I recently held a barbecue and determined to ascertain the correct spelling of barbecue. I turned to the online version of Oxford English Dictionary, a personal favourite from our recently acquired resources, for guidance.
It transpires that the word owes its etymological origins to a Haitian word barbacòa meaning ‘a framework of sticks set upon posts’ and was first cited by William Dampier in his work Voyages and Descriptions from 1699:
“… and lay there all night, upon our Borbecu’s, or frames of sticks”
Dampier wasn’t suggesting that he slept all night on a hot barbeque, rather, our modern definition of a barbecue ultimately derives from this frame of sticks or ‘borecu’ that could be used as a sleeping platform or placed over a fire and be used for cooking. You can read the very sentence on page 20 in Volume 1 of our 1729 edition of A collection of voyages by Dampier.
William Dampier (1651-1715) was an English buccaneer, privateer, captain, navigator, circumnavigator, naturalist, explorer, and author. He circumnavigated the globe three times and his New Voyage around the World is considered a seminal work travel literature, combining scientific observations, ethnography, geographical descriptions, and authentic voyage narrative.
In fact, Dampier’s detailed empirical observations recorded in this book would later influence the scientific methods of observing and recording phenomena used by the naturalists Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin. Both James Cook and Joseph Banks relied on Dampier’s A Voyage to New Holland as a guidebook for their exploration of Australia while generations of mariners used Dampier’s works as guides to the Americas and Indies.
Such was the value of Dampier’s writings that the 1699 supplement to Voyages and descriptions which included “A Discourse of Winds” was still being reprinted as part of the Admiralty Sailing Directions into the twentieth century.
Dampier’s prodigious achievements have bequeathed us much, but did not prevent Jonathan Swift from satirising him in Gulliver’s Travels, describing Dampier as “an honest man, and a good sailor, but a little too positive in his own opinions”.
Gary (Assistant Librarian)
The E-Library handles surprisingly varied enquiries, from the fairly frequent family history requests to the exact height of Isambard Kingdom Brunel at the time of the launch of the Great Eastern.
However, those who turn to the National Maritime Museum for assistance with their research are still capable of raising queries that could not be anticipated. A researcher recently called to inquire about the influence of nautical terminology on Shakespeare’s vocabulary, and specifically the origin of a song of spurned love from Measure for Measure:
Take, O take those lips away,
That so sweetly were forsworn;
And those eyes, the break of day,
Lights that do mislead the morn (Act IV Scene 1)
He was exploring whether the last line quoted may be punning on the system of ‘leading lights’ used to guide a vessel safely into port. The song is more usually a matter of debate as its authorship is by no means certain, and it also occurs in Fletcher and Beaumont’s play Bloody Brother.
However, while there certainly are many naval terms incorporated into Shakespeare’s works, this promising suggestion proved to be unfounded. A quick referral to the Oxford English Dictionary, the full text of which is available online to all users in the E-library, confirmed that the phrase was not recorded until 1867, some three hundred years after Shakespeare’s birth.
The enquiry did turn up an interesting Shakespeare connection with Emma Hamilton however, who is depicted in the print by George Romney and Edwin Roffe (the engraver) shown above. The title of the work is ‘Shakespeare nursed by Tragedy and Comedy (Lady Hamilton)’.
Richard (Information Assistant)
One of the wonderful things about working here is being bombarded with questions that wrack the brain and start an ongoing research relationship with the chosen topic. Such are the Button Boys – the daredevils of the mast displays carried out by naval training establishments.
This enquiry came to me via email. The person in question wanted to know a little bit more about the term and when it died out.
So the quest began, and a long-time fascination with Button Boys has now been cemented. My research has taken me from the Caird Library, where I have read extracts from books such as HMS Ganges: Tales of the Trogs (fantastic read), to our electronic resources (we have a Royal Navy links section), and to the Royal Naval Museum itself.
I have even borrowed the ear of Royal Navy gentlemen when I have had the opportunity!
