Customs of the Navy

Chapter 4 - Ranks

The title admiralis derived from the Arabic emir-el-bahr - lord of the sea.1 This was adopted by the Spanish during the Moorish conquests in the 8th century as almirante, then in French as amiral, and in English admiral. The prefix vice with admiral means in place of, and therefore subordinate to, an admiral. At one time it was considered most important to protect the head and rear of a fleet of ships in fixed formation, usually with two squadrons known as the vanguard and the rearguard. The admiral commanding the rearguard was the admiral of the rear or rear-admiral. The admiral of the van was next in seniority to the admiral-in-chief (later admiral of the fleet) and bore the rank of vice-admiral. Commodore, a much more recent term, is an officer who commands a (detached) squadron of ships. Several merchant shipping lines confer this rank on their senior captains, and in wartime retired senior naval officers are appointed as commodores of convoys.2 Yacht squadrons go a stage farther with their ranks of vice-commodore and rear-commodore.

Captain has its root in the Latin caput meaning head. As the head was thought to be the controlling part of the body we can see how the idea of a head man developed; this was shown in the Latin word capitus for chief or head man. In Spanish it became capitan, in French capitaine, in German kapitan, and in English captain. From the 14th century the term captain referred to the officer commanding the soldiers whereas the ship was under command of the master. In the last half of the 17th century the duties were combined when the soldiers were no longer a separate entity onboard (except as marines); the captain's title became master commanding, and somewhat later master-and-commander, abbreviated in 1794 to the present rank of commander. From this derivation may be seen the reason for the courtesy title, now rarely heard, of captain for a commander 3.

Although a commander is actually second-in-command (executive officer) of a large ship in smaller ships he is a commanding officer. The French and some other navies indicate rank by captain of..., a particular type of ship being named; for example a capitaine de vaisseau in the French navy is equivalent to our captain and captain de corbeta in the Spanish and some Latin-American navies ranks with our lieutenant-commander.

Lieutenant is French in origin - (en) lieu tenant - and means holding a place or position for someone else, e.g. lieutenant-governor, acting for a governor. The Americans pronunciation 'loo-tenant' is closest to the French though our obsolescent naval pronunciation 'le-tenant' is close, whereas the army's 'LEF-tenant' seems a corruption of the worst sort. Lieutenants with over eight years in that rank were considered as a separate rank after 1877, the year the 'half-stripe' was introduced. Before World War I a lieutenant who held a command was called lieutenant and commander; in 1912 this was officially abbreviated to lieutenant-commander. In most branches promotion to this rank is automatic after eight years as a lieutenant, though regulations now provide for future promotions to that rank to be by selection.

First Lieutenant is an appointment rather than a rank; the officer so appointed will be the senior executive lieutenant in the ship. Similarly in a large ship the senior executive lieutenant-commander is usually known as the First Lieutenant-Commander. Some traditionalists insist that no matter what the officer's rank his appointment should be First Lieutenant; so far as origin of the term is concerned this view must be considered correct.

The rank of sub-lieutenant was instituted by Lord St. Vincent in 1802.

A midshipman originally was, as the name suggests, one who lived amidships, this is mid-way between the officers who lived aft and the men who lived forward. While training as an officer he worked with the men somewhat like our own cadets. In the U.S. Navy this original status is more closely maintained, the U.S.N. midshipman ranking with the R.C.N. cadet. The midshipman used to serve seven years on the lower deck and was roughly equivalent to our present day petty officer in rank and position.

The midshipman's white patch, as an insignia of rank, came into use in 1758. It has been suggested that the patch is all that remains of what used to be a white coat collar which went out of use because the 'Young Gentlemen' used to dirty it too quickly. No support can be found for this doubtful theory. The significance of white, however, is of great antiquity; to it our word candidate is related. Candidus, Latin adjective for white, referred to the pure colour of the togas worn by those aspiring to high office in the Roman government. The same purity motif is seen with a bride's wedding dress. The midshipman's white patch and the officer candidate's white cap ribbon probably stem from this Roman origin.

It has already been mentioned that topmen, who worked aloft in the rigging, were the cream of the seamen complement. Carrying this aspect still farther we can see that the term upper yardmen for officer candidates from the lower deck implies the very best men.

