Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World, 1700-1750.

Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

p. 158, on literacy among sailors: Such “old men” were valued for their intimate grasp of maritime lore, which they communicated through an oral tradition crucial to an occupation marked by many degrees of literacy. Some seamen were entirely illiterate, whereas others possessed not only the skills of literacy but used them in remarkably talented ways. As many as three-quarters of the sailors employed in the merchant shipping industry between 1700 and 1750 were literature if judged by the standard of the ability to sign one’s own name. But there is reason that the actual proportion of the literate may have been considerably smaller, because not all who could sign their names could read or write. … Further to say that one in four was illiterate is to obscure the uneven distribution of illiteracy among seafarers. All captains, mates, and surgeons were literature, but, at best, only two of three common seamen could even sign their name. … Maritime life contained cultural forms for the literate and illiterate. Books, tales, and ballads all functioned as important means of communication, education, and entertainment. [For statistics on literacy, see Appendix D, p. 307.]

p. 162-63 is on maritime language, a linguistic necessity for any sailor, and they did seem to learn it quickly: Maritime language was marked by lack of ambiguity. Each object and action had a word or phrase—short, clear, and unmistakable—to designate it. Acknowledging the struggle against nature for survival, maritime language was constructed to serve as a precise set of relays for authority, to link captain and crew with a machinelike efficiency.