Swordplay & Swashbucklers

Home » Maritime » Commands at Sea: The Boatswain’s Call, Pipe, or Whistle, with a Note or Two on Boatswain Speech as Well

Commands at Sea: The Boatswain’s Call, Pipe, or Whistle, with a Note or Two on Boatswain Speech as Well


Title page to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest, from volume one of The Works of Shakespear edited by Alexander Pope. London: Jacob Tonson in the Strand, 1725.

Ah, the Bard! As someone once pointed out in writing, and I wish I could recall who it was (unless I’m imagining or mis-recalling this), the opening to the Tempest is one of the most evocative in its brevity in all of literature. It brings ship and storm to life immediately. In related fashion, I’m pretty sure it was George MacDonald Fraser who wrote words to the effect that “Enter Mariners wet” is one of the great stage directions of all time. Or perhaps I’m confusing his observation with the former, or even inventing the former from the latter.

But, in this brief yet related digression from swordplay and swashbuckling at sea and ashore, we’re more concerned with another line in the play: “[T]end to the master’s whistle…,” that is, listen to and obey (the “Aye, aye!” spoken or unspoken) the musical commands, shrill, some said, from the ship master’s silver whistle.

Notably, it’s not the boatswain’s whistle Shakespeare mentions, but the master’s, for in the sixteenth century and into the seventeenth the boatswain was not the only officer authorized a whistle. As Nathaniel Boteler wrote in 1634 in A Dialogicall Discourse Concerninge Marine Affaires Betwene the Highe Admirall and a Captaine att Sea, first published in 1685 and known today as the  eponymous Boteler’s Dialogues:

“ADMIRAL. How many be the officers that carry whistles in a ship of war?”

“CAPTAIN. They are three: The Master, the Boatswain, and Coxswain, for though the Captain my do the same at his pleasure, yet it is neither usual, nor necessary.”

By the late 17th century, it appears that the silver whistle or “call” was used primarily by the boatswain.


Dutch boatswain’s (or other officer’s) whistle, early 17th century, Rijksmuseum.

Before going further, and with no offense intended to anyone, I want to make sure that readers understand that boatswain is pronounced “bos’n” or “bosun.” I’ve heard “cocks-wayne” rather than the correct “cox’n” (cockswain, one who commands and helms–steers–a ship’s boat) before–including from persons well-educated but clearly un-nautical, not to mention clearly forgetting the first rule of the pronunciation of a new word: look it up!

The boatswain’s whistle, both as a badge of office for any ship’s officer as well as a functional instrument with a large variety of “calls” for ordering hands about, has been around since at least the 13th century according the USN Bluejacket’s Manual (1941 edition), in more or less similar traditional form. It also notes that, although the whistle is commonly referred to as the boatswain’s pipe in the US Navy, the term “call” in reference to it dates to “about” 1671. A writer commenting in 1679 upon the lack of religious fervor among English seamen during the English-Dutch war at sea 1672 to 1673, complains that “a Lieutenant’s Command for a Rope for the Boat, shall be sooner answered with Boatswain’s Call, than the Bell for Prayers…”

However the Reverend Henry Teonge, chaplain aboard the HMS Assistance 1676 to 1678, still referred to it as the boatswain’s whistle: “He had a neat coffin, which was covered with one of the King’s jacks, and his bo’sun’s silver whistle and chain laid on the top (to show his office) between two pistols crossed with a hanger drawn.”

The English boatswain had other badges of office as well, including a short cane or “bamboo,” its tip whipped with marline, for encouraging laggard seamen by cracking it on their backs and pates, although sometimes a simple rope’s end served as well. And there was the cat-of-nine-tails too, a dark badge of office best kept out of sight except when in use. But it was the boatswain’s whistle that was his definitive badge of office, and I’m sure that boatswains of the past were just as proud of their silver call as boatswain’s today are: “It is not so much by his fine Silver-call, as the illustrious Chain that it hangs by, that is the distinguishing Badge of his Post, and which he’s as proud of as my Lord Mayor is of his, and prouder,” wrote Ned Ward in 1707.

The whistle was an important means of directing seamen about their duties. Again, Ned Ward: “The Boatswain is a Kind of a Jack with a Box, for let him but whistle once, and you have a hundred or more Cartesian Puppets, pop up upon Deck, and run about, and streight disappear again in an Instant.”

