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Sailing into Modernity: Comparative Perspectives on the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century European Economic Transition

Tables of roles on board

As part of the project's comparative approach, we have produced tables of the roles on board merchant ships during the seventeenth century, in Italian, Dutch, English and French, which can also be downloaded from the link below. The table includes the main terms found in each language and a brief description of the duties of each.

Roles on Board

Roles on Board Merchant Ships during the Seventeenth Century


In Venice this was exclusively a military title, reserved for patricians (members of the Major Council). So during the early modern period we do not find capitani on board Venetian commercial vessels.


In the United Provinces, the term kapitein was used on military vessels. On mercantile ships, the ‘lord of the ship’ was called the schipper (skipper), although – like in France – he could take on the title of kapitein if he was in command of a large ship.


The role of captain as commander, legal superior and chief navigation officer only appears in England in the 1580s; it was particularly claimed by privateers, although sometimes by merchant commanders. In the Royal Navy, the term corresponded to the Venetian as a military role, with ‘master mariners’ to take care of the actual navigation. So the translation is correct for the 16th century, but not in the 21st century understanding of captain.


During the 17th century in France, especially on the Atlantic seaboard, capitaines slowly replaced masters on bigger commercial vessels. 

Capitano Kapitein Captain Capitaine

What was known as patron in early modern Venice could be both the ‘master’ and the ‘owner’, although from the 15th century it appears to have been used only for owners who were also masters. Usually the owner – if he was not working on board – was called the parcenevole (see below). In Genoa, even for the early modern period the term should refer to the owner, but in the documents it frequently appears as being the master on board ship. We know that the two positions – master and owner – regularly overlapped during these centuries. If in Genoa the term was really used only to describe owners we would have a unique situation in which the owner was always on board, so it is legitimate to assume that, like in Venice, patron was also used for masters.


In the United Provinces, a ship owner was named a reder. The term meester only occurred in freight contracts when the skipper was also (part-)owner of his ship, in expressions such as: ‘skipper and master next to God of his ship named...’


In England and France, the patron or master was not necessarily owner of the vessel, and it is worth noting the different French terms used in Mediterranean and Atlantic shipping. 

Patron Meester Master Patron (Mediterranean)
Maître (Atlantic)

In Genoa and Venice he was in charge of the administrative and financial running of the ship. He took care of the books, and this is the only role that was given only to properly literate individuals. On Italian ships he acted as public notary on board.


In the United Provinces, the schrijver was the person responsible for all that related to writing. He was a bookkeeper, and he took care of the ship’s journal, the muster rolls and all other registers.


On English ships, there was no directly comparable officer; the ‘purser’ was responsible for the ship’s finances, and might also combine the role of ‘supercargo’ (see below). In reality, many ships did not have pursers, and the master (and sometimes mate or boatswain) was responsible for finances and cargo. There appears to have been a good deal of flexibility, depending on the exact relationships between master, owners and merchants of any particular ship.


In France écrivain was an official professional role. They were active in both civil and military vessels, and worked both at sea or ashore in ports (and arsenals) where they acted as bookkeepers and notaries.

Scrivano Schrijver [Purser] Écrivain

In Venice he was responsible for the part of the cargo belonging to the ship, such as victuals and provisions including ropes, wood and miscellaneous material necessary for repairs. He worked closely with the scrivano, and there is reason to believe that in some (smaller) ships the two roles – masser and scrivano – were covered by one individual.


In the United Provinces, there was no directly comparable officer. The cook or steward (bottelier) took care of victuals, the constable of armament, the carpenter of wood and sails, the schieman of ropes and the seijlmaker took care of sails.


Similarly, on English ships, there was no directly comparable role; individual officers took responsibility – the cook for victuals, the carpenter for wood and repair materials, the boatswain for ropes and sails.


In France we find two terms for this role: dépensier or cambusier, the latter derives from the fact that he lived in the cambuse (front part of the ship) where food provisions were kept.

Masser     Dépensier or cambusier

In Italy he was in charge of the crew during navigation. In today’s usage the word is synonymous with pilot, whilst in seventeenth century documents he appears to be always distinct from it.


In commercial vessels from the United Provinces, the hoogbootsman (alternatively written hoochbootsman), sometimes also abbreviated as bootsman, was the leader of the crew. On military vessels he was the highest-ranking noncommissioned officer. He was also responsible for the sail on the mainmast; he could have a mate, responsible for surveying the stern. Bootsmansgasten were sailors who came directly under the bootsman and ate with him at the same table, but this function was less present, if at all, on the mercantile fleet.


