Object Biography – Boatswain Call

It’s the middle of the 17th century and a ship is on its route to a trading post.  The ship is stocked full of items that will be traded once it arrives on port.  It’s the captain’s job not only to save his men but to keep the goods in tact so a trade can be done.  This particular crew has been on many voyages and brought back many ships full of materials for their motherland.  This crew is well trained on their job and the captain has many years of experience.  A storm is coming their way as the ship rocks and wobbles over the Atlantic Ocean.  The wind is picking up as the waves come up over the starboard side of the ship.  Rain and hail begins to pound the crew as the men arrive at their positions.  As the wind continues to get louder the captain makes his move to get his boatswain pipe, which is probably around his neck.  He cups his hands around the tool and gives a loud blow into the object communicating with his men.  The storm is worse than expected as more men from the hull are called up as all hands on deck are needed to survive this storm.  The storm rages on for about an hour as the captain continues blowing into the pipe, as he makes the loud pitch noise his crew continues to work.  After the storm passes the men are exhausted, but they are alive and all the materials are present and accounted for.  The ship continues its journey and arrives safely on site for the trade to begin.  Trading goods a key way of life during this time period.  The world was changing as ships not only traded but explored the world.  Ship voyages during the early modern era were extremely dangerous, storms weren’t the only issue of the time period.  Pirate’s roamed the sea looking for merchant ships to take over.  Writing’s from Caption William Kid 1696 talking about secret pirate hunting vessels to help protect merchant ships.[1]  This is also another reason for the pipe if it wasn’t for the captain and the loud calls over the storm, the ship would now be at the bottom of the Atlantic, or taken by Pirates.  He was able to communicate and the crew was able to do their job, keeping the ship from taking water and sinking the ship.  Showing the importance of this little everyday object used on a ship.

Historiography and methodology plays an important part in the information found for the paper.  The historiography for the Boatswain pipe is very similar.  Historians have gathered the same information about the usages for the boatswain pipe and its importance.  Looking deeper into the writings means finding writings from actual seamen and seeing what life was like on these ships during the time period.  All these tools help gather the proper information that leads to detailed accounts about the Boatswain pipe.

The Boatswain pipe was invented in the 14th century for sea voyages.  There has been evidence found on English ships of the pipe, dating back to 1248 when the crusades were taken place.  The idea came from a clay whistle that was used for other purposes during the time of the crusades.   Overtime the pipe would evolve to become more effective, but the 14th century was when this call was first used as a major tool on most ship decks.  This tool became a symbol for sea voyages during the 14th century.  The tool during this time period also evolved into the same looing figure as the Boatswain pipe of the Early Modern Period.  This tool was not only used to communicate but was a symbol of prestige as the officer in charge/boatswain who wore it and played it proudly.  The pipe did more than just act as a symbol, or help during storms.  It was used in everyday activities on the ship.  All different types of daily routines were passed on to crew members by using the boatswain pipe.  This tool as time passed was used as a musical instrument to pass the time on a voyage.[2]  The interesting part about the call is that it hasn’t changed much since the invention in the 14th century.  The basic components used in the original are still the components used on the ones today.  Rumors have been told about how this tool was used by the Romans in war, to keep their rowers in sync by using musical rhythms.

The pipe itself is made up of several parts.  The buoy is a ball like object at one end of the object.  The buoy has a hole at the top where the sound comes out of.  The gun is a long slightly curved piece that runs along the top of the object.  The keel is on the bottom and it acts as a place that rest on the palm of the user.  Finally the shackle is a ring that is wrapped around the keel.  The object is held in the right hand resting between the index finger and the thumb.  The thumb pusses up against the keel as the fingers wrap around the object.  It’s very important that the hole isn’t covered so sound can escape from the object. The person using the object can uses his/her tongue in different ways to vary the sound.  Also using different levels of force when blowing into the object makes a major difference.[3]

The boatswain call has many different usages and is really important to the ship.  The first call is called the still and it’s when the boatswain blows the pipe for eight seconds at a high pitch.  This causes the crew to stop immediately and come to attention.  The next call is the carry on and it means that the crew can continue what it was doing, this usually follows the still call.  The boatswain would blow for one second at a high pitch then a lower pitch for two seconds.  The general call is the next order and this is usually played at the start of the day, telling the crew to begin their jobs.  This pitch is played at a low pitch for one second then at a high pitch for three.  Next is the side order and this might be one of the most important this is played at a low pitch for four second then a high for four then a low for three.  This order is played when royalty is coming on the ship, a dead body is being thrown overboard, or land is seen.  This call gets the crew to stop and come to order in a respectful way.  Hands to dinner is a tune played for thirty seconds and is really hard to do, many people that make the call struggle with playing this.  The crew now knows it’s time for food.  The final call is the pipe down call and it’s played at night or anytime during the day, when the captain says the day is over.[4]

The call today is very important to many in the Navy.  Today it is used as more of a symbol than anything else.  The officer will carry it around his neck as a sign more than as a tool.  The navy band plays tunes that can be played by the boatswain in its honor.  This tool was really important to the sailors using it in the 14th century all the way to today.  Its symbol is really important and means a lot to people that use it on board a ship.

In conclusion the Boatswain call had a major effect on everyday life on a ship.  These ships of the time period were very important to the new world that was created in the early modern era.  The world was now connecting as parts of the world could communicate and deal with other areas far away.  The ships were important to everyday life.  Aaron Thomas writes about how the ship saw and connected so many things.  Slavery, religion, and morals all were mixed up with the arrival of cultures blending.[5]  The ship and its voyages were major components of a connected world.  When you look at a broad topic such as the ship, it needs to be narrowed down to something smaller.  This something must be used every day on the ship and play an important role.  Thus leading to the Boatswain pipe, this was the most important part to the ships communication.  Using the tool during times of crisis like storms causing problems or pirates attacking, or just for daily activities.  This object was used for many daily activities and became a staple of everyday ship life.  Even later the tool became an instrument and was used for fun out at sea.[6]  The boatswain pip was a major object used daily on ships, which play one of the biggest roles during the early modern era.


Works Cited

Thomas, Aaron.  The Caribbean Journal of a Royal Navy Seaman. Journal. 1799.

Kid, William.  Letters about Stopping the Pirates. 1696.

Procter, Dave. Music of the Sea.  Vol 5. No 5. 1994. 2016

Boatswain Call History, Timeline, Examples, and More. 2014. 2016.

The Sea Cadet Corps.  Boatswain Call. 1999. 2016.

Image. USS Abbott.  Boatswain Call.

The Free Information Society. Boatswain Call. 2016.





[1] Captain William Kids Letters 1696

[2] Boatswain Call History, Timeline, Examples, and more

[3] The Sea Cadet Corps Boatswain Call

[4] The Free Information Society Boatswain Call

[5] Thomas, Aaron The Caribbean Journal of a Royal Navy Seaman

[6] Procter Dave, Music of the Sea