Sailors’ wives and “special friends” were often permitted on board Royal Navy vessels in the early 19th century and frequently went on long voyages.  Pregnant women were assigned the only space available to give birth, between the cannons on the gun deck!  Spectacularly uncomfortable, but at least canvas sheets were hung for privacy.  Sometimes, legend has it, if the captain thought the process was too long or too loud, he would fire off a cannon to shock the poor girl to a speedy conclusion.

So “son of a gun” became both an epithet and a compliment.  To many sailors, a true bluejacket was

Begotten in a galley and born under a gun,

Every hair a rope yarn, every tooth a marlinspike,

Every finger a fishhook, and his blood right good Stockholm tar.”


By Gina Dunlap