Towards the end of the first volume of his diary, Gaimard listed the officers and men who had left Toulon on the Uranie in 1817. The ordinary seamen, at the tail-end of the list, were divided into First, Second and Third Class categories, and what were presumably their rates of pay were added in brackets. The first two people listed as belonging to the First Class (Matelots de première classe) were further described as ‘matelots à 30 francs’, the other members of the First Classs being merely ‘matelots à 27 francs’. In the second class everyone received 24 francs and in the third class, 21 francs. Novices were paid 18 francs and even the cabin-boys received 15 francs.
But were these daily, weekly, monthly or yearly rates of pay?
For more information, we can turn to Benoit Guyot. On p24 of Au temps de la Marine en bois he tells us that Jacques Arago was signed on as a draughtsman for ‘600 francs a year and the table of the officers’. Just where a draughtsman would stand in the salary pecking-order is unclear, but he would surely expect to be paid more than even the most able of seamen, although perhaps not vastly more. If their top-earners received thirty francs a week, then that would be more than 1500 francs a year, more than two and a half times what Arago was being paid, and that was surely out of the question. Thirty francs a month would give them 360 francs a year, which seems about right.
How did this munificence compare with what the recipients might have expected to earn had they stayed safely ashore? A clue of sorts is provided in volume 4 of the European Review of Economic History, pp. 59-83,.
Figure 1. Average annual wages in 19th century France. Table 7, on p.73 of Morrisson, C. & Snyder, W., 2000, The income inequality of France in historical perspective, European Review of Economic History, 4, 59-83
This table strongly supports the supposition that the period to which the sailors’ quoted earnings related was indeed a month. It implies that a very ordinary seaman who left Toulon on the Uranie and made it back to France on the Physicienne could expect to have some 800 francs waiting for him, or, assuming minimal inflation between 1820 and 1830, about as much as an average agricultural labourer would have earned in the same period. However, most of the labourer’s income would presumably be spent in keeping body, soul and possibly family together, so it is little wonder that sailors who had just been paid out received such very warm welcomes at the docksides when they disembarked. But what, if they managed to escape from the harbours with their bounty still intact, could they have bought?
Not a great deal, it seems.
Towards the beginning of Gaimard’s diary there is a listing of many of the stores taken on board the Uranie in Toulon (including 25 tons of wine and three tons of brandy), but prices were given only for the medical supplies. Little of this information would be relevant today, but a kilo of sugar cost 3 francs in Toulon (but only 80 centimes on Mauritius) and a kilo (or perhaps a litre) of olive oil cost one and a half francs.
A general search of the internet located one website that provided a little more information. It seems that in 1813 -1814, after a sharp increase in prices, a fish or a chicken cost 4 or 5 francs, while in 1828 – 1829 a poor man could buy one kilogram of bread for forty centimes but richer people would have to pay forty-six centimes. It is not clear how the differential pricing was organised in the latter case, or what level of poverty qualified one for the lower rate, but these figures suggest that the returning sailors of the Uranie, although able to buy a couple of hundred chickens when the stepped down the gang plank, would soon run out of money if they remained ashore and had no home to go to. Even the cheapest lodgings, plus food, would surely have cost a few francs a day. Finding a new berth at sea as quickly as possible would seem to have been their best option, and some of them sailed with Duperry in the Coquille. Small farmers, servants and agricultural workers presumably received some payment in kind (such as food to eat and somewhere to sleep) or they could not have survived.
There is another way of approaching this. We know that in 1820 the American dollar (the piastre) was worth 6 francs, since this was the rate of exchange quoted for the 18,000 dollars for which Louis de Freycinet bought the Physicienne (formerly the Mercury), and we also know that at that time one pound sterling would buy five dollars. The pound was thus worth 30 francs, and if Jacques Arago had taken his pay pscket for one year to London he could have got twenty pounds in exchange. This was just half the annual income that Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet would have had to live on after her father died, if she had not married Mr. Darcy. Estimates of sterling inflation since 1820 are all around the 100-fold mark, so her forty pounds would be about four thousand pounds today. She would also have been homeless, so this would not have been enough to live on, and she might have ended her days as a governess, or perhaps a music teacher. Old age was certainly a prospect to be feared in those times, and attitudes to it were accordingly rather different, as Louis de Freycinet recorded on p.517 of Volume II of the Historique.
On the 29th, one of our sailors, having drunk a little too much to celebrate his birthday, fell headlong from the quarterdeck on to the lower deck and killed himself. He was a Breton and his name was Rio. He was a very good man and universally mourned, but everyone agreed that for him death had come just in time. A bad manager, careless of his future and having spent on drink everything he had earned during his frequent navigations, he was destined to eke out a most miserable old age.
Rio, it should be noted, had been one of the ship’s two ‘matelots à 30 francs’.