Sunday, November 11, 2012

Late an Officer in the British Navy

One of the voyage accounts I read while writing my novel To the Fair Land was The Adventures of Mark Moore: late an officer in the British Navy (1795).* Moore combined a naval career in British, American, Tuscan, Portuguese and Swedish services with a career in the theatre as an actor manager, touring Britain, France and Flanders. His was a rackety, wandering life which zigzagged between the sea and the stage, and from prosperity to bankruptcy.

Moore was born in Boston, America in 1739. His father had emigrated from Ireland and was a wine merchant. He died when Moore was three. When the boy was thirteen he was sent to near-by Cambridge to study. “I did not waste much of the midnight oil,” he confessed. He was much more interested in spending time with Hallam’s theatrical company which was touring in Rhodes Island. Stage-struck, Moore ran away to join the company when they went to Barbados.

Hallam’s company, founded by Lewis Hallam (1714-1756) and his wife (?-1773), was the first notable acting company to tour in North America. Lewis Hallam came from a family of actors. His mother was an actress and his elder brother ran a theatre in Goodman’s Fields. The Hallams formed the London Company of Comedians in 1752, and set sail for the British colonies in the same year. Lewis Hallam died in 1754 on a trip to Jamaica and his wife married David Douglass, who took over the company and took it back to New York in 1758, as the American Company Troupe.  

A family friend’s attempt to persuade Moore to go home met with refusal, but the young man did agree to enter the Navy as a midshipman. He was injured in an engagement with a French privateer. His skull was fractured and trepanned – the ship’s surgeon drilled a hole in the bone so that the wound could be cleaned. Though he was forbidden alcohol after the operation, he credited his recovery to the punch he persuaded a marine to smuggle in to him.   

Moore’s sea-going career went on to include a spell in a privateer as a surgeon’s mate, when he discovered that the surgeon had no more medical experience than he did himself. The surgeon had been a wood-cutter, and two men bled to death when  he attempted to carry out amputations. Moore later did a stint on a Bristol slaver as ship’s surgeon – his only qualification being this time as surgeon’s mate to the wood-cutter. Moore threw his own slave, who he called Ranger, overboard after the boy was shot in the stomach to spare him, he said, a tormenting death. Moore records that Ranger was “kissing his feet at his last moments”. For a time Moore operated as an American privateer harrying British ships, for which he was taken prisoner. In the 1790s he worked for the British Navy again, transporting pressed men.

His equally chequered theatrical career was resumed after his marriage to his first wife who he met at a ball in Worcester. They eloped the next day. The couple embarked on a wandering theatrical career throughout the UK. For a time they toured the west country performing Italian songs, calling themselves Signora and Signor Morini. They had one son who joined the French army and died at about the same time as Mrs Moore.

Moore saw the inside of a prison on more than one occasion. In the Midlands he was mistaken for a highwayman and arrested. In 1793, shortly after his second marriage to the landlady of his Liverpool lodgings, he ended up in debtors’ prison where he survived by making and selling model ships. He was in prison for seven months and eventually discharged. Back in Liverpool, with old age and poverty staring him in the face, Moore wrote his autobiography in the belief that “a British audience, and British readers, never fail to pardon, even where they cannot praise”. 

Moore’s narrative is interspersed with songs, Latin verses, a translation from a French novel and topographical information. There’s theatrical gossip, with some name dropping thrown in  – Garrick, Linley, Sheridan. A “Russian anecdote” tells the story of how Peter the Great disguised himself and joined a gang of rebels to foil their plot to assassinate him. How many of Moore’s stories are true, how many are tall, and how many are seaman’s yarns, it is impossible to say!

*I wrote about another American mariner, Aaron Thomas, in “A Crude and Cruel Age” on 4 June 2012.

 The Memoirs and Adventures of Mark Moore, Late an Officer in the British Navy, Written by Himself  (London, 1795)