Here are my findings… Imagine climbing a mast of approximately 140ft and then climbing a further 15ft up a pole to the top of the mast where a ‘button’ shaped platform awaits you. The ‘button’ platform is not a vast amount of space, so imagine your feet gingerly ensuring that they do not topple off the edge!
Now – imagine only having a lightning conductor to hold onto for balance! Now – imagine letting go of the lightning conductor to salute your audience! I have just described the journey and the final gesture of the Button Boy. He truly was the star of the mast display.
In print it does sound adventurous but when you see it on film you realise that words cannot do it justice! This footage of the Button Boys at HMS Ganges really is both a beautiful and terrifying experience for the senses to behold. I sat stunned as I watched each lad climb the ropes with precision to get into their designated position, mastering the devil’s elbow and other areas with discipline.
The award for the Button Boy’s daredevil ascent and, indeed, descent!? A shilling, according to the Royal Naval Museum, who have been most helpful in my research enquiries.
I now understand a lot more about the Button Boy’s role and what could motivate him.
One thing eludes me though. When did the term die out!? The Royal Naval Museum sent me the following information via email:
This was officially replaced by Procedure Alpha (manning the sides of the deck), but I am afraid I have been unable to locate a definitive date for the change. Button Boys were still being selected at HMS Ganges training establishment in the 1950s, although conventional Royal Naval vessels had long ceased to have masts at this stage.
So, we can conclude that it was not a particular event or person which caused the brave Button Boys to become a figure of the past. It was more a case of the changing face of the Royal Navy and vessels which caused the ‘lightning conductor’ salute to come to an end.
If any former Button Boys are reading this please feel free to comment on your experiences or add any wisdom to this post. I would be delighted to hear from you. I salute you! (with my feet firmly on the ground)
If you do get some spare time I thoroughly recommend reading both HMS Ganges: Tales of the Trogs and HMS Ganges: Roll on my dozen, both by John Douglas.
Mary (Information Assistant – Library)
Recently I’ve been researching the story of Alain Bombard, the French doctor and biologist who survived for sixty days in a dinghy on the Atlantic Ocean without food or water.
In 1951, shocked by the deaths of local fishermen brought to his hospital after their trawler was wrecked, Bombard became obsessed with techniques of survival at sea. He was convinced that one of the main causes of death for castaways was not hunger or thirst, but terror and despair. He based this in part on case studies such as the Titanic, where some people died or went mad in the lifeboats, but no children were among these – children being less prone to despair, he theorised.
Bombard deduced that it should be possible for a castaway to survive for some time on the open sea without any provisions, by drinking seawater and gaining further hydration through eating raw fish (if you’re interested, the fish with the highest water content is apparently ray, containing up to 82% water, although dolphin is nearly as high – shame on you, Alain). He decided that the only way anyone would believe his calculations was if he tried it himself, by crossing the Mediterranean, then the Atlantic, in a small dinghy without either food or water!
He managed to do this successfully, setting off on October 19, 1952 and arriving in the Canary Islands in December. His obiturary in The Times, after his death in 2005 at the age of 80, noted that:
His triumph that December did wonders for the sales of the Zodiac dinghy which became a popular recreational craft.
You can read more about his experience in two books here in the Caird Library: “The Bombard Story”, and his children’s version “Doctor Bombard goes to sea”.
And finally, here’s some advice from Alain himself:
From time to time when you drink a glass of cold water, think of me out there like that, and you’ll see how much better it will taste.
Tanya (Reader Services Librarian)
Recently I was contacted by a gentleman researching for a play, set at the end of the 15th Century on a boat and in a port. He was particularly interested in what would have been drunk on board a ship, what utensils and crockery they may have had and the difference between the eating habits and conditions of the crew and the officers. During our conversation he asked ‘had they even invented forks then?’ Having never really imagined life without forks I set about finding out! This is what I discovered…
Apparently a lot of people assume the fork was introduced to the west during the middle ages (although personally I’ve never really thought about it), it was in fact invented a lot earlier than this, there is plenty of evidence of forks being used by the ancient Greeks and they are even mentioned in the Bible (Book of Samuel 2:13).
