In my hands were the papers belonging to a seized ship from 1743. The ship was French and was sailing from Martinique to Brest. Close to home, a British man of war named the Captain appeared over the horizon. A few hours later, the French merchant vessel was boarded and the crew surrendered. The commander of the HMS Captain was Captain John Byng, who promptly took Captain Simon Daragorry and the crew of Le Dauphin de France to Portsmouth, in southern England. Le Dauphin de France and its contents would become in the parlance of eighteenth-century naval warfare
– ‘a prize’, a source of income for England, Captain Byng, and everyone aboard his ship.[1]

When I opened the archival box labelled High Court of Admiralty papers I was stunned. In addition to all the receipts which included the purchase price of various items from the Caribbean, were three logbooks. The one that recorded dates and ships position was the one that interested me the most. It had doodles.


doodles 3

A crude and then more refined doodle of a bird next to a doodle of a bush circa 1743.

Yes, penned drawings from sailors who, during the War of Austrian Secession, scribbled into existence several images uopn the navigation log book of their ship. My imagination soared. Which of the listed names in one of the other log books drew this? Were two hands involved in this? Certainly there must have been two different inkwells for the coloration of their drawing now 274-years later is obvious.

These were real hands that doodled these images, real humans, real sailors that drifted with mid-eighteenth-century ocean breezes and currents to somewhere in the Caribbean and back to France. Well, almost.

As a former sailor myself I knew of the tedium of the open ocean. Not much changes. It’s the same view, water and lots of it and in every direction, from one day to the next. And if the breezes are near empty, if the sails don’t quite fill, one is left with a whole bunch of nothing to do except… doodle.

doodles 2There I was in the National Archives at Kew Gardens, London, feeling connected: my naval experiences involved doodles, too. Yes, we sailors doodle’d all sorts of things. And here it was, proof, that 274-years earlier sailors then did the same thing as sailors now do: doodle.

On another sheet a whale appeared. Diving among a sea of calculations was. what looked to be, a Right Whale. My history brain took over. Right Whale populations were already in steep decline by the 1750s. These magnificent creatures provided food, oil, baleen, and other items unto which humans found a market for. And here it is doodled in a navigation log book ala 1743.

Ever the one for interpreting images, can a historian interpret a doodle?

A few clicks on the old interweb and my answer was a resounding “yes”!  Neil Cohn, at the University of California, San Diego, argues that doodles represent an innate human trait: “language”. [2] People doodle not just to pass the time, but they doodle because there is something that is inside of them, something that the doodler is expressing, and expression is language no matter the form.

doodleAnd that’s what we historians are tasked to do. Our discipline is the study of human language, what’s been written and recorded, even a log book form a capture ship that’s been doodled upon. What insights can be gained here? What do these doodles tell us about the men who sailed the Atlantic in the mid-eighteenth century.

Simple: they were a whole heck of a lot like us.


[1] TNA, HCA 32/104/5

[2] David Robson, “Why Are We Drawn to Doodling?”  BBC (1 October 2014)