A powder boy or powder monkey manned naval artillery guns as a member of a warship’s crew, primarily during the Age of Sail. His chief role was to ferry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the artillery pieces, either in bulk or as cartridges, to minimize the risk of fires and explosions. The function was usually fulfilled by boy seamen 12 to 14 years of age. Powder monkeys were usually boys or young teens selected for the job for their speed and height — they were short and could move more easily in the limited space between decks and would also be hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, keeping them from being shot by enemy ships’ sharp shooters. Some women and older men also worked as powder monkeys.
The Royal Navy first began using the term “powder monkey” in the 17th century. The term was later used, and continues to be used in some countries, to signify a skilled technician or engineer who engages in blasting work, such as in the mining or demolition industries. In such industries, a “powder monkey” is also sometimes referred to as a “blaster”.
The ship he is on in the picture is the USS New Hampshire. It was a 2,633 ton ship originally designed to be the 74-gun ship of the line Alabama, but she remained on the stocks for nearly 40 years, well into the age of steam, before being renamed and launched as a storeship and depot ship during the American Civil War. She was later renamed to USS Granite State.
As Alabama, she was one of “nine ships to rate not less than 74 guns each” authorized by Congress on 29 April 1816, and was laid down by the Portsmouth Navy Yard, Maine, in June 1819, the year the State of Alabama was admitted to the Union. Though ready for launch by 1825, she remained on the stocks for preservation; an economical measure that avoided the expense of manning and maintaining a ship of the line.