This article from Sue Jones, of Birkbeck College, University of London examines the history of the ‘Silver Oar’ T he authority of the Admiralty courts during the early modern period was embodied in the London silver oar mace. However, its significance has rarely been explored and its symbolic resonances ignored. This article traces the history of the oar mace with special reference to the part it played at pirate executions.
On 30 August 1583, Thomas Walton (known as Purser) and Clinton Atkinson were hanged for the crime of piracy at Execution Dock in Wapping along with seven of their comrades. They had been arraigned, convicted, and condemned to hang two days earlier at St Margarets in Southwark. On the day of their execution they were described as being:
Brought by the Officers out of the Marshalsees, (with a Silver Oare borne before them) and conducted through Southwarke over the Bridge, through London , and so to Wapping , and to the place of execution there, where they appeared as brave in habite, as bold in spirit.i
As an academic working in the field of pirate studies I quickly became familiar with this silver oar, which is the mace of the High Court of Admiralty. The silver oar was described as attendant during the execution of court processes such as the arrest of a vessel, it was present on the bench during the hearings of the court, and received particular prominence at the executions of those tried for murder and piracy. We catch glimmers and glimpses of the silver oar throughout Admiralty history. In 1701, the execution of Captain Kidd, like that of Purser and Clinton before him, featured the oar. As one account of his hanging recorded:
On Friday May 23rd 1701, these Persons following were Conveyed from Newgate, to Execution Dock in Wapping, by the Officers of the Admiralty and others carrying the Silver Oar before them; according to the usual Custom, on such occasions.ii
The silver oar was part of the iconography of state power. Parading the condemned pirates through the streets of London accompanied by the silver oar was intended as a warning to anyone who might be tempted into piracy themselves. If they challenged the might of the Admiralty they would end their days at Execution Dock in Wapping, described by John Stow in 1598 as ‘the usuall place of execution for hanging of Pirats and sea Rovers’.iii Unique to England, until 1660 when exported to the colonies with the creation of the Vice-Admiralty Courts, the silver oar has received little attention since a 1966 exhibition of Oar Maces at the National Maritime Museum.iv Yet study of this compelling symbol, its uses and its contexts can provide valuable insight both into the origins and intentions of the High Court of Admiralty, and how this symbolic oar might be viewed by those on the receiving end of its justice.
The history and materiality of the oar
The London silver oar mace is still in use today, and is placed on the table below the bench whenever the Admiralty Court is in session. The oar embodies its own history: the marks of the silversmiths William Pitts and Joseph Preedy appear at the top of the shaft, and indicate that they remade or repaired this part of the oar in 1798. Other engravings on the blade of the oar indicate that it may be much older. The arms of James Stuart, Duke of York, and Lord High Admiral (1660-1673), later James II, date the blade from the Restoration. At the end of the shaft is the inscription ‘Iasper Swift, Marshial of the Admiraltie’. Admiralty Court records place Jasper Swift working for the Lord High Admiral, Lord Howard of Effingham, in 1586.v Yet even older engravings are present on the oar, such as the dragon and greyhound rampant of Henry VII and a combination of assay marks including the king’s mark, the goldsmiths’ mark and an indecipherable letter. Sir Frank Boyd Merriman argues this may date the oar to 1363 and the reign of Edward III.vi John Strype locates the beginnings of the High Court of Admiralty in 1360, describing it thus:
The Court of Admiralty: Which was erected in Edward the Third his Time. This Court belongs to the Lord Admiral of England, a high Officer that hath the Government of the King’s Navy, and the Hearing of all Causes relating to Merchants and Mariners. He takes Cognizance of the Death or Mayhem of any Man, committed in the great Ships riding in great Rivers, beneath the Bridges of the same next the Sea. Also he hath the Power to arrest Ships in great Streams, for the Use of the King, or his Wars, and in these Things this Court is concerned. There is a Judge of this Court, who must be a Civilian; […] The other Officers of this Court, are, a Register, and a Marshal, who carrieth a Silver Oar before the Judge.vii
The fabric of the existing London silver oar seems to be a patchwork of re-making and repair, but at least some parts of it may date to the very foundation of the Admiralty jurisdiction.
