Captain Cook and Nautical Tattoos
Most of you are at least vaguely aware that the great British explorer, Captain James Cook, led three epic voyages of discovery between 1766 and 1779, captaining three famous royal navy ships – HMS Endeavour, HMS Resolution, and finally, HMS Discovery.
He traveled thousands of miles across uncharted oceans, from New Zealand and Australia, to the Pacific Islands, to Hawaii, mapping in great detail the seas, the lands and the coastlines he encountered and gave many islands, places, rivers, and towns their present-day names.
What is lesser known is his pivotal role in introducing the art of tattooing to the sailors of the world, who in turn made it widely known to the western world in general.
It was during Captain Cook’s first voyage, which commenced in 1766, that he first encountered tattoos on the Polynesian Island of Tahiti.
The role of Sir Joseph Banks
To be strictly accurate, it was the famous naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks – on board HMS Endeavour as a botanist – who became the first westerner to record the details of ‘native tattoos’. He was also the person who adopted the Polynesian word ‘tatau’ or ‘tattow’ into the English lexicon – the word we all know today as ‘tattoo’.
The first record on tattoos was written in August 1769, when Banks wrote in his journal:
“This they do by inlaying the color black under their skins in such a manner as to be indelible; everyone is marked thus in different parts of his body accordingly maybe to his humor or different circumstances of his life.
“Some have ill-designed figures of men, birds or dogs but they more generally have this figure “Z” either simply, as the woman are generally marked with it, on every joint of their fingers and toes and often round the outside of their feet, or in different figures of it as square, circles, crescents, etc. which both sexes have on their arms and legs.
“In short, they have an infinite diversity of figures in which they place this mark and some of them, we were told, had significations but this we never learned to our satisfaction.”
He writes that the color was “lamp black”, and was made from “…smoke of a kind of oily nuts used by them instead of candles…. kept in coconut shells and mixed with water…”
Banks noted that the tattoo instruments were made of bone and shell which were fashioned into sharp ‘teeth’ numbering from 3 to 20 which are dipped into the black liquor and then driven into the skin by quick sharp blows that penetrate the skin “so deep that every stroke is followed by a small quantity of blood”.
He also notes that the wounds remain painful for many days before they heal.
Banks goes on to describe the tattooing of a 14-year-old girl on her buttocks, which was clearly so painful for the girl to endure that he had to leave before the tattoo was completed.
Later that year in October, Captain Cook discovered a group of hitherto unknown islands near New Zealand which were inhabited by Maoris. It was here that Banks found the first examples of the famous intricate Maori face tattoos, and in January 1770, he acquired a perfectly preserved and tattooed Maori head.
There were many subsequent references to tattoos in both Captain Cook’s and Sir Joseph Banks’ diaries, and in 1774, Banks returned to England with a living example of the art – a tattooed Polynesian warrior called Omai.
The members of Cook’s crew on the Endeavour were the first Europeans to ink Polynesian tattoos on their bodies. To this day, the only Polynesian art that is known to the world at large is from their tattoo designs, which still remain very popular.
The spread of Tattooing
In those early days, sailors had their tattoos imprinted by the Polynesian tattooists in the islands, using their traditional tattooing tools and ink, but it wasn’t long before the matelots started to tattoo each other on board their ships.
The tattoo methods employed weren’t much different to those used by the Polynesians, although early records indicate the ink was made from gunpowder and urine.
The practice of sailors tattooing their bodies took hold in the late 18th Century, and over a short period of time, tattoos had spread throughout the British and American navies. By the 19th century, it is estimated that 90% of sailors in the US navy had at least one tattoo on their body.
Although the Polynesian designs were – and still are – part of the sailors’ tattoo ‘armory’ of designs, the tattoo culture amongst nautical brethren started to take on a design life force of its own.
Many sailors were religious and superstitious, especially as their uncertain lives were at the mercy of Mother Nature and the elements. Many of the new nautical tattoos became ‘talismans’ – symbols that protected them from the many dangers of life at sea.
Other popular nautical tattoos represented milestones in sailing careers, such as places they had been to, oceans they had crossed or nautical miles traveled.
Some nautical tattoos and their meanings
- Swallow – sailed 5000 nautical miles (additional swallows for further distances of 5000 miles)
- Anchor – Often represented a two-way crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, but was also used as a symbol of stability and unwavering religious faith.
- Dragon – the wearer had sailed the China Seas.
- Golden Dragon – crossed the international date line
- Fully rigged ship – sailed around Cape Horn
- Shellback Turtle or King Neptune – crossed the equator
- “Holdfast” – These words are a reminder to hold lines fast in a storm
- Pig and Rooster – Survival from a shipwreck
- Twin Propellers – One prop on each buttock as protection from drowning.
- Nautical Star – North Star, safe passage home.
- Swallows – Finding the way home after traveling great distances
- Dagger through a swallow – For a lost comrade
- Crossed anchors – Boatswain’s Mate
- Harpoon – Fishing fleet
- Rope around the hand – deckhand
- Guns or cross cannons – Military naval service
- Anchor – Merchant Navy service.
- Pin-up girls – Loved ones left behind
- Mermaid – Warning of being lured into danger
- Hula girls – Sailors who had been to Hawaii.
On the subject of “Girlie tattoos,” in 1909, the US navy decided that aspiring sailors with obscene (i.e. naked) tattoos would be barred from enlistment. This created a new tattoo industry in cover-up tattoos, where naked women became ‘dressed’.
The first tattoo artists in the western world, other than those on the ships, were retired or ex-sailors who had acquired the skills on board and then set up their business on dry land. These early tattoo studios were often based in one of the many ports across the world.
One of the best known of these was the American, Norman Collins, aka “Sailor Jerry” who set up shop in Honolulu, during the Second World War. During his twenty-year career, he served thousands of sailors who dropped by his shop after a drunken night out in Hawaii’s red light district.
Sailor Jerry became so widely known that he was also instrumental in introducing the art of tattooing to the ‘land-lubbers’ across America.
So are nautical tattoos the private preserve of the sailing fraternity?
At ALL Day Tattoo, we think not. Well-drawn tattoos can be inked on anyone, and we do not believe that you must come from the sailing stock before you can wear one of the ‘old school’ sailor tattoos, such as those listed above.
At All Day Tattoo, we believe you can have any nautical design on your body. As part of the process, we will tell you what the designs mean to present day sailors and also ensure that the tattoo is placed on an appropriate area of your body.
If you are thinking of having a nautical tattoo, why not chat to one of our artists at ALL Day Tattoo. We can show you some options, or we can use a tattoo design you have brought with you, and discuss placement and suitability. We will ensure that the tattoo is right for you.
One thing is for sure. With All Day Tattoo’s comfortable and hygienic studio, and our state of the art technology; you will not be put through the dreadful ordeals that the Polynesians and western sailors suffered some 250 years ago in order to have their body inked. These days it is a far less painful process.
Click on the button below for your free, no-obligation consultation. Our friendly staff can explain the process, answer your questions and deal with any concerns you may have.