Friday, March 30

Gamecocks Aboard Ship

Lord Howe's action, or the Glorious First of June Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, 1795
Gamecocks were not uncommon aboard ships of the Napoleonic war period. An interesting event occurred on board the Marlborough during the battle of The Glorious First of June (1794). The Marlborough (Captain George Berkeley) was part of Lord Howe’s victorious fleet, and the incident is related in “The Life of Richard Earl Howe, K.G”. by Sir John Barrow (London, 1838). “A curious incident is said to have occurred aboard this ship. When she was entirely dismasted, and otherwise disabled, by the extreme severity of the conflict,- the captain (the Hon. G. Berkley), and the second-lieutenant (Sir Michael Seymour), severely wounded, the latter having his arm shot off, and the ship so roughly treated, that a whisper of surrender was said to have been uttered, which Lieutenant Monckton overhearing, resolutely exclaimed, “he would be d---d if she should ever surrender, and that he would nail her colours to the stump of the mast”. 

At that moment a cock, having by the wreck been liberated from the broken coop, suddenly perched himself on the stump of the mainmast, clapped his wings, and crowed aloud; in an instant three hearty cheers rang throughout the ship’s company, and no more talk of surrender. At the same time the Aquilon frigate, commanded by the Hon. Sir Robert Stopford, seeing the helpless state the Marlborough was in, came to her assistance and towed her out of the line. The gallant admiral, in reply to a question about the cock says, “it partakes of a cock-and-bull story, but there is no mistake in the cheers of the crew on my taking her in tow.” 

It is nevertheless a true story: through the kindness of Sir Thomas Hardy, an inquiry was made among the old pensioners of the Marlborough in Greenwich hospital, and two of the most intelligent, Alexander Boswell and William Brett, fully corroborate the circumstance; and the later states that, on arrival of the ship at Plymouth the cock was given to Lord George Lennox, the governor, by the desire of Captain Berkley. Lady Hardy has been good enough to ascertain from her aunt, Lady Mary Lennox, that the story is perfectly true, and that the cock lived to a good old age, and while the Marlborough remained at Plymouth it was daily visited by parties of her crew.” 

We are grateful to Roy and Lesley Adkins (authors of “Jack Tar”) for providing us with this reference.

Thursday, March 29

A Cockfighting Primer part IV

An in depth series in four parts by Tony Gerard

The Match

A pit “master” or “judge” served as a referee for each fight. It was his job to ensure that the rules of the pit were followed and to watch for cheating. Pit rules were often long, detailed and varied.  It is beyond the scope of this article to go into an overview of pit rules, but they covered everything from the weight of matched cocks to the type of gaffs used. Typically, any give pit would have its own set of rules. One of my personal favorite 18th century pit rules I’ve run across is that each setter much lick the gaffs of his cock before he was pitted. This was to prove the gaffs hadn’t been coated with a poison.

Fighting cocks were most often pitted against one another by weight. A match where odd sized birds were pitted against one another was termed a “shake bag”- allegedly from cockers showing up too intoxicated to properly weigh or set their cock and just shaking them into the pit from their transport bags.

Each cock had an individual “setter to” or “setter”.  Being a good setter was a skill equally as important, if not more so, than a gaffer. For poor folks the setter was often the bird’s owner, for the upper class he was often a professional.  The setter initially placed his bird in the pit. Knowing the bird’s individual fighting style, he tried to place it to its best advantage. He was also the individual, along with the other setter, to separate the bids should they get “hung up” (having a gaff in its opponent such that it can’t get free), return the bird to the pit if somehow came out or potentially give the bird some quick first aide under the right circumstances.
Cockfights were almost invariably to the death of one of the individuals. The setters initially placed the birds facing each other in the center of the pit. The birds would then fight until one was killed, refused to fight or they became hung up. If they became hung up the birds were carefully separate and put back in the center if the pit. Sometimes a match was ended quickly by a killing blow to the head or vitals but often the match went on until both birds were weakened by a series of wounds. If both birds became too weak to stand they were typically set next to each other in the pit’s center. If one bird declined to peck at another the other bird was considered the winner. If both or neither pecked the winner was considered the last bird alive.

18th century sketch

After a match a bird that was considered to have “gone down game”- badly wounded but still alive- might try to be saved. The setter might suck blood from his wounds or mouth or any number of strange such remedies.  As with the diets one has to wonder how any birds, already wounded, survived some treatments. “Sweating” a cock involved putting the wounded bird in a basket near a hot stove. Other treatments seem equally detrimental.

The End of Legal Cockfighting

As the 19th century progressed cocking became viewed less and less favorably. In England it was outlawed in 1849, although it continued in secret. Writing in 1865 the Hon. Grantley Berkeley, says: —"It had, however, become so contraband an amusement, that we could only enjoy it under secret and carefully-arranged circumstances. These were always left to me, and then every one of our mains was sure to be attended by a good many members of both Houses of Parliament; also a few of the clergy."

