§ Mr. Hume
rose to bring forward the motion of which he had given notice. It was his intention, he said, to have moved for a select committee, as the best mode of inquiring into the means of remedying the evils of Impressment; but having, in the early part of the session, undertaken another inquiry in a committee, he; felt he could not have done justice to either had he brought both forward at the same time. He had been compelled, by the necessity of attending to his own convenience, and to the convenience of other members, to drive it off to this late period of the session; and he should not 1172 now satisfy himself, if he did not bring the subject under the notice of the House, He meant, therefore, to ask it for a pledge fully to discuss this question next session, and to move for such information as would enable the committee to inquire into it with effect. He was aware that the opinions of many gentlemen around him differed from his; but if those gentlemen would consider the measure in detail and view it without prejudice, they must, he thought, come to a conclusion, that the present system ought not to be supported unless the salvation of the country could he shewn to depend upon it. No man was more anxious than he was, to see our navy pre-eminently great, the just pride and boast of the country, and cherished as our best arm of defence, and he, therefore, would never propose any measure which would cripple it, or render it less powerful. Entertaining this opinion, his object was, not to cripple our navy by the measure he meant to propose, but to render it strong and irresistible; which, under the present system of coercive service, it never could be. Like other services, he thought the men might be engaged voluntarily for the navy. An opinion had lately been expressed as to the great advantages which voluntary service of every kind had over coerced service. That opinion was advanced, indeed, with regard to the slaves in the West Indies; and he was sure that all those who supported that opinion would agree with him in placing the navy on the principle of voluntary service instead of the principle of coercion of the most obnoxious kind—a coercion, too, which had not had the effect which individuals attributed to it; and which by estranging the hearts of our people, and making them shun the navy as a plague, or as a pestilence, instead of procuring seamen, had banished them both from the fleet and the country.
If such was a plain statement of the case, was it not worthy of the House to go into a committee to inquire, even though the result of that inquiry should be to shew that no alteration could be made in the present system without danger to the country? If such should be the result, would they not at least have the satisfaction of having attempted to remedy evils which were acknowledged to exist, and which were inflicted by a system opposed to the general principles of our government; which was founded on respect for individual rights? I Impressment had certain- 1173 ly existed a long time; and opinions were divided as to whether it was legal or not. In his view of the matter, it was of no consequence whether it was sanctioned by five hundred acts of parliament, or by as many precedents, or not. In either case it was still unconstitutional. Those statutes and precedents might make it legal; but that which was legal was not always constitutional. In times of necessity they all submitted to pass laws and make things legal which were quite unconstitutional; which shewed that the two things were not the same. He had endeavoured to make himself master of the various opinions on the subject; and he knew that, if judged by precedent, impressment by common law was warranted and proper. He found, by a reference to one of the ablest arguments which was ever delivered on the subject—he alluded to that of judge Foster, though he did not agree with him—that there were no statutes in favour of this practice. That opinion was delivered in the year 1743, on occasion of a press-gang going to board a vessel at Bristol, and one of the crew, named Alexander Broadfoot, fired, and killed one of the gang. On that occasion Mr. Serjeant Foster (afterwards made a Judge, perhaps for the very arguments he stated that day) attended. The man was brought in guilty of manslaughter, because there should have been an officer in the boat and there was none. The argument which Mr. Serjeant Foster, delivered on that occasion, was the best he had ever met with; and he admitted, that there was no statute then in force expressly empowering the government to impress seamen, but that it was founded on immemorial usage of the king's prerogative. But, if this principle was not repugnant to any statute or precedent, it was contrary to the principles of public utility. He knew there was a difference of opinion among both civilians and gentlemen of the navy—whether this practice were useful or not. But if the committee were appointed it could ascertain this, and satisfy the country whether it was beneficial or hurtful.
The hon. member then referred to another opinion of Mr. Justice Foster, which he had formed by mistranslating an act of parliament; as had been shewn by Baron Maseres, whose work he recommended to the gentlemen opposite. Since that time there had been no decisions to alter the character of impressment at com- 1174 mon law; nothing had occurred either to support or weaken its legality, which still rested only on immemorial usage. He thought it was a proper subject for the consideration of the House, whether it was useful or not, and whether it was so pre-eminently useful, that, to continue it, all the rights of our sailors ought to be trampled under foot. It was curious to observe, that there was no class of men who were more praised—none whose actions were more held up to general admiration—than the seamen of England: and yet there was no class of subjects whose rights were so much encroached upon on the ideal plea of necessity. He found many records on the books of the House, of the alleged existence of this necessity. In the 5th of Anne it was stated, that the practice was absolutely necessary for the defence of the realm. This necessity had, at all times, been the plea of tyrants; but it was necessary for those who made such a plea to prove that it existed. He should show that it did not. In the year 1739, an attempt was made to bring in a bill to mitigate the evil; but he would, before he came to this, just mention the fact, that the ships which composed Admiral Blake's fleet were manned with volunteers. If in that instance, voluntary service had obtained seamen for the navy, the practice ought to have been kept up; but it seem ed to be soon afterwards abandoned. The attempt to which he had before alluded, as having been made in 1739, had completely failed. The argument the government had then used was this—In time of war we will not act, as it is likely to endanger the country; in peace we will, but then there is no evil to be remedied. The subject had been again brought forward in 1749, 17.58, and in 1777, when a bill was brought in by a gentleman, which excited considerable sensation; and it was brought in at the recommendation of a lieut. Tomlinson, who had published a very clever pamphlet on the subject. The bill did not succeed. He would further allude to an attempt which had been made in 1696 to register seamen, by which 30,000 were always to be made available for the public service. This scheme was suspended, on account of the expense it caused; but it was repealed before there was time to experience its effects.
