The ‘Powder Monkeys’ of the Napoleonic Royal Navy

Article by Tom Moult. Edited by Paul Miller. Additional Research by Hamish Rogers.

This issues theme of ‘Youth’ is an apt opportunity to examine one of the most horrific and
dangerous occupations that the youth of the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century
were engaged in. This was of course ‘the great age of sail,’ of the Jolly Jack Tars, Nelson and
Trafalgar.

The term ‘powder-monkey’ refers to (in most instances) the young boys employed in the
Royal Navy warships. Their job – as their name suggests – was to continually supply the
gun-crews with the gunpowder that was kept deep in the magazine. The highly combustible
nature of gunpowder, combined with the chaos and carnage of broadside action during battle
, meant the supplies were kept deep below the waterline, in a sealed chamber known as the
magazine. Once the powder monkeys had reached this room, they were presented with a
powder cartridge with which they would return to their assigned gun for the crews to load and
fire. Therefore, the very performance of the ship, its output of fire-power and ultimately its
effectiveness in defeating the enemy was dependant on the ability of the powder monkeys to
supply gunpowder quickly and efficiently.

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What made their job so horrific however was the terrible nature of Napoleonic-era naval
combat. During action, as broadsides were fired into the ship’s hull, splinters of oak several
inches thick would inflict obscene injuries. Gun carriages would be dismounted, crushing
and maiming their crews. Guns could even misfire, sending a hail of scolding iron in
all directions. The sights, smells and sounds of the injuries would have been absolutely
appalling.

Yet, the powder-monkeys had a duty to continue supplying the cartridges throughout this
chaotic scene; during battle, some would be killed or wounded; others would have had
their assigned guns put out of action. As a result, the powder-monkeys were not always
exclusively ‘boys’ – many of them indeed would be boys and mere children. Some would
have been older, perhaps teenagers and young adults. In some rarer instances, women would
perform the task, perhaps wives accompanying their husbands, or surgeons’ assistants
swapping the operating table for the gun deck.

The Battle of Trafalgar

As guns were disabled throughout the carnage of battle, powder-monkeys were often
assigned to a different gun-crew to which they started with. First-rate ships of the line usually
had at least a hundred guns, evidently meaning there would have to be a good many powder-
monkeys. Ultimately, as the battle became more and more intense, it is quite reasonable
to assume that any individual not otherwise engaged would deliver the cartridges; so not
always young men or boys. After all, the ability for British crews to fire faster and more
accurately than the crews of their opponents proved decisive in more than one engagement.
This principle therefore effectively rendered the number of guns in an action between two
ships redundant; it was not the number of guns, but how quickly the guns could be fired, thus
disabling the enemy, that decided the outcome. It is remarkable to think that the responsibility
of the rate of fire fell largely upon the powder-monkeys, many of whom were just mere boys.

As with many of the gun crews and other sailors on board, the powder monkeys were often
victims of the dreaded Impressment, or ‘Press Gang.’ Their age and small size made them
easy prey for the gangs of sailors roaming sea ports during times of shortage on board ship.
Once within the grip of the Royal Navy, they were unlikely to see their homes again, as was
the case with most pressed sailors. As they were forced to adopt the new life they had been
dropped into, it soon dawned upon them that they were at the bottom of the social hierarchy
of Napoleonic fighting ships, and moreover, had one of the most dangerous jobs on board.

The powder monkeys as with all of the sailors and soldiers during this period of conflict
played their part in bringing about victory. The defeat of the Franco-Spanish Combined
Fleet under the command of Villeneuve, on October 21st 1805 destroyed any viable chance
Napoleon had of invading Britain. Moreover, it also gave Britain a considerably stronger
grasp of the command of the seas, paving the way for the Corsican tyrants’ final defeat
in 1815. The role these young men and boys played is often overlooked by more visible
historical figures like Nelson, but without the powder-monkeys, the guns wouldn’t have fired
and victories would not have been achieved.

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