In the 17th and 18th centuries an English boatswain’s duties included the custody, keeping, repair, and management of all rigging, anchors and cables, and sails; the hoisting in and out of cargo, stores, and boats; the management of all of the ship’s colors; the calling up, via his whistle, of gangs, watches, &c. for, as Boteler put it, “exertions of the their works and spells (as they call them), and to see that they do them thoroughly; and to keep them in peace in in order with one another.” This last duty was that of what on land was handled by the Provost Marshal. At sea, it was the boatswain who punished seamen for their shortcomings. This included everything from flogging wrongdoers to placing them in the bilboes to ducking them at the main yardarm. In the Dutch navy, the boatswain’s duties  include keelhauling as well (see “Keelhauling, in Living Color”).

In battle the boatswain and his mates, along with some of the other crew if the occasion warranted, were tasked not only with repairs to the rigging, but often with managing the sails. Shortened sail was typically used in battle in order to reduce the number of crewmen required to manage it, leaving the majority to handle the guns great and small, and the small arms as well.


At sea aboard USS George Washington (CVN 73) Sep. 9, 2002: Boatswain’s Mate 3rd Class Bethany McDonald. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate Airman Jessica Davis.)

In the modern US Navy, the boatswain–thankfully, after a brief period of insanity in which ratings were abolished, they’re now restored–has similar duties, in particular in regard to the various rigging aboard modern ships, the hoisting of boats and stores, and so on. The boatswain’s pipe remains ever present, and modern US Navy boatswain’s calls, performed by the US Navy band, can be found here.

The most common call I remember was “Piping the Side,” that is, the piping of a captain, admiral, or on occasion, some dignitary over the side during a formal ceremony shipboard or ashore. I remember various other calls shipboard as well, on both surface ships and submarines, but for the life of me I can’t remember them in detail except that “All Hands” was common, or perhaps it was “Pass the Word,” and, like everything else, the calls came over the 1MC (the general PA aboard a US Navy ship or shore command) except in the case of the piping the side ceremony, for we were always present for them.

But boatswains then and now had other means to motivate seamen: language, particularly when spiced with “cursing and swearing.” Sailors in general have long been known for their use of foul language, and boatswains in particular had, and have, a reputation for creativity, eloquence, wide vocabulary, and, as often as not, lyricism in their swearing. Ned Ward noted that:

“He must certainly believe there can be no such Thing as Hell-fire under Salt-water, else he would never be giving himself so oft as he does to the Devil; but how frequently soever he damns himself, he is sure to damn others much oftener. In short, he’s a Fellow that will throw away ten times more Oaths and Strokes in hoisting out a Barge, than in boarding an Enemy.”

The boatswain’s excuse for his language is a simple one: “But, Zounds, he’ll cry, what would have me do? A man without Noise, is a Thing without a Soul, and fit for nothing but a Pissing-Post.”

As for my own experience, I never knew a real US Navy boatswain, at least not a Chief Boatswain’s Mate, who couldn’t out-swear anyone except another boatswain. A boatswain’s work–dealing with fouled lines, for example–naturally inspires foul language, which in turns lubricates the work at hand and helps get it done. At times I’d swear it has motivated not only crew but rigging or equipment itself.

My favorite example of a boatswain’s cursing, however, or perhaps my second favorite (I’ll save a particular modern description for a later post), may be that of Ned Ward’s Royal Navy boatswain, whose elegant oxymoron is straight to the point:

“Get up, all Hands to Prayers, and be damned.”


REFERENCES (Not Cited in Detail Above)

Anon. Observations on the Last Dutch Wars, in the Years 1672 and 1673. London: 1679.

Nathaniel Boteler. Boteler’s Dialogues. Edited by W. G. Perrin. London: Navy Records Society, 1929.

Benerson Little. Chapter 14, “Tarpaulin Cant and Spanish Lingua,” in The Buccaneer’s Realm: Pirate Life on the Spanish Main, 1674-1688. Washington DC: Potomac Books, 2007.

Henry Teonge. The Diary of Henry Teonge. Edited by G. E. Manwaring. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927.  (Teonge’s original manuscript was first published in 1825.)

United States Navy. Bluejacket’s Manual. 1941.

Ned [Edward] Ward [By the Author of the London Spy]. The Wooden World Dissected in the Character of a Ship of War, 7th ed. London: Booksellers of London and Westminster, 1760. Originally published in 1707.


Copyright Benerson Little 2017. Last updated May 3, 2017.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: