Splicing the Mainbrace

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    Lawrie Phillips

      The current edition of The Royal Navy Day by Day (A B Sainsbury and F L Phillips, 3rd edition Stroud 2005), has an entry under 19 May 1797 which reads: “First recorded ‘splicing of the mainbrace’ as reward for Arduous Exertion: Cumberland (Captain Rowley)”. I am working on the next edition of this book and would like to verify, and perhaps augment, this entry. Can anyone help?

      Lawrie Phillips


        A couple of items in Mariner’s Mirror may be helpful. MM vol 22 issue 2(1936) page 246, quotes G E Manwaring’s My Friend the Admiral p.24, which cites a passage from Burney’s Journal of Cook’s voyage referring to “splicing the mainbrace” on February 22 1773. This is also referred to in MM 18:2 (1932) p.210.
        The traditional Dutch/German order calling the crew aft for a tot as a reward for a heavy task was: “(To the) Mizzen-sheet!” (“Besan-Schot an!”). Friedrich Kluge’s SeemannsSprache, 1911, p.91 offers a citation dated 1723, [which indicates] that the practice was known even earlier than 1773.
        John Harland

        Tony Beales

          This may not help with the entry for 19 May 1797, but I can offer three contenders for earlier references, two of which would need further verification, which may not be obtainable:

          1. The Vocal Magazine: Or, Compleat British Songster, printed in 1781, includes the following song on page 155:
          Song 591. “The Sea Fight, a Catch” written by Capt. Thompson. Sung at Vauxhall.
          “BOATSWAIN! pipe up, all hands hoy!
          Turn out, ev’ry man and boy!
          Make sail, give chace,
          Then splice main brace!
          A gallant ship ! my boys, she’s French!
          In grog and flip here’s to each wench.
          Loof, boys, higher;
          Stand by – fire !
          She strikes! she strikes! our’s is the day.
          A glorious prize ! — belay, belay !

          2. In The Mariner’s Mirror volume 22, issue 2, an answer by J G Bullocke on page 246 refers to G E Manwaring’s My Friend the Admiral (1931), which quotes a passage from James Burney’s Journal compiled during Cook’s second voyage, under the date February 22nd 1773, which ends with the words “spliced the mainbrace”, and also refers to Burney’s Log for the day which records “served half allowance of liquor extra to the ship’s company”.

          3. Archibald Duncan in The British Trident vol 2 (published 1805), pages 56-57, quotes an account of an action in 1757 from an officer on board the Godolphin:
          “The gallant conduct of three captains of East India-men should not pass unnoticed. These were Captain Wilson, of the Suffolk ; Captain Walpole, of the Houghton; and Captain Hutchinson, of the Godolphin. On the 9th of March [1757], being about eight degrees to the eastward of the Cape of Good Hope, they were attacked by a French ship of the line and a frigate, but after a smart firing obliged them to sheer off. The following are the particulars of this encounter, as related by an officer on board the Godolphin:
          “‘March the 9th, at three PM we saw two sail from the mast-head, bearing west by north, and at eight spoke with Captain Wilson, who proposed steering north till twelve, to avoid the strange ships. The moon rising we perceived the ships, and imagined they were steering to the eastward, but soon finding they were in chace of us, made ready every thing for defence and to give them a warm reception. We found them come up with us fast, keeping to windward. Between four and five a.m. we piped all hands to splice the main brace, and the ship’s company were made acquainted with the gratuity of 2000l. offered by the Honorable Court of Directors, if they behaved well and cleared the ship from the enemy. With one voice, and three cheers — “Nail the colors to the staff!” — was the word. At day-break the enemy being almost within gun-shot of us, on our weather-quarter… ‘”

          However in this last case, the officer is not named, it is not stated when his account was written, and it could well have been embellished.
          Tony Beales

          Frank Scott

            I can confirm that “Besan-Schot an!” is still used in German ships. Like “splice the main brace” its logic and origin is open to massive dispute!
            Frank Scott

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