My Nation, My Ship: Nationalism and Service at Sea


Captains, if you spend a moment to look carefully at the crewmen on your ships, you will notice that they are of different ethnic backgrounds. This is an accurate depiction of what life at sea was like, when ships would recruit sailors at different ports and those sailors would come from different parts of the world.

But by the time we get to the time-frame of the game (the late 18th/early 19th century), recruitment had become an issue for many Western governments that wanted to instill a spirit of patriotism and nationalism among their crew. But how? A captain of a Dutch vessel that docks at Barbados may need to recruit new crewmen, but they would be of different nationalities and origins.

This was an issue that dated back to the early 18th century, with the rise of national militarized companies like the East India Company, the Dutch East Indies Company and the French Compagnie des Indes.

Fearing that both merchant and military ships might be crewed by men of different nationalities, legal measures were introduced to prevent just that: In Britain the East Indies Trade Act (1714) was passed during the reign of King George II, and it stated that the only Englishmen who were allowed to travel to the Indies were those who had the permission to do so. The law stated:

„…By an act of Parliament of the ninth year of the reign of his late Majesty King William the Third, of Glorious Memory, it is enacted and provided, that the said East Indies, or the lands, havens, ports, cities, towns or places, within the limits aforesaid, should not be visited, frequented or haunted, by any of the subjects of his Majesty, other than such as might lawfully go and trade there; and that if any of the subjects of his said late Majesty, or heirs or successors, of what degree or quality soever… should directly or indirectly, visit, haunt, frequent, trade, traffick or adventure into or from the Indies, or other the parts aforesaid, all and every such Offender and Offenders, would incur such forfeitures and losses….”

In other words, the law stipulated that Englishmen could only sail on English ships, and could not serve on the vessels of other nations. Furthermore those who failed to obey the law would have their goods confiscated upon their return to England!

Needless to say, it was impossible to put such laws into practice, and in places like the Caribbean and the East Indies, captains would recruit whoever they could as the mortality rate of sailors was high- due to disease, accidents and of course, piracy and war. During the time-frame of the game, when all the nations you see were at war, it was still common practice to recruit able crewmen wherever they could be found, out of necessity.

So next time you dock, take a close look at the crew on your ship and be thankful that some rules were broken! (Otherwise you might not be able to find anyone to sail with you.)
Happy sailing captains!

(Image: Original copy of the 1714 East Indies Trade Act regulating trade and sailing to the Indies, from my personal collection.)