Wednesday, March 28

A Cockfighting Primer part III

An in depth series in four parts by Tony Gerard

The Cockpit
Royal Cockpit, London, J. Bluck 1808

Almost every larger English town had a cockpit, often several. The most elaborate were indoor affairs with a central circular or oval pit where the birds fought surrounded by circular rows of benches at progressively higher levels. In the country cockpits were often outdoors and much less elaborate. In some case only a rope- or sometimes no boundary - marked the edge of the “pit” area.

Cockfights typically consisted of several individual fights, termed “matches” between pairs of cocks. The entire event was termed a “main” (hence the “main event”). There were usually an odd number of induvial fights scheduled during a main. If two gentlemen were pitting cocks of their respective individual lines against one another in addition to betting on individual fights it was also common to bet on the winner of the main. In a “Welsh Main” an equal number of individual bouts were set. In each case the winners of the previous round were pitted against one another until only one eventually remained. In a “Battle Royal” many cocks were pitted at the same time.

The cockpit was one of the few places or activities where upper-class and lower-class people rubbed shoulders almost indiscriminately. As would be expected betting was a major part of the sport, and alcohol consumption and rowdy behavior were rampant. In fact, many of the early local efforts to outlaw cockfighting focused not on the cruelty of the sport, but on the boisterous and profane behavior which accompanied cockfighting.

William Hogarth, “The Pit Ticket”, London 1759

Preparing for the Fight
As already mentioned a gamecock would be dubbed at some point prior to being pitted.  Several other alterations were also typical. Normally a cock would have his tailfeathers, wings, body and neck feathers (termed hackles) trimmed, so that an opponent couldn’t get a good hold on any during the fight.  This is the genesis of the expression “in fighting trim”. When displaying aggression toward a rival a cock will frill out his neck hackles - source of the expression “don’t get your hackles up”. For what is an otherwise beautiful bird a cock “in fighting trim” with “his hackles up” looks ridiculous.  

Detail from Hogarth’s “The Pit Ticket”

In addition to being trimmed a cock usually had its natural spurs cut off. Rarely cocks were fought with their natural spurs filed to an unnaturally sharp point. This was termed fighting “naked heeled” by the English. More commonly a cock was fitted with an artificial metal spur or blade which was tied in place where the natural spur had set. In French, English and American cockfighting the artificial spur -termed a gaff- was fitted with a socket which went over the stub of the natural spur. The lethal end was an upward curving, ice pick like point. These gaffs were usually iron or steel, although expensive sets were sometimes made of silver. Typically (but not always) such gaffs were put on both the cock’s legs. There was an art in knowing how to “gaff” a cock to its best advantage. To be a good gaffer was a skill much in demand. A bird equipped with his gaffs was “heeled”, the source of the expression “well heeled”.

English Gaffs

In Spanish and Asian cockfighting, the artificial weapon looks like a small scimitar blade fitted with a U shaped stirrup or sometimes a socket which fit over the natural spur’s stump. Termed “blades”, “knives” or “slashers”, they were typically (but not always) fitted to one leg only. A “blade” typically made a more quickly lethal wound than a “gaff”, so Spanish cockfights tended to be over more quickly than were Anglo European cockfights.

A Spanish Knife

to be concluded tomorrow in part IV

Tuesday, March 27

A Cockfighting Primer part II

An in depth series in four parts by Tony Gerard

Life of a Gamecock
Most written sources on gamebird management from the period are, as would be expected, written by persons of the upper socio-economic classes. They often contain advice on bird management that would have been impractical for lower class cockers (of which there were multitudes).  One bit of advice was as soon as possible a young rooster, termed a cockerel, should be separated from his brothers.  The idea was that being around other cockerels made young bird accustomed to other roosters by both sight and sound, and that this could dull a bird’s aggressive instincts. Those that could afford to do so often placed cocks out in the country, away from other gamecocks, in an area where the bird could reign supreme and fully develop his sense of invulnerability and superiority. Such a place was called the cock’s “walk” and is the genesis of the expression “cock of the walk”.  A cock on a walk was under the care of a “Feeder”. The feeder did far more than just feed the birds- he was more like a training coach.  He fed, dubbed, sparred and cared for the birds till they were ready for the pit.

For Cockers of the common sort of folk such elaborate preparations were generally not possible. Here the cock’s owner took control of all care and training aspects. Rather than growing up on a walk, cocks were often tethered out of one another’s reach with access to some small shelter.

As they age a rooster develops spurs which are his major weapon in combat with other roosters. The spurs are hard, cylindrical and generally upward curving. They grow throughout the life of the rooster and will regrow if cut or broken off. Before a cockerel even developed his spurs, they were often “sparred”, allowing young roosters to fight in a controlled, nonlethal manner. As spurs began to develop cockerels were still sparred, but now using little, leather ‘boxing glove” devices tied to their legs over the spurs. Termed “muffs”, they kept a cockerel from doing any real damage to his opponent.

