From documents concerning James Caithness’s sons and their admittance to the
Royal Hospital School,
known that James snr met his death in an unusual way.
He ‘Died of an asthma thro over exertion in the use of the Call as Boatswain’s Mate’.
In other words, James blew his whistle too hard and this proved fatal.
The fact that he was Boatswain’s (or Bosun’s) Mate is evidenced by entries in the musters of HMS Calcutta:
'James Caithness AB to 17th Nov 1803 then Boatswain's Mate'
In this role James would have conveyed orders to crew members by sounding the Call on his Boatswain’s ‘pipe’ or whistle. This was a time-honoured tradition dating as far back as the Crusades. There were specific calls – each a series of notes – applicable to various tasks. The one perhaps most familiar to non-seafarers is the piping aboard of people of consequence, such as the captain, an admiral of the fleet, or a Royal visitor.
The boatswain's call is a none diaphragm aerophone. It is a symbol of office and a practical instrument for giving orders as well as for playing music to pass the time at sea. Every seaman had to know the call codes and one officer would be in charge of the Call to alert the crew to carry out routine chores as well as to mark ceremonial occasions.
Its distinctive shape has remained practically unchanged from medieval times to the present day. The Call's shrill whistle can be varied in pitch and duration to convey a variety of information and can be heard above the sound of wind and sea.
A beautiful silver Call like this one dated 1804 would probably be a ceremonial or presentation piece. Usually they were personal possessions retained by an individual during his career.
The precise circumstances under which James could have succumbed to an asthma attack while sounding the Call are not stated, but it may be that almost ten years spent in grim conditions as a prisoner-of-war in France during the Napoleonic Wars undermined his health. He died in 1826 aged about forty.
|Boatswain's Mate in shore-going rig|
Listen to audio examples of the Call at: