I’ve been reading the Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas, Able Seaman in HMS Boston. The voyage, which Thomas embarked on at the age of 32, lasted from 1794 to 1795. The Journal is a fascinating insight into life on board ship from an ordinary sailor’s viewpoint, especially as Thomas is good company for a reader. He’s lively and funny, takes a keen interest in everything about him, and has a good eye for an anecdote. He’s just the sort of eighteenth-century seaman I could make a hero of in a novel.
So I thought until I was reminded with a shock that Thomas was, indeed, of the eighteenth century. It happened that he was staying in a public house in Portugal Cove in Newfoundland. Here, seeing a pile of live lobsters, he hit on a trick to give him and the company “recreation and mirth”. With the landlady’s help he and his companions began “the frolic” by hanging live lobsters on a horse’s tail and mane. They then put four live lobsters on a cat’s tail: “The moment the Claws embrac’d her Tail her tumultous outcry put some of our Companions to flight”. They put the cat on the horse’s back where “she stuck her elastic fangs up to the hilt in the Horse’s back”. The horse (having broken wind first) “kicking and thundering, the Cat clawing and squawling…took to its heels with the Cat on its back, crying and scratching every step the poor animal took, increasing his terror and scarefaction”.
The horse’s course led him through “ragged Rocks and broken stones” and for a moment Thomas was “under considerable anxiety for his neck”. However, “when the convulsion of laughter was a little moderated the people assur’d me that there was no cause for alarm”. Then, “the Horse and Catt being out of sight the bustle they had occasion’d was more moderated” and so Thomas went in for his supper and so to bed.
And the horse, cat and lobsters? Who knows what became of them. But I couldn’t sleep for thinking of this act of savage cruelty. Did the horse fall down and break its leg on the “ragged Rocks”? Did it collapse with exhaustion? Did it and the cat die somewhere in the wild with their wounds untreated, in agony and terror?
Yet Thomas was not an insensitive man. He writes feelingly of friendship, the tragedy of war, charity, his nightmares and anxieties. It was quite usual in the eighteenth century for ordinary people to commit acts of dreadful cruelty. It was an age when a man could campaign against the slave trade, but fight to prevent legislation to ban bear and bull baiting (William Wyndham); when Dukes enjoyed betting on fighting cocks armed with sharpened spurs to intensify the injuries the birds could inflict on one another; when a gentleman always made a day out of the Newgate executions and never missed his weekly trips to the badger baiting.
Which all reminded me how artificial historical fiction is, for all the anxiety of its writers and readers to achieve what is called “accuracy”. If I were to write about my witty, funny sailor accurately, I couldn’t leave out the horse and cat or the numerous other cruelties and crudities that litter his narrative. But who would make a hero of such a man? Who would like him? I wouldn’t. To make him palatable I’d have to omit these character traits, de-emphasise these horrible habits of his era. Or, I’d have to dress them up with a bit of modern-style humanity – make Thomas a reluctant participant, for example, or replay the myth that such things were only the sport of the ignorant masses. Or, I’d have to distance my modern self from them, perhaps by making a conscious effort to understand them on their own terms, or by using them to critique the same cruelties that are still committed in our own age.
But hang on, I hear creative writing tutors up and down the land chorus, aren’t there rich seams of contradiction to be mined here? Well, yes and no. Because to men like Aaron Thomas they were not contradictions. They were just what people did. That doesn’t mean he didn’t know it was cruel – he did (“the poor animal”). But that didn’t stop him. He had a good laugh.
Of course you can write about an unpopular, cruel or wicked man, but to do so you have to find something that humanises him, something that shows another side of his character. Make him complicated. Make him a victim of circumstances. Make him a loveable rogue. Make him love his dear old mum. But, for his era, Aaron Thomas was not an especially unpopular, cruel or wicked man. It would be very easy to make a character based on him who would appeal to the modern reader. But if I told the reality, if I wrote about the cat and the horse in the spirit in which the event was in fact played out, he just wouldn’t.
The Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas: Able Seaman in HMS Boston,ed. by Jean M Murray (London: Longmans, 1968
The title “A Crude and Cruel Age” and the examples in the fifth paragraph are taken from Bareknuckles: A Social History of Prize-Fighting by Dennis Brailford (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1988)