Saturday, November 16, 2013

James Caithness: the Boatswain's Call

From documents concerning James Caithness’s sons and their admittance to the Royal Hospital School, Greenwich, it’s known that James snr met his death in an unusual way.

He ‘Died of an asthma thro over exertion in the use of the Call as Boatswain’s Mate’.

In other words, James blew his whistle too hard and this proved fatal.

The fact that he was Boatswain’s (or Bosun’s) Mate is evidenced by entries in the musters of HMS Calcutta: 

'James Caithness AB to 17th Nov 1803 then Boatswain's Mate'

In this role James would have conveyed orders to crew members by sounding the Call on his Boatswain’s ‘pipe’ or whistle. This was a time-honoured tradition dating as far back as the Crusades. There were specific calls – each a series of notes – applicable to various tasks. The one perhaps most familiar to non-seafarers is the piping aboard of people of consequence, such as the captain, an admiral of the fleet, or a Royal visitor.

The boatswain's call is a none diaphragm aerophone. It is a symbol of office and a practical instrument for giving orders as well as for playing music to pass the time at sea. Every seaman had to know the call codes and one officer would be in charge of the Call to alert the crew to carry out routine chores as well as to mark ceremonial occasions.

Its distinctive shape has remained practically unchanged from medieval times to the present day. The Call's shrill whistle can be varied in pitch and duration to convey a variety of information and can be heard above the sound of wind and sea.

A beautiful silver Call like this one dated 1804 would probably be a ceremonial or presentation piece. Usually they were personal possessions retained by an individual during his career. 

The pipe or Call consists of a narrow tube (the gun) which directs air over a metal sphere (the buoy) with a hole in the top. The player opens and closes the hand over the whole to change pitch. The rest of the pipe consists of a 'keel', a flat piece of metal beneath the gun that holds the Call together, and the 'shackle', a keyring that connects a long silver or brass chain that sits around the collar when in ceremonial uniform.

The precise circumstances under which James could have succumbed to an asthma attack while sounding the Call are not stated, but it may be that almost ten years spent in grim conditions as a prisoner-of-war in France during the Napoleonic Wars undermined his health. He died in 1826 aged about forty.

Boatswain's Mate in shore-going rig

Listen to audio examples of the Call at:



Thanks for yet another interesting post Mole. An asthmatic dying as a result of blowing a whistle is an interesting medical outcome. Bronchospasm (tight, wheezy chest) in asthmatics can be triggered by exertion and aggravated by underlying lung damage (possibly incurred during his incarceration +/- smoking)and superimposed lung infections. An asthmatic struggles to expire air: 'forced expiratory air flow' (FEV1)compromised - eg blowing a whistle. This function is a measure of the severity of the asthma. If James were already struggling with his asthma, blowing a whistle could potentially be the 'last straw' and trigger status asthmaticus which could result in death unless treated with modern medications and assisted ventilation. In conclusion, the last job an asthmatic should have is that of an official whistle blower - unless it be of the corruption-exposer type. Andrew

Mole said...

Responding to the blog reader who asked where a bosun's pipe/call/whistle could be purchased, such items come up fairly regularly at online auction sites like ebay: Mole suggests a google search for current offerings.