No other efficient measures had ever been tried. On many points, such as the pay and the provisions of the seamen, there had been a great amelioration in the 1175 service; but in spite of all these improvements, there was among the sailors, up to the latest period of the war, as strong a dislike of the naval service as ever, and as strong a disposition to desert. Desertions, in fact, constantly took place: the seamen mutilated themselves, and ran any risk rather than remain. To shew what was the state of the seamen's minds, he would read an extract from an excellent pamphlet published by captain Marryatt, which would fully prove that their hatred of the service was not lessened at the close of the war. The hon. member then read an extract, stating, that, in 1814, capt. Marryatt was appointed to the Newcastle; that while he was on board, some of the men, in view of the sentinels, and in presence of their officers, got down the ship's side, took possession of one of her boats, and though they were fired at with ball-can ridge, succeeded in gaining the shore and effecting their escape. From every opportunity which he had of judging, he observed, that this disposition to desert did not arise from a dislike of the treatment by their officers, but from their natural abhorrence of compulsory service. Captain Marryatt also stated, that when the Newcastle was in chase of the American ship the Constitution, she had one hundred men less than her regular complement.
This, then, was a proof of aversion existing, up to the close of the war; and he thought it was a rational object of inquiry to ascertain why that aversion existed. Why, he wanted to know, did this aversion exist among the seamen when there was no aversion among other classes Why, he wanted to know, when we got plenty of admirals, plenty of captains, and plenty of midshipmen, why was it that we could not get plenty of seamen? Why was it that there were no men to be got for the navy, when there were plenty of men to be got for every other situation? One reason was, that they were not sufficiently paid. The labourer was worthy of his hire; and why should not the seamen be paid like other men? There were many advantages in the kind's ships which the seamen in the merchants' service had not. In every man of war the men had the best medical attendance; and there were good hospitals to receive them when they were sick, which men in the merchants service had not. Their provisions also were better, and abundant. They had a regular supply 1176 of liquor, to which sailors attached great value. Then, they had the chance of being made petty or warrant officers, and in that capacity, there were pensions for their widows. When the navy possessed all these advantages, certainly it was a curious subject for inquiry, what could make our seamen mutilate themselves, and subject themselves to all kinds of misery. rather than enter the service. He was satisfied no sophistry could solve this question. It was necessary that there should be an inquiry to ascertain what were the advantages and what the disadvantages of this system. If it was the coercion of impressment which made all its other advantages be overlooked, was it not right to ascertain the causes of this aversion? The House would not do justice to themselves, or the country, if they refused the inquiry which he should propose. If, in that inquiry, the absolute necessity of the practice could be proved, why then a great good would be done; but, if it could be shown, that the evil might be altogether avoided, surely no man would contend that it ought to be continued.
He had mentioned that seamen of the royal navy possessed many advantages not enjoyed by merchant seamen. He would now mention some of the disadvantages under which they laboured, and which, in addition to the forced service in the first instance, created such a repugnance to enter our ships of war. In the first place, he would mention the irregular mode of payment to our sailors. He would admit, that a considerable improvement had been effected in this respect by lord Melville, by what was called the Allotment act; but, that the system was far from being perfect would appear from this—that in many instances, five, six, and seven years, and in others ten, twelve, and fourteen years; were allowed to pass over, before a seaman was paid his wages in full. In the interim, he received only an occasional pittance, which did not serve his wants for the time being. Was it possible that men who had earned their money with so much labour should be satisfied with such a system? He might here mention the small amount of the seaman's pay on board a king's ship. In the time of William the 3rd, the pay of the seamen was 24s per month. It was at present not more than 32s. How could they be satisfied with such pay, when they found that men in the merchant service obtained 3, 5, 7, and 1177 sometimes 11 guineas per month? Let the House look to the condition of the American navy. There was no impressment. America, the only nation which could attempt to rival us on sea, had no impressment of sailors; and, if they could man their navy efficiently without that practice, why might not we? If we should hereafter meet America in hostility on the seas, we should have to contend on very unequal terms. It would be a contest of freemen against slaves: for, under the present system, our seamen were not freemen; they were as completely slaves as any galley slaves that were ever chained to the oar; and were far worse than the slaves in the West Indies. America purchased the voluntary services of her seamen; and why should not England do the same? Why should America, a poor and an infant state as compared with England, pay her seamen double or treble the wages that we paid ours? In America, too, the sailors were regularly paid every two months; while in our navy the poor seamen, after returning from some distant voyage, were sent to India, or to some other remote station, for five or six years, during which time they did not receive a single shilling; and on their return were paid what was due to them in a mass, to be thrown away, as under such circumstances might naturally be expected. All this might be easily and completely remedied.
The next point to which he wished to call the attention of the House was, the indefinite length of service. They had heard a great deal lately, and very properly, on the subject of negro slavery. They had heard a great deal of the cruelty of dragging negroes from their families on the coast of Africa, to work on our sugar plantations. He, for one, would never end his support to negroe slavery; but he for one, would also contend, that the-reasoning which was applicable to the natives of Africa, was equally applicable to the natives of Great Britain. The House could not refuse to impart to British seamen the protection they were disposed to grant to African negroes; especially when they recollected, that the latter were not natives of a country in which they were promised protection and freedom, but from which they were dragged by a press-gang. The manner in which British seamen were sometimes seized for the naval service, he would not attempt to describe. He had himself, on arriving 1178 in England during war time, seen the alarm excited among the crew of an Indiaman. No sooner was the vessel in port than she was boarded by a man-of-war's boat, and men who had been absent three or four years from their country were at once disappointed of their hope of revisiting their family and friends, and carried off perhaps to some station as distant as that from which they had just returned. Was not this a state of things which ought to be put an end to? At any rate inquiry ought to be instituted into the practicability of putting an end to it.
