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Tattooing in the Navy



During the age of sail, seamen took great pride in maintaining a distinct appearance from mere landsman. Most refused to cut their hair, wearing it instead in long, closely woven pigtails down their backs. Not for sailors the britches and stockings worn ashore. Instead, they sported a more practical garment for climbing aloft of their own invention, which they called ‘trousers.’ Towards the end of the 18th century, a new craze swept the lower decks of the Royal Navy that would further differentiate sailors from the rest of mankind. They began decorating their arms with designs and messages inked permanently into their skin, using a process called tattooing.

 

Tattooing had existed in different times and places for millennia. The Romans encountered it when they fought barbarian tribes during their imperial expansion, as did European settlers when they populated the Americas, but it remained largely on the margins of western society. What changed this were the three great voyages of exploration that Captain Cook made to the Pacific between 1768 and his death in 1779.

 

The word ‘tattoo’ is Polynesian, and is the sound made by the little wooden hammers that the islanders use to puncture the skin, creating dense patterns of lines that adorned their bodies. This practice had been going on for centuries in the Pacific before Cook discovered it. While it was of only passing interest to the great explorer, it proved fascinating to his crew. His sailors were predominately young men, and just like their 20th century peers, they found the idea of tattooing irresistible. They asked local artists to decorate them, with anchors, sailing-related messages like “hold fast” or “dread nought” or the names of their wives and sweet hearts far away. When they returned home, they were paid off and dispersed into the maritime community, proudly sporting their tattoos. And much admired they were by all who encountered them.

 

Tattooing could have more practical benefits for sailors beyond simple decoration. Until the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy used impressment to maintain numbers. Sailors who were American citizens and some British seafarers were immune from the press, and were issued certificates to prove this. But these often had such vague descriptions and this coupled with many sailors’ propensity to sign onto ships’ books under false names, led to wide scale abuse. The result was that Royal Navy officers often assumed the certificates to be false. However, unique and distinctive tattoos included in the description on a certificate was a more reliable way of proving identity.    

 

At first tattooing remained largely confined to sailors, although not necessarily just to the lower deck. Lord Charles Beresford, a distinguished rear admiral in the Victorian navy and an enthusiast for country sport is known to have had a very large tattoo concealed beneath his uniform. It depicted the hounds of the Waterford Hunt in full cry, pouring 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 the admiral’s anus.

 

Lord Beresford was not the only member of the British upper classes to carry a concealed tattoo. By the start of the 20th century up to a fifth of the House of Lords are said to have had tattoos. 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. Even royalty was not immune from the lure of tattooing. British Kings George V and Edward VII both had one, as did Kaiser Wilhelm II and even Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.

 

Although by the end of the 19th century tattooing more generally had moved beyond the navy to other largely male and working-class groups, such as soldiers and criminal gangs, it was still much more prevalent among seafarers. Samuel O'Reilly, the American inventor of the electric tattoo machine, reported that most of his customers were sailors in the 1880s. In 1908, an article in American Anthropologist reported that 75% of sailors in the US Navy were tattooed, findings that prompted the naval authorities to issue regulations about what tattoos were and were not permitted.

 

The electric tattoo machine led to a proliferation of tattoo parlours, and this allowed the practice to spread far beyond sailors. Today groups as diverse as Hollywood stars and Latin American drug gangs both sport them. They can be seen from the cat walks of Paris to the football stadiums of London. But I wonder how many of those getting a tattoo today think of the 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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