And so ‘I … got into my old trade of man-a-waring, and also in a hungry condition fit for such work’. So wrote the Dover seaman, Edward Coxere, recalling his time on the Cromwellian warship Kent, fighting the Spaniards. It was to prove merely another brief phase in his adventures at sea. Sailing to the Straits in a merchant vessel, Coxere had been enslaved by the Barbary corsairs for five months before being freed by an English naval expedition. Serving in the Kent, he fought bravely, indeed wildly, plundering Spanish prizes to replace the money and clothes he had lost. But before long he was a prisoner of the Spaniards, his possessions lost once more. When he finally reached home after escaping and yet more adventures, he had only the clothes on his back to show after nineteen months away. Coxere's picaresque experiences were by no means exceptional. Life at sea, for naval and merchant seamen alike, was hard, dangerous and, above all, unpredictable. These realities shaped the mindset of the seafaring community, summed up in their proverbs, ‘a merry life and a short’, and ‘longest liver takes all’. One sailor, reflecting on the miserable prospect of growing old as a seaman, reminded himself that very few sailors reached old age.
For most seventeenth-century seamen, naval service was episodic. The navy expanded dramatically whenever war broke out and contracted when peace returned; even in wartime, it shrank during the winter months, when weather conditions limited large-scale operations. Manpower needs fluctuated accordingly. There were roughly 40–50,000 seamen and fishermen in Restoration England, several thousand of whom would be serving in foreign (mainly Dutch) vessels at any given time. The Restoration navy, in peacetime, needed only 3–4,000 men. But a major naval war, such as the three wars with the Dutch in the 1650s, 1660s and 1670s, required up to 25,000 seamen to be recruited within a matter of weeks. The much longer wars against France in the 1690s and early 1700s called for still larger numbers. The naval campaign of 1695 required a huge total of 48,514 seamen and marines.