There was another great cause of complaint among the sailors; namely, the being deprived of leave to go on shore when their ship arrived in any port. He was quite aware that when men were taken compulsorily into the service they would, like birds confined in a cage, endeavour to escape. But that was an. additional reason for putting an end to a system of coercion, which thus involved, in its consequences volunteers, as well as pressed men, and subjected them all to a sort of imprisonment. He was persuaded that this disposition to escape would not evince itself under better circumstances. Other countries felt no difficulty in that respect. The American sailors evinced no disposition to desert; although, they were allowed, on the arrival of their ship in port, to go on shore, and make their, own markets. The fact was, that sailors were just like other men. A few of them might be very bad, and rendered worse perhaps by that degrading treatment which prevented them from having any thing like fair play. It seemed, however, to be supposed by many persons, that sailors were quitedifferent from other men. But he was quite satisfied that they might be made whatever it was tried to make them. The fact was, however, that we had mistaken the manner of managing our sailors. As far as he had had experience of them, sailors were blest with as good qualities as other persons, and were as kind, as faithful, and as brave as any class in the community; and yet they were treated with a description of discipline applicable only to felons, and the most obdurate characters. Let any hon. member change places in his own mind with a sailor, and consider how he would feel under such treatment. Sailors might be repressed by physical force; but it was contrary to human nature to suppose that they could be otherwise than dissatisfied.
1179 Another point to which he wished to speak, was the mode of punishing sailors, and the severity of the punishment. This might be thought a delicate subject; but it was one that ought not to be passed over. But, first, he was anxious to say a few words on our code of maritime law. The articles of war appeared to him to require much revision. At present, they subjected every man to whatever punishment the whim of an officer, or the sentence of a court-martial, might inflict. One great object of the inquiry which he proposed to institute, would be, the nature of our maritime code, and the practicability of improving it, and of getting rid of the odium that at present attached to it. With respect to the punishment of sailors, it appeared to him to be so objectionable, that he appealed with confidence to a government which had shown so much sensibility towards black, to evince a little of it towards these white slaves [hear, hear!]. Notwithstanding that cheer, he repeated it, that they were white slaves, and he was prepared to prove that they were so. What was it that his majesty's government had done in favour of black slaves? What was it that was intimated to the governors of our West-India colonies in the circular, commonly called lord Bathurst's letter? After directing that legislative measures should be proposed in the colonies having legislatures for preventing the punishment of flogging in every case where the offender was a woman, and pointing out the necessity of prohibiting the use of the whip in the field, lord Bathurst proceeded to say, "I have now, in addition to those instructions, to direct, that you will cause some effectual law to be submitted to the legislature for preventing any domestic punishment whatever, until the day following that on which the offence may have been committed, and even then, except in the presence of one free person, besides the person under whose authority the punishment may be inflicted. If the punishment should exceed three lashes, it should be provided that a regular entry should be made in a plantation-book, to be kept for that purpose." What he submitted to his majesty's government and to parliament was this: If they prohibited the slave-owner in the West-Indies from inflicting one single lash, except on the day after the offence, by which time the passions might have time to cool, would they permit British seamen to be punish- 1180 ed, not with three but with two or three dozen lashes, without any court-martial, or other inquiry into his culpability; on the order of his officer, and at the instant when passion might be presumed to influence the judgment? Surely, it was impossible that they could continue to subject British seamen to the whim and caprice of individuals in power over them, while they thus interfered on behalf of the black slaves of the West-Indies. An end ought to be put to all immediate punishment. No punishment ought to be inflicted but by the sentence of a court-martial; and then not until that sentence had been approved; a proper time having been allowed for its consideration, as in the army. He did not speak of offences in the presence of the enemy. Those, of course, must always be dealt with in a summary manner. But, in general, immediate punishment ought to be put an end to.
With regard to the punishment of flogging, he had been told, that it would be impossible to carry on the naval service without it. He believed, however, that some of the best officers in the navy were of another opinion. No doubt there was some improvement on this point. There were times when corporal punishment, in the navy, was carried to an excess, the contemplation of which must make every benevolent man shudder. Even at the present moment, notwithstanding the checks which the Admiralty had endeavoured to interpose, by directing that returns should be made of the number and extent of punishments, &c, excessive punishments occasionally occurred. In proof of this, it was only necessary for him to refer to the trials of several naval officers for the infliction of severe punishment on their men. Some of those officers had been reprimanded, others had been suspended. The fact was, that when men were vested with unlimited power, it was impossible to foresee what they might be tempted to do. Well might the hon. member for Bramber say, that no man ought to be trusted with absolute power. He had been anxious to ascertain the facts of some of the cases of what was called "starting," &c, to which he had adverted. One of those cases was that of the captain of the Dispatch. It appeared that during one voyage there was scarcely a man on board that ship who had not received corporal punishment. On her return into harbour the 1181 Port Admiral went on board, and investigated the matter, and was so satisfied o. the fact, that he superseded the captain. A single instance of such a nature occurring, notwithstanding all the checks interposed by the Admiralty, proved the insufficiency of those checks, and the necessity of some legislative interference. He had received a letter from an individual, in which the writer offered to be examined at the bar of the House, and to give his evidence with regard to the general treatment of sailors, and to the system of flogging in the navy. Returning to England in an Indiaman, this individual was pressed, and sent on board the Lion, of 64 guns, captain Rolles, and carried off to China. The account which this individual gave of the discipline on board the Lion was, he believed, a specimen of what frequently occurred. In the first place, with regard to provision, the crew were placed on short allowance. It appeared also that, besides extra days, captain Rolles had two regular flogging days, Thursdays and Sundays. On Sundays, after prayers and a sermon by the chaplain, the men were ordered to be turned up, and an extensive flogging generally took place. If it were proved, that any man had one dirty shirt in his chest more than he ought to have, no matter how many clean shirts there might be, he was flogged to a certainty. There was every reason to believe, that on board the Hermione, the crew of which frigate rose and murdered the officers, the discipline had been much too severe; for it was stated by a writer on the subject, that the character of her captain was the opposite of humanity. He was persuaded that a very different system would be introduced, if strong measures were adopted on the subject. Hitherto, officers who disobeyed the instructions of the Admiralty respecting it, although they had been dismissed, were speedily reinstated; so that their punishment was merely nominal. That a different system was practicable was evident, from the conduct of several officers—conduct in the highest degree honourable to them. He had been informed by as intelligent and as zealous an officer as any in his majesty's Navy, who had served as a lieutenant for 18 months onboard the Bulwark, of 74 guns, that during the whole of that time he had not known of a single corporal punishment on board that ship; although in discipline she was so complete and efficient, 1182 that she might on that point challenge any ship in the fleet. In a pamphlet on the subject, it appeared that on board the Larne, captain Tatham, there had not been any corporal punishment for a long time. When captain Stewart took the command of the Dictator, in the North Sea, after in vain trying flogging in various degrees, he had recourse to putting offenders on bread and water for two or three days; by which means he made the Dictator a most orderly ship.—Lieutenant Standish Hayley, serving under captain Gower, now admiral bower, stated, that in captain Gower's ship there was no corporal punishment. Such was the general result of his inquiry into the subject. What had been done in one instance, if only one instance instead of so many had been adduced, was sufficient to prove the practicability of an amelioration of the system. Unfortunately, however, our men of war were too frequently commanded by young and inexperienced officers; and many excellent seamen were, in consequence of their apprehension of the treatment from such persons, induced to avoid the navy, as they would a pestilence.
