Here’s one from 1884, one from 1887 and one from 1898.

This isn’t just a quaint practice of the past.  I was talking with Charter Kays, a shipwright here at the park and a true Renaissance Man (He sails! He rides horses! He builds things!) and he told me that even up until the 1970’s when he was sailing, the mate cut the tip off of his knife. It happened to him on the brigantine Romance. The captain, Captain Kimberly, was an old school sailor and liked adhering to the “old ways” so, all the knives on board were untipped.
Of course none of this explains why the marlin spike was allowed…

Army and Navy Chronicle. Benjamin Homans, 1838. Print.
Ashley, Clifford W. The Ashley Book of Knots. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1944.  Print. 

Dillon, Richard H. Shanghaiing Days. New York: Coward-McCann, 1961. Print.

Harlow, Frederick Pease. The Making of a Sailor; Or, Sea Life Aboard a Yankee Square-Rigger. Salem, Mass: Marine Research Society, 1928. Print.

Peters, Richard, George Minot, and George P. Sanger. United States Statutes at Large: Containing the Laws and Concurrent Resolutions ... and Reorganization Plan, Amendment to the Constitution, and Proclamations. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1868. Print.

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