Classifying/Rating Ships and Other Floating Objects I
Not as simple as it sounds.
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I’ve been talking about ship types in the 19th Century for some time now, but such classifications were never simple. For expedience, I’ll try to explain how the Royal Navy (RN) developed their rating system, since nearly everyone copied it, sort of. By the 16th Century, the RN was the one naval establishment with the most consistent administration and was the arbiter of naval (administrative) fashion in more ways than one.
It all started in the Tudor era.
RN authorities referred to their largest warships as “great ships” in Henry VIII’s time, but in 1546, the Anthony Rolls (named for Anthony Anthony, who created them and about whom we know little else) classified the 58 vessels of Henry’s navy as either ships, galleasses, pinnaces, or row barges. This early effort was apparently off-hand and had no function other than to organize the royal inventory.
Under the Stuarts, the classification became functional.
Around 1604, the fighting vessels were classified as being in one of four groups, according to the number of guns they carried and the number of men needed to serve them:
Royal Ships mounting 42–55 guns and carrying at least 400 men;
Great Ships mounting 38–40 guns;
Middling ships mounting 30–32 guns;
Small ships mounting fewer than 30 guns.
A 1612 list referred to four groups: royal, middling, small, and pinnaces; but defined them by tonnage instead of by guns, starting from 800 to 1,200 tons for the ships royal, down to below 250 tons for the pinnaces. By the 1620s, these groups had numerical ranks (First through Fourth). At some unclear time after that, the ranks became rates, and the Fourth rate subdivided into Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. These were based not on the number of guns, but the number of men aboard. After 1660 (again, unclear when, exactly) the rating scheme changed to the number of carriage (as opposed to swivel) guns it carried.
Then along came Samuel Pepys.
Known to most as a diarist, Pepys was the Secretary to the Admiralty who had the biggest impact on the RN before the 19th Century. His “solemn, universal and unalterable” rating scheme established classifications that told how many guns a ship had, how many men, how many rations it needed, and whether it could serve in a line of battle.
The first three rates were the line-of-battle ships.
These fortresses of oak carried anywhere from upwards of a hundred guns (not counting swivels or, after 1774, carronades) to somewhere about 74. These would become simply battleships, the pride of nations and the ultimate power of navies, but were also the fewest. It was these ratings that the rest of Europe—who were doing most of the seafaring—emulated.
Vessels smaller than Fourth-Rate were not suitable to be in a battle line with the big ships.
They had ratings from Fourth (from roughly seventy to fifty guns, depending on time of reference) to Sixth (twenty guns on the low end). “Frigates” for example, were usually Fifth-Rates of 24 to 44 guns. They considered all these smaller rates the "cruising" vessels (all “ships” have at least three masts in this era, but not all “cruisers” did). In 1800, the Royal Navy had 144 First- to Third-Rate ships and a thousand vessels smaller than Third-Rate in service, with at least a third of them at sea at once. So the ratings were important for administration…and…
There was more than one method to this madness, and the most important was rank.
The larger the vessel, the higher ranking its commander needed to be. Captains commanded First-Rates, of course…but not just Captains. These Captains had interest (friends in high places), and often had awards and knighthoods, or noble titles. Captains commanded ships down to Fifth-Rate, but they were, shall we say, lesser mortals with lesser interest, awards, or titles of nobility. This was what passed as social mobility in pre-20th Century Britain, at least as far as England’s senior service (the Navy) was concerned. If a young man went to sea (sorry, ladies, this is not for you), as a boy of eleven or twelve, by hard work, if he were lucky, won a sizable purse as a young man and saved a few shillings, didn’t get sick or killed or injured in any serious way, he could retire after thirty years as a petty officer (NCO), or, as a warrant officer (specialist in gunnery, navigation, carpentry and many other things). Rare was the common sailor who, without interest somewhere, rose to hold a royal commission as even a Lieutenant, though it was possible and it happened. If, perhaps, he was aboard a ship with a forward-thinking officer, he could be awarded a medal and a commission for some rare deed…dimly possible and happened at least once.
When in the 19th Century they finally dropped the sailing ship ratings, they invented new ship ratings just to accommodate rank steps.
After this, we get into cruiser classes (1st, 2nd, and 3rd), and then all the rest of the classes of every other vessel. That gets really complicated.
The Treasure Ships That Weren’t…Either.
Imagine a magical land far away that built gigantic sailing ships with painted sails that sailed the ocean seas, carrying love, peace, and enamel goods far and wide, yet never made it to Europe. These ships were orders of magnitude bigger than anything anyone in Europe built of wood. But, the emperor of the land whose ships they were feared that they would be used for Bad Things, and ordered the beautiful ships and all traces of them destroyed, leaving only the stories of the bards and a few sketches behind.
The giant Ming dynasty Chinese treasure ships featured on TV were these ships, supposedly. These behemoths were as much as 440 feet long, had as many as a dozen masts in three different sizes staggered on the deck, a crew of thousands with scholars and slaves and nobles aboard, and needed a hundred men just to handle the rudder that was as high as a European ship’s mast of the time. According to some accounts, these vessels sailed across the Pacific to California, around the Horn of Africa, and dominated the Indian Ocean for a generation before the Ming destroyed all traces of them because…well, because.
A wooden vessel that big, with that many masts, would be impossible to handle in any but calm seas, even coastal waters. The capital investment would have been prohibitive even for the wealthiest princes, and would have required the skills of every deep-water sailor in China. That many masts…why? Better still…how? That many men on the rudder…imagine how much water such a ship would need to carry, at a gallon a day per man? Imagine having to careen (ground the vessel to scrape the bottom) such a ship. Despite the claims of “historians” who can’t show any good evidence even on their TV shows (sandwiched between the alien autopsies and the Nazi-Satanist-JFK conspiracy “proofs”), no one has found any traces of Chinese landings on any coast of the Americas.
Contemporary shipbuilders can’t replicate it in wood.
Few have even speculated about doing it because it’s impractical…in wood. Some modern commentators suggest that one such ship might have been built, and tied up on the Yangtze and used for fleet reviews by the Emperor. But, yes, the Ming got rid of all their seagoing ships at one time, one of many such contractions the Chinese have undergone over the millennia.
So, sorry, no giant Chinese treasure ships plying the Seven Seas.
The Past Not Taken is about how we know about the past, how we write about it, and how we often misunderstand it because of the sources.
For those of you interested, Curtis and his family will appear again in 2024 or after, in a story called Ways of Knowing, which will, of course, include some dubious history in with the genuine stuff.
The Butcher's Bill: Casualty Creation in the Civil War
Anniversaries can be…odd
On 13 January:
1898: J’accuse (I Accuse), an open letter by Emile Zola to the president of the French Republic, Félix Faure, is published in L'Aurore, in Paris, France. It accused the government of antisemitism because of the unjust persecution and conviction of Alfred Dreyfus. Zola was later convicted of libel and Dreyfus was eventually pardoned.
1929: Wyatt Earp dies in Los Angeles, California. One of the many legends of the Old West who outlived even his own publicity, Earp was the last survivor of the OK Corral shootout.
And today is STEPHEN FOSTER MEMORIAL DAY, commemorating the still-mysterious death at 37 of the author of two official state songs—Kentucky and Florida. He is the only person so honored.