Another, and the worst of all evils to which it was desirable that the inquiry should be directed, was the system of impressment. It was well known to every individual conversant with naval affairs, that the manner in which press gangs acted placed the whole naval community in a condition perfectly repugnant to the spirit of freedom. The bringing of men by coercion into a state of imprisonment was a system which ought not to be persisted in in this country. These were some of the grounds on which he rested his motion. He feared that he had trespassed on the patience of the House, but it was necessary to render the subject intelligible. Taking them altogether, it appeared to him that they loudly called on the House to enter into an investigation, in order to ascertain if a mode could not be devised, by which the navy might be regularly supplied with volunteers. There was no occasion to give any great encouragement to our naval officers. Plenty of captains might be obtained without bribery. He objected, therefore, to the mode of distributing prize-money, and still more to the profits which the captain of a roan of war derived from the freight of specie, plate, &c. Why not distribute the prize-money principally among the 1183 class of men who were unwilling to serve, as an inducement to them to enter? By the present distribution of prize-money, the captain had three-eighths, the lieutenants, master, &c. one-eighth; the warrant officers, one-eighth; the petty officers, one-eighth; and the foremastmen one-eighth among them. Thus, if a vessel, with a compliment of 450 men, captured a prize worth 1,000l. the captain received 375l while the whole of the seamen shared only 250l. among them. If they wished sailors to enter the navy, was that the way to induce them to do so? Then, with respect to the allowance for carrying specie, he had no objection to it, when the money belonged to private individuals; but when it was public property, the practice appeared to him to be a solecism.
There was another question of great importance to be considered, and that was, in the event of a war, how we should stand with America, and with the naval powers of Europe, with respect to the right of search for British seamen—a right we had never relinquished? The system we had adopted of visiting foreign ships, in order to take out our own men, had cost us ninety-six millions in the late American war; for he laid the whole of that war, and the expense arising from it, at thedoor of the practice of impressment. If we had not had any impressment, we should not have had that war. The practice of searching foreign vessels stood number one among the causes of discontent against this country cherished by foreign nations: and especially by the natives of the United States. No man who had not inquired into the subject, could be aware of the immense importance which had been attached to this question in America. He held in his hand a copy of an American account of men taken from their ships by the British, which had been published throughout America and had greatly contributed to fan the flame of indignation against Great Britain. He believed the paper in which it had been published was called "The Olive Branch;" a name certainly not very indicative of its character and object [the hon. gentleman here read one or two of the cases mentioned]. These casesmight be overcharged—he had no doubt that they were overcharged; but still they had had the effect of exciting great discontent in America, and proof ought to be given, that there was a necessity for persevering in the system in which that discontent originated. Should 1184 our system of pressing be persevered in, what security could we have that, in the event of war, our seamen would not flock to Holland or to Fiance, or still more to America, where the language was the same as their own? The mischief resulting there from might be incalculable; and the present was undoubtedly the most proper time for considering a national question of so much importance. What was the practice in America? There was no impressment in that country. Every sailor was a volunteer. On entering he received a liberal bounty; and his term of service was limited.
