Maritime Hierarchy

The hierarchy of ships in a fleet [a group of ships on the same mission] helps keep order. The lead ship of a fleet is the admiral and or flagship. In John Winthrop’s Fleet, the Arabella served as the Admiral and the Talbot served as Vice Admiral.

The hierarchy of command among mariners is equally important. It prevents crew members from stumbling over each other while following instructions or fulfilling their tasks. In a naval fleet, the highest ranking officer is the admiral, and he sails in the lead ship. Otherwise the master is the highest ranking officer. The highest ranking officer on a ship has the first choice of accommodations. Master Peter Milbourne and Governor Winthrop required the best quarters in the Arabella’s sterncastle. Winthrop’s son and his servants were ment to be accommodated there, too.(1)

Sometimes the captain and the master are the same person, and sometimes they are two different people. A master is always a trained seaman and navigator. He directs the efficient working of the ship. A captain is responsible for the success of the voyage – whether it leaves on time and has enough supplies. He might be a gentleman who helped finance the voyage. He is not necessarily a seaman or navigator. Either way, it takes a bit of education to become a captain or master.

Next in the hierarchy is the lieutenant, who is preparing to be a captain or master one day. If there is still room in the sterncastle, the lieutenant and his servants bunk there. The ship’s surgeon is entitled to a nice cabin to himself somewhere. And by tradition, the bosun [boatswain] and the carpenter reside in accommodations with equal status. The rest of the crew sleep in various locations in the ship depending on their status and duties on board. For example, the cook lives near his galley and the purser sleeps near the storeroom. Where do you think the gunner sleeps?(2)

At the bottom of the hierarchy is the common seaman. Seamen make up about seventy percent of the crew and are divided into three groups who are supervised by petty officers. The best of the common seamen are the topmen and the forecastle men. Topmen are the agile fellows working aloft in the rigging. Forecastle men work the anchors and the foremast sails.

Then we have the afterguard who are based on the quarterdeck or upper deck with the helmsman. The afterguard sleep near the steerage.

The least skilled of the common seamen are the waisters. They heave ropes, push the capstan bars to weigh the anchors, and do other simple tasks. You will find young seamen apprentices with the waisters.

What is the next level after seaman? If a young man began his career as a seaman’s apprentice, then he moves up to seaman first class. Eventually, he might become a petty officer in charge of other seamen. That is a big promotion. [Remember those hammocks you saw with all the headroom?] The boatswain, carpenter, cooper, sail maker, and cook were probably seamen once.

Coopers are important. They build and repair the wooden barrels and kegs that hold the food, ale, and water. They must make sure the containers are sealed tightly. If the food is not protected, it gets moldy, sour, and rotten, and the ship has to turn for home or the nearest friendly port.

Last but not least are the idlers who are not really officers, such as the butcher, the barber, the tailor, and the chaplain. They usually sleep on the gun deck or aft of it on the steerage deck, but forward of the tiller.

Next article: Innovations to Medieval Navigation Tools


  1. Governor John Winthrop’s son Henry, who had gone on an errand with a friend to take care of some cattle for the colony, did not reach Southampton until after his father left in the Arabella, missing the boat. Henry and his friend sailed to America in the Talbot, where they were most likely given nice quarters in the sterncastle. Sadly, Henry drowned in a river right after he reached the New World.

  2. Hopefully you said, “the gundeck.”