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Sailors in the Age of Sail

With worse ships, worse-cut sails, and smaller crews, the British Navy gained one victory after another till the crowning triumph of Trafalgar made Britain the greatest sea power that the world has yet seen. If ever there was a triumph of men over material, it was this. The old sailor of the days of wood and canvas is as extinct as the -mastodon; and like that primeval monster he can only be reconstructed from the few fossil fragments that have been preserved.

Prickly to handle, difficult to rule, he was unconquerable when well led. He knew and kept the laws of the sea, while often ignorant and defiant of the laws of the land. Faithful to his friends, he was terrible to his foes, yet merciful in victory. He was content to live like a dog and die like a hero for poor pay and the chance of prize-money. Ill fed, ill paid, often ill used and generally ill educated, he was yet a most valuable citizen, who did the nation's work with singular thoroughness. Surely no class of men deserved better of their country than those who won for it the dominion of the sea.

The seamen were distributed and stationed for working the ship. The oldest and most experienced among the prime seamen were denominated "forecastlemen," and looked after that part of the ship furthest from the captain. The smartest and most agile were "topmen," working on their respective masts. The remainder, mostly landsmen or those newly raised, worked in the waist under the gunner and his mates, while between the main and mizen masts, or amidships in a four-master (from whence the appellation), the " midshipmen " formed the " after guard," a name which eventually became a term of reproach, and was lost in that of "quarter-deck-men."

It would be easy to multiply stock anecdotes of the sailor's courage, his generosity, his quaint conceits, his curiously fascinating eccentricities; but they would be out of place in so brief a sketch as this. He was always a popular character, and was too often depicted in his most popular aspect; 'as the gull with a pocket full of money, who came ashore in order to give thrifty landsmen an opportunity of annexing his hard-earned prize-money; and then selling him, drunk, to the press-gang, who took him to sea again to earn more. Tipsy Jack, flinging his money away royally, and standing treat to all who asked, was always a favourite; but sober, hardworking Jack at sea, or broken-down Jack, maimed and useless, money, health and merriment gone, interested nobody. The whole country sang the sailor's praises; but it was nobody's business to improve the conditions of his life at sea, or to protect him against lovely Nan and the rest of the leeches who fastened on him as soon as he set foot on shore.

Of the qualities that made the sailor what he was the country knew little, and apparently cared less. The patient endurance that enabled him to do his duty aloft, wet, cold, and often hungry, in the teeth of an icy winter gale; the iron nerve that held him steady and dutiful, serving his gun while the raking broadside strewed the wrecked gun-deck with fragments of poor humanity, like the splashed offal of the shambles; these were ignored in the age which was distinguished for polite artificiality.

Throughout the whole of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the spirit of insubordination seems to have been present in the navy, in spite of the terrible severity of the punishments which failed to repress it. Until the year 1688, soldiers and mariners - the fighting service and the navigating service - were divided; it was found by experience that it was better to employ seamen instead of the "freshwater soldiers;" but seamen were hard to come by, so the rule was not absolute. There were many reasons why the naval service was unpopular with the men. In 1627, Sir Ferdinand Gorges presented to the Duke of Buckingham a series of complaints from the men of the fleet. They declared that they were used like dogs in the matter of clothing, food and medicines; scurvy was terribly prevalent.

It had been boasted that while the Continental governments forced their subjects to take up arms, Great Britain was able to maintain her enormous forces by voluntary enlistment. This, however, is only true in part. In manning the navy, voluntary enlistment was largely supplemented by the efforts of the press-gang. Any seaman who could be stolen from the merchant service was carried on board a ship-of-war, and compelled to fight. A band of men armed with this formidable power lurked in every sea-port, ready to seize the sailor returning from his voyage. The earliest commission for the impressment of seamen was issued by Edward III in 1355; but the practice was older than that.

The old naval service was always unpopular among seafaring men. When young Horatio Nelson returned in 1772 from a voyage to the West Indies in a merchantman, it is recorded that he brought with him a sovereign contempt for the Royal Navy. The prejudice was general ; and one result was, that the press-gang became a necessity. It was always recognised as an evil necessity; but the imperative needs of the nation outweighed private hardships and individual wrongs. The pressed men seem almost invariably to have done their duty in action; but discipline suffered by the introduction of crowds of seamen who were forced to serve the State against their will; it suffered still more when untrained, unwilling landsmen were sent on board the king's ships. The system of extravagant bounties introduced another most undesirable class of men into the navy; and the reputation of good seamen suffered by the ill behaviour of the thieves, loafers, and characterless men who swarmed amongst them.

Naval discipline was maintained by a savage use of the lash. Immediately after Waterloo, when the House of Commons was voting large sums to the Duke of Wellington and the other heroes of the war, it was proposed that the punishment of a soldier or sailor should be limited to a hundred lashes. Lord Palmerston resisted the proposal. The English, he said, owing to the freedom of their constitution and their higher feeling of personal independence, required more punishment than other nations did. His views prevailed, and the motion was rejected without a division.

The press-gang was an institution, permitted by authority, by which the army and navy, in the long wars with the French, were supplied with recruits by violence. The gang was permitted to keep up the supply, by laying violent hands on whomsoever they could, and then forcing the victims on board vessels, or away from the district, where, in many cases, they were heard of no more. The districts which suffered most, from these operations, were those contiguous to the sea. The hardy fishermen were already trained seamen, and their abduction was more easily accomplished than that of men from inland places. Traditional stories are handed down, of the evil purposes to which it was sometimes turned, by the evil-disposed, to avenge a supposed wrong, or get rid of an enemy.

In 1833, the same year in which Hume nearly succeeded in defeating the ministry on the question of flogging in the army, Silk Buckingham, a gentleman who had been a journalist in India, drew attention to the abuses of impressment. Buckingham asked the House to declare the forcible impressment of seamen unjust, cruel, inefficient, and unnecessary, and to avail itself of a period of profound peace to provide other means of manning the navy. He ultimately modified the latter part of his motion by simply asking for an inquiry. Graham, speaking as First Lord of the Admiralty, pledged himself to introduce a bill preventing the forcible enrolment of smugglers on ships of war, but declined to part with the power of compulsory enlistment. Althorp, seeing that the sense of the House was opposed to the official view of the Admiralty, endeavoured to extricate Graham from his difficulty by moving the previous question. He prevailed, but the majority was so small that the press-gang was obviously doomed. In 1835, Graham himself, freed from the trammels of office, introduced two bills to establish a register of seamen, and to encourage voluntary enlistment by the grant of high bounties and increased pensions. The Government promised him its support, and ultimately took the conduct of his measures out of his hands. The bills passed; the experiment which was made succeeded; the press-gang proved to be no more necessary than any other of the abuses to which men still clung because they were old; and, though theoretically the Crown retained-as it still retains-the prerogative of pressing men into its service, the exercise of the prerogative was thenceforward condemned by what a great historian has called " the unwritten law of the Constitution."

For officers and men alike, it was a hard, wearing life; they had to get along as best they might without any of the comforts which existed even then for the dwellers on shore in their own station. Pay was scanty enough, but it only came at long intervals and then with large deductions; the food was of the worst, the ships were often ill-found, and the insufficient accommodation generally quite devoid of sanitary method. It could not be wondered at if the seamen had been a rough lot, callous of life, brutal of bearing, and incapable of sentiment. But this does not appear to have been the case if the journals (both official and private) of the officers can be admitted as evidence ; on the contrary they afford the strongest proof of humane feeling, patriotic devotion, and a lively trust in Providence.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:36 ZULU