One point which it was expedient on our part to discuss was, whether, even if we were obliged to adhere to coercion, the term of service ought not to be limited. But, if impressment was justifiable at all, it could only be on some very extraordinary emergency. He was quite aware that the present subject was not agreeable to many who heard him. The details would appear tedious to some: to others, whose opinions had been previously made up, those details were of little consequence. But to him, when he contemplated the melancholy circumstances that might result from a pertinacious adherence to our existing system, they appeared to be of the highest importance. What was the practice of France? There the system was, in some degree, one of conscription, chiefly of sailors belonging to the merchant service and of fishermen; but it was for a limited term of service, and exempted the individuals from subsequent service in the army. It was very desirable to ascertain the exact practice of France and of other naval countries in this respect. Whatever they found expedient approximated to a parity of reasoning in favour of the adoption of a similar plan by ourselves. For his own part, he certainly had imagined a plan, which he could without difficulty submit to the House. But he thought it would be presumption in him to do so, without previous inquiry and examination of details. He thought that he should act more wisely, and in a way more calculated to produce a good effect, by proposing a parliamentary investigation by a committee, in which every description of plan might be fully considered. He had stated what the evils were: he now called upon them to devise a remedy; and thereby to place British sailors on a footing with every other class in the community. By various means, 1185 by holding out inducements to tradesmen and other landsmen to enter the navy, by granting greater remuneration and more extensive privileges to sailors, and by other devices of a similar kind, it appeared to him that there would be no difficulty in establishing a volunteer instead of a coerced marine. The expense of the present system might be most advantageously converted into one of the means of effecting so desirable an object. That expense was very considerable. He understood that during the late war the number of men employed in the impress service exceeded 3,000; and that the expense of that service amounted to between 300,000l. and 400,000l. per annum. Upon the grounds he had stated, he really thought no hon. gentleman, however disposed he might he to vote against the motion, could, in honour or justice, refuse to vote for such an inquiry as a committee might institute. He was most anxious that such a committee should be appointed; but at present he asked only that hon. gentlemen would pledge themselves to such a measure in the ensuing session. He would now conclude by moving,
"That this House, being well aware of the difficulty of manning the Navy in a time of war, and of the evils of forcible impressment of seamen for that purpose; and considering that a time of profound peace will best admit the fullest and fairest examination of that most important subject, will, early in the next session, take the subject into consideration, with the view to such regulations as may obviate the evils consistently with the efficiency of the Navy, and the best interests of the country."
said, he would second the motion, because he thought inquiry was a good thing; but he was by no means satisfied that such a committee as the hon. gentleman recommended would effect the purposes which he appeared to anticipate from it. For his own part, he was not sure that there was not much less disposition to desertion in the navy than in the merchant service. He did not believe it possible to do without the impressment of seamen; but being willing to see whether any thing, and what, could be done towards attaining the objects which the hon. gentleman had in view, he would support the resolution.
Sir G. Cockburn
said, he found great difficulty in following the hon. mover through the very extended range which 1186 he had taken in his speech: for though the hon. gentleman had stated, in the commencement, that he would confine himself to the question of impressment, he had digressed, at a considerable length, into the subject of the discipline of the navy. In his answer, it would be necessary for him to divide his observations into two parts; the first relating to impressment. Indeed, the subject of impressment had been almost got rid of by the very seconder of the motion: who had asserted his belief, that impressment could not be done away with. Now, in the case of an evil of this description (for an evil he admitted impressment to be) if it could not be got rid of, it was much better that no hopes should be improperly held out. He was satisfied, however, that he spoke the sentiments of every naval officer in that House, when he said, that they would be delighted, if it were possible to carry on the service without continuing the practice of impressment. Every body would feel how unpleasant it must be for officers to command men who had been brought by force to serve under them, and whom they were to take into battle. But still he must declare, that his own moral conviction was, that there was no possibility of maintaining our naval strength and superiority, without maintaining also the law of impressment. He called it a law, though he felt how unequal he was to argue a point of law to the House; but the hon. gentleman might have told them, that lord Mansfield, when a seaman who had been impressed was brought up before him by habeas corpus, finally disposed of the case by saying, that the man had not shown sufficiently that he was exempted by the statute, and had not proved any common law right against the impressment: and therefore he sent him back to the ship to which he belonged. Lord Kenyon, in a judgment on a similar case, had extended the liability to impressment to all persons exercising employments in. the seafaring line. Now, there was one other clear reason why, as he thought, this power of impressment could never be parted with—the country could never have a sufficient number of men to man both the navy and the merchant service, unless the same number of men were maintained in time of peace as in war. It was quite clear that, at the conclusion of a war, when 100,000 seamen were brought into our ports and paid off, there could be little or no employment for them, and they 1187 Would disperse in every direction. But, supposing they got employment of a different sort, what would be the consequence? He appealed to all his gallant naval friends who heard him, to say whether the trade of a seaman, like every other trade, did not require constant employment to keep him effective. Even if they were all kept in barracks together on shore, the effect would still be the same; not to mention the enormous expense that the country would be put to. The fact was, however, that our ports were full of merchantmen, manned (no thanks to the hon. member for Aberdeen) from the full war complement of our navy. What, then, would be the state of the country at the breaking out of a war? These men could all be got at, and made available: for our merchantmen were full of them. But, on the other hand, in war, our navy took charge of the merchantmen; and for a merchant ship, landsmen, old invalids, and ordinary seamen would suffice; therefore, though it could not be denied that the system was liable to objection, yet it must be allowed that it worked well; and that no difficulty was experienced, except that which arose from taking the men by force, in-stead of receiving them as volunteers. Unless this system had been ascertained to be tolerably effective, could any one suppose that, in the state in which Europe was, even only a year ago, our men of war could have remained quiet in their harbours? Before, however, volunteers could have been got, our naval force must have been enlarged to such an extent as would have enabled it to cope with the navy of France, at least. As it was, however, our ships remained quietly in port, without any additional expense to the country and yet a sufficient number of