The title of purser is related to a bursar - a treasurer; it dates from the 14th century, and existed as a naval rank until 1852. Possibly much of the facetious vilification practised in wardrooms against supply officers refers to the Pusser's predecessors who received no pay but were expected to make a profit by their sharp practices. In the 18th century a purser paid two sureties, totaling as much as 2100 pounds, to the Admiralty, and in addition had to buy a warrant costing about 65 pounds. That there was a great demand for the post despite these outlays proves the expectation of making more than a reasonable profit. It has been recorded that most pursers charged slop sellers a shilling in every pound, i.e. 5%, but that they made a good deal more on sales to the men. False pay tickets, which they cashed with moneylenders, were almost an expected thing, and brought about by necessity the custom of muster by open list, quarterly and at inspections, when each man stepped before the captain and told his name, rank, and his duties on board.

The rank of gunner dates from the early 16th century. He was a warrant officer, in charge of the ship's armament and the gunroom, not only of the muskets kept there but also of the junior and subordinate officers who used it as a mess. In H.M.S. VICTORY at the time of Trafalgar these were the junior or 6th lieutenant and the purser, as well as sub-lieutenants and midshipmen. Dialogues about Sea Service (1685) tell of the gunner's authority and the painful results of the sailors' superstition:

And the knaveries of the Cadets are payd by the Gunner with the Rod; and commonly this execution is done upon the Monday mornings and is so frequently in use that the meer Sea-men believe in earnest that they shall not have a fair winde unless the poor Cadets are duly brought to the Chest, that is, be whipped right heartily every Monday morning.

The old ranks of chief gunner and chief boatswain were the fore-runners of the rank of warrant officer, an officer who held a royal warrant rather than a commission. This rank was abolished in the Commonwealth navies in 1948 to be replaced by the commissioned branch officer. The rank of commissioned officer has since been abolished in the R.N.; men who would formerly have been given that rank are now promoted to sub-lieutenant.

In the year 1688 the Board of Admiralty revised the system of rank and seniority, giving all officers seniority of that year, and at the same time published the first Navy list, a list of all serving officers with their ranks and seniority. The Canadian Navy List is published half-yearly by Naval Headquarters. R.C.N. Regular Force and Reserve officers are also listed with the Dominion navies in the R.N. Navy list.

In the lean years of the Soviet Fleet, from 1917 to 1940, officers were chosen by election, until Marshall Stalin reintroduced ranks. It is interesting to note that 'tradition' was provided for the Red Fleet by the simple expedient of rewriting naval history, even to the extent of glorifying several of the Czarist heroes, beside claiming numerous naval inventions as being of Soviet origin.

The rank, or rating as it used to be known, of petty officer (literally: inferior officer) was established in the 18th century, and that of chief petty officer just over 100 years ago. It is of interest that there were petty officers first and second class in the Royal Navy from about 1830 until 1907. The R.C.N. has done nothing new in reintroducing those grades; we have done so to parallel the other, two Canadian forces, thereby implementing a tri-service policy to equalise pay rates and promotion tables.

Ranking as petty officers were the master-at-arms (originally the small arms instructor), the sailmaker, the armourer and the armourer's mate, and the ship's cook. The master-at-arms, or in a large ship the lieutenant-at-arms (often the junior lieutenant) together with the ship's corporals, had so little to do as small-arms instructors that it became the practice to assign to them what we would now call regulating duties. After a time the original duties disappeared or were taken back by the gunner and his staff. The ship's corporal eventually became the regulating petty officer though part of his duties are now carried out by the corporal of the gangway.

In 1853 was established the rank of leading seaman, described at the time as "a higher class of able seaman". Since in the R.C.N. the ranks have been put back to where they were over a hundred years ago this description again applies.


1. Many nautical words come from Arabic; in particular are the names of the navigational stars.

2. In R.N. regulations (QR&AI) provision is made for a "first captain" or senior captain, i.e. a commodore first class.

3. The term master retains only one usage in the modern navy; the navigator of a flagship is known as master of the fleet. The flagship's commanding officer is captain of the fleet as well as chief staff officer.

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