In England the boatswain was responsible for supervising the mariners as they worked, and for disciplining them. He was also in charge of the ‘boatswain’s stores’, comprising the rigging and sails, and sometimes supervised and recorded stowage of goods, with occasional references to a ‘boatswain’s book’. However, masters and master’s mates also sometimes disciplined sailors and took charge of cargo, so the exact role would vary from ship to ship.


In France he was the highest rank among the sailors, answered only to the master, and gave instructions to the crew on rigging, sails and ropes.

Nochier Hoogbootsman Hoochbootsman Bootsman Boatswain Nocher (Mediterranean) Contre-maître (Atlantic)

The pilot was the one which actually navigated the ship. Today’s term would be ‘helmsman’.


In the United Provinces, the stuerman was the person with knowledge of navigation, in charge of the helm and steering the ship. Sometimes, there was also a piloot or loodsman on board. He had to test the depth of the water, using a plummet, which meant he was in charge of guiding the ship out of ports and into the sea, or out or onto river mouths.


English ships did not always carry pilots; sometimes they employed pilots only for specific parts of the voyage, especially entering or leaving a port. It is not entirely clear what ‘quartermaster’ meant in the seventeenth century, but in later times they were more experienced sailors, capable of taking the helm (but not of navigating themselves).


In France the pilot took orders from the captain or master. Local pilots could be hired to enter foreign ports.

Pedota/Pilota Stuerman (Stuurman) Piloot Loodsman Pilot Quartermaster Pilote

In Italy he was in charge of the small boat – barca or cymba frequently in the documents, but could also be a small frigate – that trailed behind the vessel. This was used to go to and from land, to reach harbour or to get water, and was usually the first thing which was let go in case of heavy storm. The French terms are comparable.


In the United Provinces, the kwartiermeesters were in charge of those small boats.


On English ships, the ship’s boat was often called a ‘cockboat’ or ‘coxboat’, hence ‘coxwain’; not present on all ships.

Patron de barca/ paron Kwartier-
Coxwain Maître or Patron de Bateau / Batelier

In modern Italian the corresponding term is maestro d’ascia. He was in charge of carpentry repairs on board, and frequently had an assistant (marangoneto).


In Dutch the scheepstimmerman, and in English the carpenter, was the craftsman who builds and repairs ships. It was a craft, and he could work ashore, independent or for an employer, or he could be part of the crew, in which case he could also have a mate or assistant. In Dutch the person making masts was called a mastenmaker.


In France the term seems to be replaced by charpentier de navire in the 17th century. 

Marangon Scheeps-
Shipcarpenter Carpenter Shipwright Maître d’hache (Mediterranean) Charpentier de navire (Atlantic)
The assistant of the marangon. Marangoneto Ondertimmerman Scheepstimmer-
Carpenter’s mate Aide charpentier

In Italy he was in charge of the correct and safe loading of the cargo on board. His responsibilities must have been only operational, as we have never encountered one of them being sued for having stored cargo badly, while masters appear to have been sued for this reason.


In the United Provinces, the kommis was in charge of the loading of the cargo on board. This role seems not to have always been present, and the word in itself is only rarely used. The person in charge of the merchandise on behalf of the freighter is often named as such, without a specific term being assigned to him.


In English ships, this role was fulfilled either by the master, his mates, or the boatswain.


In France it seems that port workers were in charge of loading ships with the help of the sailors and controlled by the scribe and captain/master.

Penese/Pennese  Kommis/Commis    

In Italy the bombardier was part of the crew, and was paid by the captain/master.


In the United Provinces the constabel (or konstabel) was the overseer of the armament, while not necessarily firing it himself. Seamen specifically designed to fire the guns were called Busschieters.


The roles of gunner in English and cannonier in French were comparable to the Italian bombardier. 

Bombardier Busschieters Gunner Canonnier

He cooked for everyone on board, although usually officers and crew ate different food and in a separate space.


In the United Provinces, the cook was the one who prepared the meals. There could also be a bottelier (steward), responsible for the bottles, and thus the drinks. The latter sometimes managed the food supply as well, and handed over the food to the cook.


In England, the cook performed the same role, while in France the cuisinier seems to have enjoyed a higher status than seamen.