hands might at any time have been got out of our merchantmen in any corner of Europe. He did not know whether the hon. member for Aberdeen was aware, that seamen were impressed in time of war only, and not in time of peace. It was only in cases of emergency, as at the breaking out of a war that the power of impressment was exercised. The very preamble of the press-warrant recited this emergency. Now, the House would recollect that during the whole of the war we had a larger commerce than even during the peace, for we had in our own hands the commerce of the whole world. But the hon. gentleman had talked a great deal 1188 about the superior facilities of manning the American navy. Why, it must be obvious, that to man our navy, which had the whole of our vast commerce to take care of, and which was enlarged to a force of 800 vessels of war in service, was a much more difficult thing to do than to man half a dozen American frigates. Yet this increased difficulty of manning our ships was brought by, the hon. gentleman as an argument against the service generally. It was not to be denied, that occasionally during the war, such a difficulty did occur: but, after the peace the difficulty had gone all the other way. He had received a letter, for example very recently from a friend of his on board an East India-man. The letter stated, that the India-man had been lying at anchor for six weeks, unable to proceed because of the number of her hands who had deserted into a man of war. Indeed, the Admiralty—perhaps, going beyond what they were strictly authorised to do—had found it necessary, owing to repeated complaints of the same evil, to issue orders to commanders on foreign stations not to take on board hands who offered themselves out of merchantmen. Yet by statute, it was very certain that every man had a right to enter himself on board a man of war; and, by doing so, he cleared his articles with the master of the merchantman. Notwithstanding this, so numerous had been the representations he spoke of, that the Admiralty had been compelled to direct commanders not to take merchant seamen in cases where their quitting was likely to distress the merchantman. It had happened to himself at St. Helena, to be under the necessity of making a similar order, upon many applications from merchants and masters. Now, the hon. gentleman had unfairly imputed to me British navy this defect—that the seamen were very prone to desertion; and this disposition the hon. gentleman attributed to the effect of impressment. He had then contrasted the case of the American navy, contending, that because their seamen were volunteers, they were to be trusted, and never deserted. Now, it was but a very little while ago that he (sir G. C.) had received a letter from a commanding officer on the Mediterrean station, in which the officer wrote to this effect—"I am now lying alongside an American 74. My men go ashore by themselves in divisions every day, and return always when their leave is out. Her 1189 men never go ashore without a guard over them, to prevent them from deserting; and they are constantly applying to be taken on board us as seamen." He would contend that the condition of a British seaman now on board ship, was perhaps better than that of any man of his class. The state of the country did not allow men enough to man both the merchant service and the navy; it was therefore our policy to keep up in time of peace a sufficient number of seamen to man the ships of war in commission upon the peace establishment. At the present moment, however, the commerce of the Country had become so extended, that it was thought necessary to make some addition to the complement of men allotted for the squadron which was maintained by tin's government. Beyond the number required for the merchant service, and that peace squadron, it would be impracticable to keep up any considerable body; for the effect of attempting to do so, would only be, to drive them into foreign service. To create a greater body of seamen than there was an actual necessity for, was to do mishief instead of good. His own mind was quite made up to oppose the hon. gentleman's motion; but more particularly as it went to give a pledge for the next session, which would be tantamount to a declaration, that parliament was intending to do that which it felt it would be improper to induce any person to expect.—Me now came to the second division of this subject—!he discipline of the fleet. The hon. gentleman thought, that one of the greatest defects of the service was the power given to captains to punish wrong-doers. Here, again, he (sir G. C.) conceived the power to be absolutely necessary; admitting, that those ships wherein it was least exerted were generally the best managed and the best regulated. But, let the House picture to themselves the case of a few officers—say eight or ten—perhaps strangers to the ship and crew, coming on board a ship of the line with a crew of, 800 men. whom they were destined to command, and about to sail with to the most distant latitudes. It was known that the very dregs of the people, the worst criminals even, were not unfrequently sent on board ship; and, could it be doubted that over such a crew, and under such circumstances, it was necessary to invest the commander with a power of punishment, calculated to strike a momentary 1190 terror, and to repress the dangerous disturbances that would be so likely to arise at a vast distance from their home, among a multitude of men, removed from the more immediate contemplation of the laws and tribunals of their country? But, while he was for preserving this power, he was for using it as seldom as possible. The very knowledge that it was possessed, might often deter men who were ill-disposed from the commission of violence, or from other misconduct. The hon. gentleman had suggested, that there should be some alteration in the mode of paying ships on foreign stations; and, when sailors had been long abroad in them, it was certainly desirable that they should be furnished with a part of the monies due to them. But, it was not to be forgotten, that much had been already done towards this end. By the allotment system, the sailor could leave half his pay to be taken up by his family at home; While at sea he had his victuals as much as he wanted his, wine, his cloathing, and all necessaries; and when he was ill, he had every medical attention; so that he could only want money for a "frolic," as it was called, on shore; and a very natural wish on his part it was. But, it was not to be denied, that if it was an advantage, that the seaman could leave half his pay, it was equally agreeable to him, on his return from a long cruise, that he could receive the other half all at once: for it was well known that a sailor at all times liked to have a "whack" of money, when he came home wherewith to enjoy himself. Without holding these up, however, as temptations to a service which required nothing of the sort, he would maintain, from his own information and experience, that, generally speaking, service on board an English man of war was the most popular service in the world. The statements which the House had heard from the hon. gentleman were very much exaggerated. At this moment British seamen were disposed to be contented, particularly since they had received from the liberality of parliament that boon in the "long service pensions," which would do them more good, and effect for the service a far more permanent benefit, than all the hon. gentleman's speeches. Every sailor, after 14 years' service, unless he deserted, was now entitled to a pension for life: and after 20 years' service, not only to a considerably increased pension, but to demand his discharge, the Admi- 1191 ralty having steadily refused to entertain the very numerous applications that had been made by seamen who had deserted, and wished to avail themselves of those privileges, to get the "R" taken from their names in the books of the Navy office. He was confident, that in a very few years, the crime of desertion would be more scarce in the British navy than in any other public service. He should therefore decidedly oppose this motion, and hoped to be in a large majority against it.
