Midshipmen, ‘middies’, or ‘young gentlemen’, were officer cadets, usually drawn from middle to upper echelons of British society and with ‘good family’ and some education behind them.
Like less privileged sailors they started their naval careers at a very early age - 9 was not uncommon - and learned navigation and other branches of seamanship while serving at sea. The term midshipman derived from the area on board ship, ‘amidships’. By the Napoleonic era (1793-1815) a midshipman would have served at least three years as a volunteer or able seaman, or as an officer’s servant. After that he would take the examination for lieutenant which theoretically would make him eligible for promotion. However, patronage was an important factor: a good patron could make all the difference to a young gentleman’s progress in the navy.*
Though advantaged in comparison with the ordinary sailor the middies learnt the ropes in a harsh school, the general conditions and the horrors of combat soon eclipsing any romantic ideas they may have had about the navy, its heroes, glorious victories and prize money.
This world is well-presented in the Hornblower series of films based on the works of C S Forester and also in Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World, from the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian. The events depicted also provide a glimpse of conditions for ordinary ratings who hauled ropes and manned guns and for the able seamen who did the essential work aloft.
If James Caithness began his career as a powder monkey he may have graduated to loblolly boy, assisting the ship’s surgeon by performing various gruesome tasks such as cleaning up after operations. With time and experience, given that he survived, he would rise to AB (Able Seaman).
|Sailor 1799: James Caithness probably wore|
a similar outfit
|Uniform Royal Navy 18th c|
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
* for more on patronage and promotion see www.thedearsurprise.com/?p=1314