Cuogo/scalco Kok Cook Cuisinier

This is the term by which ‘able seamen’ were usually referred to in Italian sources. They were paid more than fanti (see below) and were usually ‘career’ seamen.


In Dutch freight contracts, crew members are often labelled as ‘good men’. The most common terminologies are bootsgezel, matroos and varensgezel. The (hooch)bootsman was in charge of them. On occasions the high number of ‘bootsmannnen’ present make it clear that this term could also refer to ordinary seamen, although this is technically incorrect.


English terminology in this period is not very precise, and although there were undoubtedly seamen of different experience and status, these terms appear to be interchangeable.


In France, different words were used in the Mediterranean and Atlantic.

Marinari/ Marineri/ Uomini Bootsgezel – Bootsgezellen
Matroos – Matrozen
Zeeman – Zeelui, Zeelieden
Varensgezel – Varensgezellen
(Bootsman – Bootsmannen)
Seamen Mariners ‘Common seamen’ ‘Common men’ ‘Foremast men’ Marinier (?Mediterranean) Marin (Atlantic) Matelot (Atlantic)

In Venice this was the lower level of seamen, below marinari and above mozzi.


In the United Provinces, a role existed between common seaman and ship’s boy, the so-called putger. It’s possible its origins lie in the handling of the ship’s pumps. Its lower status is sometimes also reflected in the 1740 definition of ‘he who does the dirtiest work on board’. The word possibly comes from puts, a wooden bucket, referring to duties of cleaning the ship.


In France, in the Mediterranean shipping, we find the fadarinier was the lowest sailor aboard, but he was older than the ‘boys’.

Fanti Putger   Fadarinier (Mediterranean) 

Roles exclusive to navies

DutiesItalian DutchEnglishFrench

In Italy this role appears only on navy ships.


In the United Provinces, there could be an upper surgeon (opper barbier) and a lower one (onder barbier). Difference with a so-called chirurgijn is that both professions were grouped in different guilds.


In England surgeons were employed on naval ships and on some long commercial voyages.


In France these roles never appeared on small vessels, which instead carried a surgeon’s chest. However, having one on board became an obligation in bigger vessels during the seventeenth century.

Barbier  Berbier Barbier Chirurgijn Surgeon Chirurgeon Barbier Chirurgien
Some crews counted a trumpeter amidst their ranks, he probably had to encourage crews in fights and signal to other ships, and his playing could give commands more volume. Frequently the position was given to a boy. Trombetta Trompetter Trumpeter Trompette

In the United Provinces, this role was reserved for boys. Their age range could go between 13 and 16, and at times also served as learning post for aspiring officers. Even future navy officers could take on a position of ‘cabin watcher’ on mercantile vessels sailing to Surinam or the Mediterranean. He was to attend to those in the cabin, meaning the officers and more specifically, the captain or skipper.


In England, this was not necessarily an officially recognised role, but there are numerous references to the ‘master’s boy’ or ‘ship’s boy’, presumably filling a similar position.

  Kajuijtwachter (Kajuitwachter) Cabin boy Valet, Servant

In the United Provinces, this was the youngest of the non-commissioned officers, and in charge of a sloop.


In English, ‘quartermaster’ was a term used on both commercial and naval vessels (see above), but does not seem comparable to the Dutch and French term.

  Kwartiermeester   Quartier maître

Roles found on board commercial ships (but not part of the crew)

Role on boardItalianDutchEnglishFrench

The merchants’ agent on board. He could also be the freight agent, and was responsible to take decisions about what to load and what to pay for it. He was also involved in decisions about navigation and routes, and sometimes provided credit for the master. He was on the payroll of the merchant/s.


In Dutch, this term was not used much. Generally, freight contracts mentioned ‘a man goes with on behalf of the freighter’. The freighter himself could be called ‘bevrachter’ or ‘cargadoor’.

Sopracarico Supercargo Supercargo Cape merchant Subrecargue
In early modern Venice he was the owner (or part-owner) of a vessel. The ensemble of ship owners in Dutch were called reders. Parcenevole Reder Ship owner Participant Propriétaire de part

Ship types

vascello vessel vaartuig vaisseau
nave ship schip navire
galeone galleon galjoen galion
galera galley galei galère
barca / cymba bark, barque bark, bargje barque
tartana   tartaan tartane
felucca   feloek felouque
battello boat boot bateau
polacca   polakker polacre

We would welcome comments on this table, and especially additions from other languages; please contact Dr Richard Blakemore.