They that go down to the sea in ships hold an ambiguous position in society. Though drawn from society, and molded by its beliefs and values, seamen spend much of their lives isolated from it. The sea is the sailor's home and workplace, the ship itself a society in miniature with its own customs, rules, and language. People ashore know little of the seaman's life and work, and what they do know is usually drawn from observing the seaman on land, where, out of his element, he often appears as a foreigner in his own country.
For this reason, the image of the seaman that appears in literature is frequently an inaccurate reflection of reality. Yet, it is the literary image of the seaman of the late seventeenth century that has held the imaginations of historians until quite recently. The traditional view of the sea officers of the age has been of two antagonistic groups based on social class, with little or no common ground in terms of education, tradition, values, or experience of the sea. One of these groups, the tarpaulins—the source of the popular nickname for the sailor, Jack Tar—consisted of those who had risen to command from the lower deck; bluff and coarse in manner, lacking in education, tact, and good breeding, but excellent seamen, who were brave, sober, and diligent. The other group, the gentleman captains—ignorant of seamanship and navigation, frivolous, drunken, and corrupt—are said to have pushed most of the tarpaulins out of their commands after the Restoration. This displacement of tarpaulins by gentleman captains is usually viewed as a disaster for the navy, leading to incompetence, undiscipline, and sloth, and an adequate explanation in itself for every naval embarrassment of the late seventeenth century. This view has come under increasing criticism as overly simplistic, if not wholly inaccurate, and one may hope that the recent work of J. D. Davies has exploded it forever.