Early forks were only used for spearing or holding things in place whilst cutting and would have had two or three straight ‘tines’ and therefore have been of no use for scooping food.
Before the fork became widely used across Europe diners were dependent on spoons and knives and therefore would largely eat with their hands and use a communal spoon when needed. This made dining a non-too hygienic affair as stews and soups were served in communal bowls which guests could just dip into, these soon became filled with bits of whatever other foods the guests were eating. Gentlemen would wear their hats to dinner and stand and doth them in salute to each course as it was brought in and the table cloth would act as a giant napkin for all the guests to wipe their fingers and even their knives on.
The fork was introduced to Europe in the 10th century by Theophanu Byzantine wife of Emperor Otto the 2nd. It made its way to Italy by the 11th century and had become popular amongst merchants by the 14th. When the fork was first introduced as an eating implement it was normal for people to have their own knife and fork made which would be kept in a special box called a cadena, whenever someone through a dinner party or a feast all the guests would bring their own cadena’s to eat with. This custom was then introduced to France in the entourage of Catherine de’Medici.
Forks, however, never really caught on in Britain. Whilst our European cousins were tucking in with their new eating irons the British simply laughed at this ‘feminine affectation’ of the Italians, British men would eat with their fingers and were proud! What’s more even the church was against the use of forks (despite them being in the Bible)! Some writers for the Roman Catholic Church declared it an excessive delicacy, God in his wisdom had provided us with natural forks, in our fingers, and it would be an insult to him to substitute them for these metallic devices.
Eventually we caught on around about the 18th century about the same time that the curved, four tined variety became popular after its development in Germany.
The fork was further developed in the 19th century with the invention of the ‘spork’! A half fork half spoon super eating device! The back of the spork is shaped like a spoon and can scoop food while the front has a few tines like a fork to poke at the food substance, making it convenient and easy to use. It has found popularity in fast food and military settings. You can even get special varieties which have a serrated edge for cutting with!
The National Maritime Museum has some fantastic examples of forks through the ages! Including this toasting fork in the traditional three tined ‘poking and holding’ variety and a specially adapted knife/fork used by Admiral Nelson after the loss of his arm.
The museum has yet to have an example of the spork in the collections, but you might find one in the café.
Leah (Customer Service Library Assistant)
I was reading through some web metrics for the blog the other day, and was amused to see that Tanya’s post on the ship’s biscuit recipe had been discovered several times by people searching for “biscuit recipes”. “Hard biscuit recipes” even.
Anyway this led me onto a whole ship’s biscuit theme, so I had a look on del.icio.us and found that somebody else had already tagged this particular ship’s biscuit, from our very own collections. It says a lot about the preservative qualities of the recipe that a biscuit made in 1784 looks this good.
The Royal Naval Museum also has some good information, and another recipe.
Also, if anyone has actually made a batch from Tanya’s recipe (which she found in an old file in the library office) we’d be very interested to know. Personally, I think the lack of sugar would put me off.
Renée (Digital Resources Librarian)
This post is the first in what we hope will be a series, concerning some of the ‘not so frequently asked questions’ that we often get in the library or E-library.
This particular topic was inspired by a telephone conversation involving myself and a professor who was writing a paper on Norman Wilkinson and dazzle painting. I was on E-library duty at the time and had never heard of dazzle painting. In a somewhat sheepish tone of voice I admitted to the gentleman that I lacked knowledge in this area. He was more than happy to feed my dazzle painting-starved brain and by the end of our verbal exchange I was an avid fan of this form of camouflage and its disputed creator, Mr Wilkinson.
I digress – to dazzle painting. Who would have thought that George Braque and Picasso, to name a few, would be responsible for camouflaging warships to protect them from the enemy in World War one? Yet dazzle painting, inspired by their work and others, did exactly this. The brainchild of the aforementioned Norman Wilkinson (Royal navy lieutenant and marine painter/poster artist) it proved a saviour on many occasions.
