Tuesday, 22 February 2011


It is easy to take ink for granted. There is always a biro to hand, a newspaper to rub off on your fingers. Ink is everywhere; in fact approximately one-thousandth of the world’s surface is ink. But a quick look at the history books shows this was not always the case.

In the 16th Century sailors at sea would often run out of ink while writing to their loved ones, a problem compounded by the illiteracy suffered by the majority of seamen. We often joke of captains keeping live octopuses in a tray on their desks in which they could dip their pen-nibs. But the book Collected Diaries of Men at Sea in the 16th Century provides us with some first-hand accounts of life at sea which show this wasn't entirely far from the truth.

According to several entries recorded in this volume, many seamen believed octopuses, with their personal stock of natural writing-ink and “many hands for writinge”, were in fact “the ultimite men of letters” from whom they might divine not only a constantly-replenishing supply of ink but also the much-coveted ability to read and write. To gain this power and release the ink, sailors were required to “enter” the octopus “with his manhoode”, a practice which, according to one of the more well-written logs, was “not altogether unpleasante” as “the creature proves as moiste & plyante as a maiden”.

Upon finding this did nothing to improve their literacy skills, the sailors would be forced to repeat the practice “a thousande times a week” until they were “driven raving mad by the mocking Many-hand’d Man of Letters” and his “refusale to release the Juices of his sweete Literacy”. From a few of the logs it seems that several sailors were so intent on their practice that they began to forget why they were employing the octopuses in the first place, with several feverish entries devoted entirely to descriptions like “the tendere touch of his nippl’d arm...” and “a smile, daresaye, in his fine ladys eyes... like four fine ladys of marry'ing age clasping ther moiste arms arounde me all at once... & reduc'd me to jelly’d man & waves of tears”.

Ink is everywhere, but there may come a day when it is not. The next time your pen bursts in your pocket, spare a thought for the men at sea, our brave Royal Navy, whose own diaries will undoubtedly be read in 400 years' time.