Classical symbolism of the oar
The oldest image of the silver oar can be found in St Mary’s Priory church in the Welsh town of Abergavenny, on the tomb of Dr David Lewis, a High Court of Admiralty judge from 1558 until his death in 1584. The top part of the tomb is an effigy of Dr Lewis himself wearing cap, ruff and gown, his pillow a pile of books .
On the side of the tomb are three carved panels depicting symbols relating to Dr Lewis, his life and career. One of these panels, inscribed ‘The Sargant of the Admiraltee’, shows a man carrying an oar on his shoulder .
The Tudor royal arms and the fouled anchor, emblem of the Admiralty, which appear on the London oar, can be detected in the carved detail on the oar. This oar is rather shorter than the existing London silver oar, but this may be due to either subsequent modification to the London oar, or to artistic licence by the sculptor of the tomb, John Gideon. J. P Niekerk has suggested that as Dr Lewis was the incumbent Admiralty Marshal at his death in 1584, the ‘Sargant of the Admiraltee’ depicted may be none other than the Jasper Swift named on the London silver oar, promoted to Marshal on the death of Dr Lewis.viii
We can explore the history of the London silver oar through its materiality, but why was an oar chosen as the ensign of the Admiralty court? Two theories have been mooted regarding the origins of civic maces such as the oar mace. Firstly, they may be derived from the fasces, the axe bound with rods, the Roman symbol of justice. Alternatively, they may be derived from the battle mace, symbol of strength, force and power.ix In either case, the mace was a symbol of strength and justice – and would be a handy and dangerous weapon to aid enforcement. The oar may have originally been meant as a representation of the Roman steering oar, the gubernaculum , precursor of the ship’s rudder and from which the verb ‘to govern’ is derived.x The Roman steering oar was an attribute of Neptune, god of the seas, and similar smaller oars or paddles were often shown wielded by Triton, Naiads and river deities.xi The oar was also a symbol of the goddess Fortune whose steering could lead either to a safe haven or on to the rocks.xii Machiavelli, however, argued that the audacious man could master Fortune.xiii Perhaps this was the image the Admiralty Court wanted to portray – they could rule the seas, master Fortune, and steer the ship of state. The metaphor of the ship of state was first used in The Republic where Plato likened the government of a city state to the command of a ship, and was later used by Horace in Odes 1.14, where he described the Roman state in disarray as a ship with its side stripped of oars, adrift, and at the mercy of the wind and waves.xiv Admiralty judges, versed in Roman civil law, would have been familiar with these images.xv Though the choice of the oar as mace may not originally have been made with reference to classical literature, by the fifteenth century the continued use of the oar as a symbol of power can be read as a conscious, and overtly humanist, linking of the might of the Admiralty to the classical world of the ancient imperialist powers. Early modern England was attempting to build a maritime empire based not on military might but on overseas trade. The English would be the new Romans and the oar was the symbol of their rule over the seas.
The carving on the tomb of Dr Lewis is suggestive of an episode from another classical text – Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey Tiresias instructs Odysseus to take an oar from his ship and travel inland until he comes to a place where the people ‘do not know the sea and do not eat their food seasoned with salt’.xvi The sea is so alien to these people that they will not recognise Odysseus’s oar and will assume it to be a winnowing fan, a farming implement. In England, an island teeming with navigable rivers and waterways, where one can never be more than 70 miles away from the sea, Odysseus’s task would seem impossible. First and foremost the oar was a tool by which this coastal and riverine population could make a living to sustain itself. The oar may have been chosen by the Admiralty for its ubiquity, a symbol easily recognisable to those over whom it would preside, but the very familiarity of the symbol would suggest that it was imbued with other meanings than those attributed to it by the Admiralty.