 A Rooster’s natural spurs

A set of “Muffs”

At some time in his life a young rooster would be dubbed. This involves cutting off the comb, waddles (the fleshy lobes that hang below the chin) and fleshy earlobes. When roosters fight, in addition to striking at an opponent with his spurs, a rooster will also bite and peck at an opponent. Potentially if a rooster grabbed an opponent by the comb the opponent could be held head down, unable to get in a good blow, while the aggressor was in a better position to deliver a killing blow. Dubbing a rooster sought to remove this potential hazard. 

A dubbed Gamecock

A Gamecock with his natural comb and waddles

As would be expected there were specialized diets recommended for fighting cocks, oftentimes kept secret, and such recipes varies widely. Knowing what we now do about nutrition and animal husbandry it’s often a wonder birds survived some of the diets. A diet of stale bread soaked in urine is sometimes recommended for several days before a match.

Typically, at about 2 years of age a rooster was considered to be in his prime and ready for the pit.

to be continued tomorrow in part III

Monday, March 26

A Cockfighting Primer part I

An in depth series in four parts by Tony Gerard

Cock-fighting match (1785?), by John Kay (died 1826). From the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Introduction: As an American, even if you are not a sports fan, you probably know the basic rules of baseball. You can probably name several professional teams and you wouldn’t be confused by the meaning of “striking out” or” hitting a home run”. Baseball is just that much a part of our American culture.  It was much the same with Cockfighting in late 18th/early 19th century England.

It was a brutal time- slavery was legal, there were no child labor laws and blood sports -such as bear baiting, rat killing, dog and cock fighting, were socially acceptable. There were resistance movements to all these practices at the time, but most had little popular support. As Acastas we strive to present history as accurately as possible- warts and all! Cockfighting- called “cocking” by its devotees, was popular with many people at the time and sailors were no exception. This article seeks to fill a person in on the basics pretty much everyone at the time would know about cock fighting.

Fighting Cocks
Sadly, it appears that chickens were originally domesticated for fighting purposes. Meat and egg breeds came later. Just how early chickens were domesticated is debated, but it was many centuries before the 1700s. By the eighteenth century many breeds of both “meat and egg” and “game “varieties of chickens were well established. These were not true breeds as we use the term today, but rather regional varieties or preserved bloodlines that had traits and characteristics which made them identifiable to a knowledgeable individual.

European game birds of the period had a more upright carriage (they stand up straighter), were more streamlined in appearance, and in general, were more active, alert and nervous a than is typical for a barnyard chicken. Barnyard chickens were commonly referred to as “Dunghill fowl”.  The expression “to die dunghill” or “to turn dunghill” referred to one, either human or chicken, who died while retreating or ran from the battle respectively. Game birds had been bred for centuries for aggression and tenacity; to “die game” meant to bravely carry on the fight to the bitter end.

An Old English Game Rooster

In coloration game birds came in most of the typical colors varieties we see in modern chicken breeds, although the Birchin (pale gray with darker gray bars) coloration seems uncommon at the time and the Buff (pale orange) coloration seems non-existant. Black Breasted Red was one of the most common color patterns, being red on the neck and back with a black breast and tail. This is also the coloration of the male Red Jungle Fowl, the wild ancestor of modern chickens. Historic games did not have feathers on their feet and they laid whitish color eggs. Brown egg color and feathered feet are both traits which came with Asiatic breeds brought into Europe in the mid-19th century.

The Acasta’s “Lord Nelson” is a black breasted red

In the 18th/19th centuries individual birds were rarely celebrated as champions. Frankly most just didn’t live that long. Instead the “fandom” or patronage was generally tied to a particular line of gamebirds. Careful selective breeding insured that most birds in a particular line had a similar temperament, appearance and fighting style. Breed books of the time do occasionally mention a bird with enough notoriety to have its own name (“the Drunken Blacksmith” is my favorite) but it is a rare exception.

To be continued tomorrow in part II

Friday, March 23

From the Naval Chronicle IV


Page images taken from the Naval Chronicle, Vol V11. From Jan-June 1802

Thursday, March 22

From the Naval Chronicle III

Page images taken from the Naval Chronicle, Vol VI. From July-December 1801

Wednesday, March 21

From the Naval Chronicle II

Page images taken from the Naval Chronicle, Vol III. From Jan-July 1800

Tuesday, March 20

From the Naval Chronicle

Page images taken from the Naval Chronicle, Vol II. From July-December 1799

Monday, March 19

Acastas at Rest

Dealing with the public can be tiring. Here are some images of the members of the Acasta at rest at various events over the years.