§ Sir Isaac Coffin
said, he should not have spoken on this subject if the hon. mover had not called the navy the "white negroes." Now, the moment an impressed man was brought on board ship there was no difference between him and a volunteer, and more volunteers ran from ships of war than pressed men. He could enumerate a number of eminent persons in the navy who had been originally pressed men. There was old admiral Bowater, he was a white slave. There was admiral Mitchell, he was a white slave. There was sir T. Trowbridge, he was a white slave. There was captain Butterfield, who was impressed in 1793, and was a captain in 1798. There was captain Cook, one of the first of navigators he was another; and there were, he had no doubt, 20,000 of these white slaves. If the men were not otherwise to be had, it was necessary to press them; and if they had a good bellyfull of victuals, coats on their backs, and medicine when they were sick, they could not be called slaves.
said, that a man might have a good coat on his back, good victuals in his belly, and medicine when he was sick, and yet be the veriest slave that ever crawled. As to the expression which his hon. friend had applied to the navy, and which the gallant admiral had noticed, it was only intended to convey the assertion, that seamen were not in possession of the privileges of other Englishmen; an assertion which could not be otherwise than correct, while they were liable at any time to be taken from their family and friends, perhaps never more to be heard of. His hon. friend was not the first person who had found fault with the system of impressment. Hume had mentioned it as one of the three great anomalies of the English constitution—that an Englishman who was so free in the eye of the law, that the highest power in the kingdom could not arbitrarily imprison him for a moment, should be taken away 1192 for years. The gallant officer had confessed that the impressment was considered in the navy a great grievance; and had defended it solely on the ground of necessity. He had conversed with an officer of the navy, deservedly decorated with one of the orders, who said he was quite confident, that in the next war it would be impossible to carry press-warrants into execution—that from the increased knowledge which the people had of their rights, the resistance to press-gangs would be ten times more sanguinary than it had been. During the hot-press in time of war, respectable inhabitants of Westminster, who lived near the bank-side never stirred out except armed with knives, to resist the press-gangs. They knew the legal decisions on the subject; but all the decisions in the world would not prevent them from resisting this atrocious violation of natural right; for such he must call it, when a person was violently torn from his family and friends. As to the legal decisions on the subject, judge Foster was the first person who had ventured to say it was legal, though, in a qualified manner. Lord Mansfield had followed, and said, that impressment was so general a right that there must be a statute to exempt a man from its operation. This was a pretty specimen of the manner in which the liberties of the subject were treated by those who should be their defenders. The fact was, that there never was any thing like law on the subject. As to the necessity, there were but 140,000 men in the navy at the time of the greatest amount of our maritime force; and, of these, 30,000 were marines. So that in order to get 110,000 men, it was necessary, with a population of 17 or 18 millions, to resort to these violent and illegal measures, and to fill ships sometimes, it was said, out of gaols. Now, was not this a proof that some inquiry was necessary on the subject? The gallant officer had laid down two positions, which were extraordinary enough from a person so zealous in defending the character of the navy—first, that the navy could not be filled without force; secondly, that the character of British seamen was such, that it was absolutely necessary that they should be subjected to corporal punishment at the arbitrary pleasure of the commander. Now, the gallant admiral seemed to think that that House was not the fittest place for instituting such an inquiry. He seemed to imagine, that if an amendment 1193 were to be made in the present system of manning our navy, those who advocated such a measure must seek it elsewhere! If he had rightly heard the gallant admiral, he understood him to say, that parliament had done a great deal for the navy; that they had taken care to increase their pensions; and had, in fact, introduced measures more beneficial than any likely to be produced by his hon. friend's speeches. But if it was the duty of that House to take into consideration the pecuniary concerns of the navy, why should they not inquire as to whether that navy could not be manned without an infringement of the rights and privileges of British subjects. The mode of impressment into the British navy was a blot on our history, of which all writers had complained. And, whatever might be his opinion of that House, he felt it to be a place in which a man could lift his voice in defence of his country's honour and character, and in support of the rights and privileges of his fellow subjects. He was not vain enough to suppose, that any thing which fell from him could bring a single vote from the gallant admiral, or the gentlemen by whom he was surrounded; but he felt that by expressing his opinions there, he had an opportunity of forcing upon the attention of the country that which, if not expressed in parliament, could be no where expressed with effect. The hon. gentleman who seconded the motion, seemed to be of opinion, that inquiry was a good thing: but he went on to say, that he was not sure that the plans of the hon. mover could be agreed to. At all events, it was admitted by the hon. gentleman, that an inquiry was necessary; and that was all for which he and his friends contended. He was not aware that his hon. friend meant to enter into the question of punishment in the navy; but, in the event of the House agreeing to the appointment of a committee in the next session, he saw no reason why that part of the subject should not be entered into also. Was there any naval officer who would not own that the present system was a crying evil, and ought to be got rid of? And if so, how were they to get rid of it, but by a calm and dispassionate inquiry? The gallant admiral opposed the inquiry, on the ground that it would create discontent. It would do no such thing. It was the duty of that House to use every effort to rescue the people of England from this odious and disgraceful 1194 badge of slavery. He would ask, whether the navy were contented with the impress system; and whether they would not prefer an inquiry into a remedy of that abuse? The evil was acknowledged, and even its supporters were anxious for a remedy if it could be found.
defended the system at present pursued in the navy; at the same time admitting, that the impressment of sailors could only be justified on the ground of necessity. He implored the House to consider well before they deprived the navy of a power which was necessary to its greatness, and the removal of which might be a death-blow to its safety [hear, hear!].
§ Mr. W. Smith
said, that gentlemen opposite, while they admitted the evil, were determined to withhold the remedy. To him it appeared, that the discipline and interests of the navy were closely bound up with the present question. He would refer the House to what had been done for the army. The improvements made in that branch of our service were owing, not more to the exertions of the commander-in-chief, than to the eloquent addresses of the hon. baronet near him (sir F. Burdett). Not only the army, but the country generally were highly indebted to that hon. baronet for his unwearied exertions (hear, hear!]. He was decidedly in favour of his motion, as he felt that it could produce no harm, and was calculated to effect much good.