Enslavement and the oar
For many people in early modern England the symbol of the oar would have held quite different implications than those of classicism and empire. During this period England was not the only power with ambitions of imperial expansion. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the Turkish Empire was also rapidly expanding, and this Islamic power posed a threat to the established Christian powers of Europe. To a sea-faring power such as England, the maritime strength of ‘the Turk’ became quickly apparent. Although the Levant Company was established in 1581 to enable trade, other cross-cultural encounters, including mutual plunder and taking of captives, also took place. As English involvement in trade spread throughout the Mediterranean, so the number of vessels and seamen captured grew. By the end of the sixteenth century, the strength of the Barbary powers was such that Barbary corsairs began raiding the English coast to take Christian captives to be sold into slavery. Though the West Country and the Channel Islands were most affected, with nearly a thousand sailors captured from Plymouth alone in 1625, other coastal areas were also targeted – a Turkish pirate ship was captured in the Thames estuary in 1617.xvii Any fit male captives taken during these raids were at risk of being sent to the galleys as a slave. Slave labour powered the corsair fleets, such as that of Algiers, which could have up to 300 slaves shackled to the oars, rowing for up to twenty hours a day.xviii Francis Knight, who wrote an account of his own seven years as a captive, described the lot of the galley slave as ‘most inhumane and diabollicall’:
For a drop of water they would pawne their soules, and often are constrained to drinke of the Salt Oceans; their repast at best but bread and water, and for want of sleepe are in continuall extasies; the strokes of the Oare is dollerous, and with its ausideousnesse many splits their hearts at it, in this miserie all things makes against themselves: the scorching heate now penetrates their brains, their flesh is burned off their backs, when anon they are as much pinched with cold: strong fetters are their nearest consorts from which they are never exempted…not having so much roome as to stretch their legges; their sleep when they have any is an hour in twelve and that at night, when the one half Roaes and the other slumbers: a call of a Whisell awakes them all three hundred or more of them, their audiance and leape must be altogether; the discpline take Oare in hand, the stroke regular and punctiall.xix
Galley slaves could be redeemed for a ransom, and the Church assumed responsibility for making national collections for the relief and redemption of these Christian captives. The collections took place at parish level and were hugely successful in raising money. As Linda Colley has argued, due to these collections and the way they were organised most English people would have been exposed to arguments about commercial and maritime activity in the Mediterranean, and the enslavement of Christian captives in the galleys.xx Thousands of people throughout England would have had either the direct experience of having a relative or acquaintance chained to a galley oar, or would have donated money to help bring slaves home. To these people, the symbol of an oar might have suggested fear and enslavement rather than the symbolism of an idealised classical past.
The Admiralty silver oar embodied the aspirations of England’s elite rather than those of the population as a whole. Cast in silver, impractical for the everyday purpose of rowing, the oar was transformed from the mundane tool of the mariner into an instrument in the ceremonial apparatus of power. The presence of the silver oar at the execution of pirates was a symbolic reminder of the imperial ambitions which these criminals had attempted to subvert. The silver oar bore witness to the restitution of order which would take place with their deaths. In December 1609, Captain Longcastle, William Taverner and John Moore were among nineteen pirates hanged at Execution Dock:
From the Marshalseys as the rest, they were conveied in a barge to Wapping the silver ore borne before them as an embleme before their eyes, that riches they looked for, and unjustly sought to finde it at Sea, where the Captaine first, and the other two after (as they confest they had deserved) according to Judgement they suffred death.xxi
The silver oar would be one of the last things to be seen by those hanged for piracy, a final fatal reminder, ‘an embleme’, that – under Admiralty jurisdiction – the sea was not a lawless space but a regulated part of a great imperial design.
I have just read the above very interesting article, having visited this excellent website for the first time !
I’m researching the “Office of Vice Admiral of the Coasts” in the 16th – 18th centuries. I am aware that these particular appointments also used the ceremonial oar as an symbol of their office – is this an extension of the Admiralty Courts system described above ?
just came across this in looking into Jasper Swift. The mayors of Southampton were also Admirals of the port and presided over the admiralty court and had their own silver oar, which survives in the regalia of the mayor.
The silver oar seems to have been adopted by other jurisdictions. Here is an excerpt from the memoir of Capt. Robert Turnbull, later of Prince Edward Island. It describes an incident in the port of Quebec about 1819.
“One night during my watch on deck a boat came alongside with two men one of whom came on deck, asked for the captain and requested something to eat and drink which they got. They afterwards got very abusive, and the captain beat them and put them over the side into their boat and they pulled away. Next morning a large boat came alongside, the captain of which had a small silver oar in his hand. He took our captain in custody, leaving an officer on board. This was to appear before the magistrate for beating the men the night before. Our captain was fined.”.