At the end of the 18th century, a new craze was sweeping the lower decks of the Royal Navy. The very latest fashion accessory for the well turned out sailor was to have a tattoo. Then, as now, young men in particular found the lure of decorated skin irresistible. The reason for its spread came in the wake of the voyages of exploration that Captain Cook had made twenty years earlier.
Tattooing had existed in the islands of the Pacific for centuries before Cook arrived. The word tattoo is Polynesian, and is the sound made by the little wooden hammers that the islanders use to puncture the skin. The dense patterns of lines that adorned the locals impressed Cook’s sailors, and they asked tattoo artists to decorate their arms too, with anchors, slogans and the names of sweet hearts. When they returned home they were paid off and dispersed into the maritime community, taking their tattoos with them.
At first tattooing remained largely confined to sailors, although not necessarily to the lower deck. Lord Charles Beresford, a distinguished rear admiral in the Victorian navy, is said to have had a large tattoo of the hounds of the Waterford Hunt in full cry. The dogs poured over his shoulder and down his back in pursuit of a fox. Only the tail of the fox was visible, the rest of the animal having apparently disappeared up Admiral Beresford’s arse.
As the twentieth century started, tattooing moved beyond the navy and into society more generally. Although it remained a largely male and working class adornment, there were some notable exceptions. Lady Randolph Churchill, mother of Winston, had a snake tattooed around her wrist (where it could be concealed beneath a bracelet) and her son is said to have shown his obsession for all things naval by having an anchor tattooed on his forearm.
Now tattooing has spread far and wide. Hollywood stars and Latin American drug gangs both sport them. They can be seen on the cat walks of Paris, and the football fields of the US. But I wonder how many of those who have a tattoo today know of their origins, or of those Royal Navy sailors who first held out a bare arm beneath the fronds of a palm tree on a beach far away and long ago.
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Philip K Allan is an author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is available to order now from all good online retailers. Click here to learn more.