Call all hands to man the capstan, see the cable run down clear,
Heave away and with a will boys, for our homeland we will steer,
And we’ll sing in joyful chorus, through the watches of the night,
And we’ll sight our land before us when the grey dawn brings the light.
Rolling home, rolling home, rolling home across the sea,
Rolling home to Nova Scotia, rolling home dear land to thee.
You can read the rest of the lyrics here—it’s an old capstan song (many sea shanties are) performed by a gentleman named Tom Lewis. I was looking for the version that included “Old England”, but when I heard Lewis bellow out “Nova Scotia”, I was pretty much sold.
My province is fairly rich in nautical history. It was, by the virtue of its geographical location, one of the first landmasses discovered by European pioneers searching for new land to claim. As a result, Nova Scotia has been claimed and reclaimed by numerous governments during the colonial era—indeed, the province gets its name from the Scots, during their short stint here. Along with the Scots, Nova Scotia has been in French hands, and in English. Eventually the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht (or Peace of Utrecht) would transform the colony of Nova Scotia into a Britannic one. Only the island of Cape Breton remained in the hands of the French King, and even its days were numbered. The fortress of Louisbourg, France’s stronghold in Cape Breton, was more than once conquered by the mighty British Fleet.
Suffice to say, Nova Scotia and nautical history are very close friends; having studied here, and having the advantage of having family here (and, as my mother pointed out, having the ability to trace my family lineage here) has impressed upon me a great interest in its history. The quarreling of armies and fleets quickly led to an interest in maritime history, and finally to the intrepid British Royal Navy by which I am the most fascinated.
The Royal Navy remains one of the most distinguished military services in the world; it can trace its roots back to the 9th century when England began to launch its first ships, and in so doing, its first organised navy. Naval warfare was vastly different then than it is now, or even in the period of Napoleon or the Revolutionary War. In the place of thundering broadsides were hails of arrows and spears. Ships were almost always captured, unless they could be set on fire. Large naval skirmishes were long and exhausting, composed of boarding one ship after another, until one side declined action, or until it was defeated. The Battle of Sluys, one of the first major naval conflicts in the Hundred Years’ War, was composed of nearly four hundred and fifty ships! In the mid 14th century, this meant hundreds of thousands of arrows and countless boarding—vastly different from the crashing broadsides of iron of Nelson’s line at Trafalgar. For nearly two hundred and fifty years the Royal Navy had the strongest navy in the world, resulting in the vast colonisation of the forgotten places of the world, and the creation of the British Empire. For a period, the sun never set in the British Empire due in part to the strength of its navy.
I am an avid reader of nautical history (I study it at school, and in my spare time). I also read the popular naval fiction books out there—C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series, and Patrick O’Brian’s Maturin/Aubrey series, to mention two. Having read and studied this specific aspect in history, and having the advantage of being surrounded by it in Nova Scotia, it’s hardly a surprise why I’m involved in the Man the Capstan project.
It is in the period of history that Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey exist that the Capstan project focuses. Shortly after the tumult of the French Revolution, and in the midst of Napoleon’s growing Empire, the Royal Navy experienced the zenith of its influence, strength and reputation. This period of history remains the most popular where the Royal Navy is concerned. The uniforms being created by the Man the Capstan team are tailored after this era. The Royal Navy uniforms are designed after an 1810 R.N. coat, and are nearly identical in cut and trim. The Royal Marine’s uniform, while not precise (none of them were, really), also takes after this period.
The first coat (the one that has been tailored to my specifications) is nearly done, it just needs some more trim and polish. We’re still waiting on a few more accessories, but it’s wearable. As time permits, I’ll be posting in the future on the various stages of its construction, from the cutting of the patterns, to the trimming! Please note, the image to the right is not the coat in construction, but is in fact taken from the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
It’s been a long voyage, and there’s still so much more to go. Stay tuned!