26. Life Aboard Ship Was Rough for Child Sailors
Taking advantage of their small size, the child sailor would ferry gunpowder from the magazine to the gun deck in leather buckets, usually two at a time. In combat, child sailors were just as exposed to danger as were all other sailors aboard ship, regardless of age. Indeed, they were at extra risk, since they had to scurry about while they carried gunpowder liable to go off if it came into contact with any spark or shard of flaming timber or scorching shell fragment. The little powder monkeys were often at greater risk than the rest of the crew.
Winston Churchill once famously derided the Royal Navy’s traditions as boiling down to: “Rum, buggery, and the lash“. The US Navy patterned itself after the British, and although life aboard American ships was seldom as harsh as in the Royal Navy, it was harsh enough. That was even more so for child sailors. When not in combat, which was most of the time, the boys worked long hours and endured harsh work and living conditions. Many crews viewed the powder monkeys as mascots and treated them with kindness. However, while kindness towards the kids was common, it was not universal. Some adult crewmembers mistreated, bullied, took advantage of the child sailors in their midst, and otherwise abused them in various ways.