Thursday, May 10, 2012

Question from Jan - Ship-to-ship signaling and communication

I'm writing a sequel to my children's novel Harry Bone-Thief, and want my hero, now aboard ship & on his way home from seeking a North West passage, to encounter another vessel on its way out from France, and to speak her and learn the news (Henry VIII is dead). They won't have had flag signals yet, so how did they communicate? How wd Harry, away for many months, know whether or not the approaching French boat was an enemy? Dipping into Hakluyt, I find that ships saluted each other with cannon 'in the manner of the sea' - where can I find something more precise?


Foose said...

After some Googling, I found references to trumpeters and drummers being a fixture on board Tudor-era ships. "Trumpets were used for both music and announcements ... The trumpeter sounded the coming and going of the commander, hailed ships, and sounded the charge to board an enemy vessel." (An essay by Timothy J. Runyan, "Naval Power During the Hundred Years War," found in War at Sea in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, eds. John B. Hattendorf and Richard W. Unger)

Discussing 14th-century practice, Runyan also says "[The Admiral's ship] carried lanterns and flags, or streamers, to signal commands to the fleet." There are also mentions in period sources of ship's whistles being used ("the shrill whistle which doth order give," from Henry V). Guns were used to signal danger.

Tudor sailors might not have had the elaborate system of semaphore used later, but they apparently did use flag signals. I found a reference to the 1596 Cadiz expedition, in which "a ship losing company was to strike and hoist her main topsail twice and 'wear' her white pendant on the mizen yard." (Nautical Magazine, Vol. 75)

Tudor ships were equipped with a ship's bell, but it seems at this period the bell was kept below deck, in a compartment with the helmsman, so I don't think it was used for signaling.

Just some ideas from a general Google scavenge; I could not find a complete source on the history of Tudor ship signaling,

Foose said...

On the question of how could an English ship identify a ship of another nation, I found Angus Kostam's Scourge of the Seas helpful:

"Identifying an enemy at sea has always been a difficult task. In the sixteenth century, royal ships painted their sails with national emblems (e.g. Tudor roses ...) but these ships operated in distinctive naval squadrons, treasure floatas or other armada-like forces. For other vessels, no such symbols were used. Instead, national flags or banners were employed, an identification technique first used in the medieval period...

"...Privateers or pirates (as well as national warships) often used foreign flags or banners in order to entice the enemy within range. As long as these flags were replaced with the appropriate national emblem, this was seen as a legitimate ruse de guerre. The best policy was usually to assume all shipping was hostile, especially in time of war."

I would guess that experienced sailors might also have been able to identify foreign shipping and possibly hostile intentions from the shape and size of the vessel, how it compared with "typical" merchant convoys or fishing fleets in the Channel, evidence of armaments, etc. I don't think ship-building was standardized across Europe, and there might have been variations in ships that would readily point to their origin. However, ships could be captured and then utilized by another foreign power, which would complicate the process of identification.