§ Sir G. Clerk
certainly thought the proposed inquiry would be most advantageously conducted by the Admiralty. The objections which the hon. member had started had not escaped the attention of that Board, and had been remedied as far as possible. With regard to the crying evil of pressing, he was ready to admit, that it could only be justified by necessity. But, how could they otherwise man a fleet in a case of emergency? It was objected to the impress system, that it dragged men to fight against their inclinations; but this objection would hold equally good against the most constitutional force of the country—the militia, into which every man, from eighteen to forty-five, was liable to be made to serve. As a proof, that men would not voluntarily relinquish their other employments and join the naval profession, he had only to state, that even now, in time of peace, there was not a sufficiency of men to fill up the merchant vessels, and to man the 1195 Email fleet maintained by the country. He could not see that any benefit would arise from the proposed committee.
§ Mr. Warre
observed, that hon. gentle-men on the other side, had treated this question throughout as one entirely to be decided by the opinions of professional men, and as one in the discussion of which other individuals were incapable of participating. With that view of the question he decidedly differed; and though he acknowledged the benefit of such opinions, he did not think that to them alone the decision of the question ought to be entrusted. There had been inquiries on subjects similar to the present, conducted by unprofessional men, without any disadvantage. He alluded to the board of naval inquiry and the board of naval revision, at both of which several civilians had sat as members. But, even supposing the opinion of those hon. gentlemen he had referred to to be correct, still that was not an answer to the present motion, as there were several members of the House who would willingly give their professional assistance in the investigation of the subject. It was notorious, that according to the present practice of impressment, individuals who had never been at sea before, were often seized and sent on board a vessel. He had heard of an instance of that kind, which, however ludicrous it might appear, was nevertheless true. A coachman had been seized by a press-gang, and in spite of his representations and remonstrances, had been sent on board the tender, where he remained all night, and on the following morning actually appeared before the officers in his coachman's habiliments. There was another circumstance to which he wished to call the attention of the House, and that was, that this system was peculiar to England, and to England alone. Other countries had, like England, been distinguished for commercial enterprize and naval glory; one especially had sent large fleets to sea; and yet, as far as he was acquainted with the subject, he believed he might safely assert, that Holland had never resorted to this mode of manning her fleets. He regretted that any hon. gentleman should have introduced American affidavits, affecting the character of a highly meritorious officer, for he believed those affidavits were, at one time, an article of very frequent manufacture. One of these affidavits had lately been published by Mr. Cobbett in a number 1196 of his Political Register, under an article entitled "Blue and Buff;" and he had no hesitation in saying, that it was accompanied by most unjustifiable and unfounded remarks, and that in fact the whole article was as vile and calumnious as had ever issued from the pen of a vile and calumnious author. He thought it was desirable to adopt some measure to diminish a summary, and he might add, arbitrary mode of proceeding, which could be productive of nothing but disadvantage. It was admitted on all hands, that the House were dealing with an acknowledged evil; and though some gentlemen seemed inclined to defend the measure on the ground of policy and expediency, still, as he deemed such defence would prove untenable on examination, he should support the present motion.
§ Sir E. Harvey
could testify, from his recollection of the first part of the American war, that the system of impressment was beneficial, in cases where it was necessary immediately to fill the complement of a king's ship. By that system having been then resorted to, many of the merchant vessels had been safely convoyed, which otherwise must have fallen into the hands of the enemy. He thought no probable good could arise from a committee of that House inquiring into a law of the land, which policy and long experience had fully justified.
§ Sir R. Wilson,
as a friend of the navy, could not refrain from expressing a few sentiments upon this question. It had been said by some hon. members, that impressed men made the best sailors. Now, he would put it to the consideration of any person, whether such a statement was not founded in mistake—whether it was at all probable, that men who had thus been forcibly seized, and compelled to enter into a king's ship would accommodate themselves to its discipline, and heartily engage in a service into which they had been unwillingly dragged? But, the House had to determine, whether, in consenting to continue this system, they were not consenting to that which was clearly a violation of right. He knew that, by a fundamental principle of the constitution, every man was bound, in case of necessity, to fight in defence of the country; but he knew of none which justified their being thus forcibly taken from their other occupations, and put on board a ship of war. It should be recollected, that the service of the navy was 1197 peculiarly dreadful, on account of the length of time which men might be compelled to serve on foreign stations. He knew of a vessel that had been stationed at St. Helena for nine years, which, when about to return, had received an order to resume her station for three years longer. The feelings of the men on the receipt of this order might be imagined, when he informed the House that they had actually said, that it would have been kinder to shoot them at the muzzle of their own guns. It had been represented, that such was the anxiety of sailors to enter into the royal navy at the present moment, that it had been found necessary to issue prohibitory orders to prevent them. If that were so now, surely no one would say that, in time of war, they would be actuated by a different feeling. They would not act differently from a fear of danger; and they should be incited by a hope of better compensation. He was of opinion that, considering the casualties of climate and of service, a man ought to be regularly paid, so as to have a complete power of regulating his own expenditure. If such was the case, there would not be so many instances of thoughtless extravagance.
§ The House divided: Ayes 38. Noes 108.
|List of the Minority.|
|Abercromby, hon. J.||Nugent, lord|
|Bernal, R.||Ord, W.|
|Blake, sir F.||Phillips, G.|
|Brougham, H.||Phillips, G. R.|
|Burdett, sir F.||Rice, T. S.|
|Bury, lord||Rickford, W.|
|Buxton, T. F.||Robertson, A.|
|Calthorpe, hon. F. G.||Robinson, sir G.|
|Evans, W.||Scarlett, J.|
|Gordon, R.||Smith, W.|
|Grattan, J.||Smith, John|
|Guise, sir W.||Stewart, W. (Tyrone)|
|Henywood, W. P.||Tierney, rt. hon. G.|
|Hutchinson, hon. H.||Warre, J. A.|
|Leader, W.||Webb, col.|
|Lennard, T. B.||Wilson, sir R.|
|Lushington, Dr.||Wood, ald.|
|Monck, J. B.||Hobhouse, J. C.|
|Newport, sir J.||Hume, Joseph|