How did it work? The success rate of U boats called for drastic measures, and as vessels could not become ‘invisible’ on the waves of war, the idea was put forward to distort their courses instead. This ‘course distortion’ was made possible by painting vessels in an array of designs. These designs, it was hoped, would confuse the enemy where the location of the ship was concerned. Or in the words of the great man (Wilkinson) himself:
‘Dazzle painting so called officially, had one purpose in view only, viz, to upset a submarine commander’s estimate of a vessel’s course when carrying out an attack with torpedo.’ (Letter to The Times – Jun 9, 1919).
For a submarine commander’s attack to be successful, the estimation of the vessel’s course had to be precise. Dazzle painting played havoc with these estimations – and the minds of the commanders no doubt!
Working in a spare classroom at the Royal Academy of Art, Wilkinson and a team of artists, model makers, and art students worked to the following criteria:
• A model of ship was made to scale
• It was painted in wash colours for rapid alteration
• It was then studied on a prepared theatre through a submarine periscope using
• The model was then painted in a successful evolved distortion design and handed
to the plan maker who copied it on to a 1/16th inch profile plan of the ship on white
paper showing port and starboard side
• The plan was then sent to the outport officer to oversee the transformation of the
By June 1917 more than 2,300 British warships had been ‘dazzle painted.’ In a harbour as many as one hundred ships could be seen being dazzle painted at one time.
Did it work? Opinion is divided and the British Admiralty, in particular, remained sceptical of its purpose. However US sources (who embraced the scheme following a visit to England by Admiral William S Sims of the US Navy) claimed that less than 1% of dazzle ships were sunk by torpedoes.
In September 1918 The British Admiralty committee concluded that there was no concrete evidence that dazzle painting was effective as a means of defence but that it had caused an ‘undoubted increase’ in the confidence and morale of the crew on a dazzle-painted ship.
Either way, the close of the war and the requirement for ‘periodic repainting’ meant that dazzle painting sank to the depths of obscurity from which it came. But for me, it has just resurfaced.
If this topic has interested you and you’d like to know more, why not indulge in a little further investigation via the library and E-library?
There are several articles available via our subscription resources in the E-library:
Norman Wilkinson – Letter to the Times – Jun 9, 1919 pg 6; Issue 42121; col E and other letters (Times Digital Archive)
The role of artists in ship camouflage during World War 1 by Roy R Behrens. Leonardo, Vol. 32, No. 1. (JSTOR journal archive)
A selection I have looked at include:
Dazzle painting : art as camouflage, camouflage as art : a joint project involving Maritime Museum `Prins Hendrik’ and Stichting Kunstprojecten
A brush with life, by Norman Wilkinson.
The war at sea : 1939-1945 : a series of pictures painted by Norman Wilkinson and presented by him to the Nation for the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
Or, visit the Queens House and view some of Wilkinson’s work, which is on display alongside other artists who have links to Dazzle painting, such as Herbert Barnard John Everett.
True or false: One of Wilkinson’s paintings hung in the smoking room of the Titanic – which would have benefited from dazzle painting had its enemy been a torpedo and not an iceberg!
Mary (Customer services assistant – Library)
Ship’s biscuits or hard tack was a vital part of a seaman’s diet in the years before the introduction of canned food in the mid-nineteenth century. Try the ship biscuit diet for yourself by following our recipe!
1lb wholemeal flour (try to find a medium-course stone-ground flour for authenticity)
Preheat your oven to 215C (190C for a fan oven)
Mix the salt and flour together and add the water slowly, mixing until you have created a very stiff dough. Leave the dough for half an hour (you can profitably use this time to scrub the decks or hoist the mainsail). Roll the dough out fairly thickly (to about half an inch or just over a centimetre deep) and use a round cutter to cut them out. Use a fork to prick the biscuits all over the top side. Place on a greased baking tray and bake for about 30 minutes.
As you eat your biscuits, count yourself lucky that they are not truly authentic – biscuits were sometimes made using powdered bone, or a pea flour which became incredibly hard and could not be bitten through. Sometimes the only way to eat a hard biscuit was to leave it until it got stale and soft, by which point they tasted musty and often contained weevils and maggots.
Tanya (Reader Services Librarian)