Powder Monkeys: An Engine of Empire?

The term ‘Powder Monkey’ first came into use in the British Royal Navy in the early period of the 17th century (c. 1620), a time you may have heard referred to as ‘the age of sail’. As sailing ships, and their capacity for munitions, grew larger it soon became apparent that gunpowder was an extremely volatile cargo for a vessel to carry. It was important to keep the substance dry otherwise it would be of no use, but it was also key to keep it away from any source of ignition, otherwise you would be of no use.

The answer to these problems was the ‘magazine’. Still used as a term for where ammunition is stored today, the magazine was a purpose-built room at the base of the ship where gunpowder could rest (relatively) safe from both water and fire. This led to a further issue however, now all of your gunpowder is several decks away from where your guns are, and there could often be over 100 cannons to constantly resupply. How are you going to sustain any reasonable form of rate-of-fire if you have to keep rushing up and down the ship to fuel your cannons and muskets?

In steps the powder monkey. Your typical powder monkey was a boy around the age 12 whose job it was to supply the weaponry of the sailors with gunpowder. This meant dashing back and forth, up and down the vessel from the magazine to the upper decks and back again. This was extremely strenuous work; these were heavy bags of explosive material that you were running and scrambling and climbing with, as the ship lurches from side to side with the impact of waves and cannons, as chunks of splintered wood and shrapnel are hurled through the air, and as people die around you. Why is it that you are scrambling with such haste? Because the speed at which you can run up and down the ship directly correlates to the speed at which the ship can fire its cannons. The faster you go, the more likely you are to survive.

The reason they used boys was because of their size, they were small enough to hide behind the gunwale of the ship and agile enough to fit through tight spaces, enabling them to reach the cannons in the shortest amount of time. Evidently, girls could just have easily been used for the same purpose, but I suspect that this was one element of patriarchal society they weren’t so concerned about at the time.

Despite their important and horrific job, the boys were at the bottom of the naval hierarchy and never got official recognition as members of the crew on board. Their name isn’t comedic by chance, it’s because they were an easy punchline for the rest of the crew, who were much older and stronger. When ships docked in port it was very common for wandering boys to be kidnapped, either by those of the Royal Navy themselves, or from any other group of passing sailors. Once within the grip of the Royal Navy, powder monkeys were unlikely to see their homes again.

They are somewhat the unsung heroes of the British navy, without them the guns would have simply stopped firing. Especially in a time where many guns would just… not work… it was crucial that the ones that did had a better rate-of-fire than your opponent. Perhaps this is mere polemics, but it could be argued that Powder Monkeys were one of the most important innovations of the Royal Navy. Britain’s empire was always wholly maritime at its core and it’s clear that Powder Monkeys were essential to naval warfare. They were never respected then and continue to exist as mere trivia today, but Britannia would surely have never ‘ruled the waves’ without them.

Auhor / Publisher: Louis Lorenzo

First Published: 05th of April 2017

Last Modified: 15th of May 2017 (Grammar Corrections)

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