Eighteenth century seafarer

Born at Stewton near Louth in Lincolnshire and orphaned at a young age, William Spavens first worked as an agricultural labourer, before he abandoned that occupation, left for Hull, and on the 19th of May 1754 was bound as an apprentice to a Mr Charles Wood owner of the Elizabeth and Mary, a merchant vessel trading in the Baltic.

Soon afterwards he was pressed into the British Navy at the start of the Seven Years War and served first in the Blandford in the West Indies, crusing for the enemy and also served in the Vengeance and was present at Hawke's victory at the battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759.

On his return to Britain, Spevens deserted from the Navy and joined the crew of an East Indiaman, the Elizabeth, bound for China. On reaching Sumatra, he and some fellow crewmen decided to desert that ship, with the idea of reaching Calcutta and obtaining a postion aboard a country ship, where through private trade they hoped they would be able to make their fortunes. They got as far as Batavia where their money ran out and they were imprisoned by the Dutch.

Spavens was eventually released back into the care of the British Navy and served on board the Panther where in January 1764 he injured his right leg "jamned with the chyme of a cask in the long boat along side the ship" On account of this injury he was transferred to the Medway, and on his return to Britain was discharged from the service. Soon afterwards he was forced to have the injured leg amputated.

None of which was particularly remarkable for the time, but the only reason that we know a great deal more of the life of William Spavens than any of his fellow seafarers is that he chose to write and publish his autobiography. Published in 1796 as the The Narrative of William Spavens, Pensioner on the Naval Chest at Chatham his purpose in writing it was, as he admits financial; "my motive, I frankly own is to get a few shillings". To the bare bones of his autobiography he added an Introduction to Geography and A Brief Description of Several Countries together with An Explanation of Nautical Terms in order to make the book a more commercial proposition.

However it is his own account of his naval experiences that provide the interest to modern readers, as it is the only account of the time written by an ordinary seaman as opposed to an officer. William Spavens therefore provides us with the authentic voice of the lower deck and writes in a matter of fact style detailing the life of an ordinary British seaman in the eighteenth century. He writes of being pressed and of serving in a press gang himself and regards both as being part of the normal life of a seaman; goes into great detail concerning naval punishments and the matter of prize money. In so doing, he provides us with the distinct impression that he was the intellectual equal of the officers who commanded him.

The Narrative of William Spavens remains surprisingly readable even for those who have little interest in seafaring per se; it stands as a document of social history, allowing us to peer back into the mind of an individual who was as unremarakable as you or I and would otherwise have been entirely forgotten.

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