HC Deb 09 June 1825 vol 13 cc1098-110
Mr. Hume

said, that having, in the course of the last session, called the attention of the House to the subject of Flogging in the Navy, he had intended to follow the same course, but in a different form, at an early part of the session, but was prevented by the pressure of business. Instead of a committee to consider the subject, his present intention was, to move for leave to bring in a bill to do away with the practical abuses he complained of. All he proposed was, to obtain permission to bring in a bill now, to have it printed, and to do nothing further with it till the next session. From the communications he had had with several persons in the navy, he was induced to think, that it was in the power of the government to provide a remedy for preventing impressment, and dragging men from their homes and families. The cause of the unwillingness to enter into the navy was the extensive power of arbitrary punishments. No man in the army was subjected to the punishment of flogging until his alleged crimes were decided upon by a court-martial. Why were seamen deprived of that legal protection? Again, how was it to be explained, that in large vessels of the navy, such as the Bulwark and the Dictator, there was no flogging for months together, while in comparatively small ships it was almost daily inflicted? The contrast was almost inexplicable. He believed that the only explanation was, that it depended upon the arbitrary caprice of the commanding officers, without any reference to the offences of the seamen. No such capricious power was vested in the officers of the army. By parity of reasoning, then, why was not the same legal security against the abuse of punishment afforded to the seamen of his majesty's fleet? He could not understand how government could reconcile the continuance of such a revolting practice, with their efforts to relieve from arbitrary flogging the slaves in the West-Indies. In their order in council of the 10th of March 1824, directions were given to prevent a slave in Trinidad from receiving more than twenty-five lashes, and such lashes were not to be inflicted until twenty-four hours after the commission of the alleged offence. Were not our seamen worthy of being placed on an equal footing with the slaves of the West-India colonies? The hon. member here read a statement referring to the arbitrary infliction of flogging, beginning from a period of twenty years past, down to the last year. It took place, in one instance, where a marine received four dozen lashes by the order of his commanding officer, captain Cockburn, merely for his musket missing fire; and in a second instance, where an old seaman, of thirty-five years standing, received the same number of strokes, for declaring that he never witnessed so barefaced an act of cruelty as flogging the marine for such an offence. The punishment of starting was frequent; and he found that when a captain of a ship was brought to a court-martial for a violation of the orders on that point, which violation was established by evidence, the only punishment inflicted on that officer was an admonition, and a command to be more circumspect in future. Was it too much, then, to call for the interposition of parliament, to put an end to such an improper practice? In bringing in a bill, it would be his object to provide, by strict enactments, against its recurrence. It would be said, how was it, if all these abuses existed, that the naval officers in that House did not take the question up? The answer was easy. Some, from early impressions, were prejudiced in favour of such a mode of discipline; while others seeing the view the lords of the admiralty took of the question, dared not interfere. It was one of his objects, to limit the services of seamen, on the principle acted upon by the late Mr. Windham towards the army—to seven or ten years—protecting the seamen, who served so long from future impressment. Indeed, that provision, under his system, would be unnecessary; as impressment itself could then be dispensed with. With regard to the necessity of impressment, he would ask the gallant admiral opposite. Where the necessity existed, when he found no difficulty by bounties, and ordinary recruiting, to obtain the necessary supply of mariners? The rate of wages paid to the navy was not commensurate with the wages given to the other branches of the service. How was it to be expected, that when the pay of the merchant service was 3l. 10s., and that of the navy 34s. a-month, seamen would be induced to enter our ships of war voluntarily? If small pensions were given, after a certain number of years' service, to our seamen to sustain them under the afflictions of premature old age, too frequently the result of a life of severe toil, it would operate as a great inducement. If so small sums as 7l. or 10l. annually were held out as a boon, it would be productive of the most beneficial effects. Even the trifling grants of the Trinity-house, from five to six shillings a-month, were received by that class of men with gratitude and satisfaction. He would give them small pensions proportionate to the period of service, and alter the present system of distributing prize-money. Was it right that a captain of a ship should receive as much prize-money as all the crew together? The officers of the navy ought not to consider prize-money as an object, but should give it up to the men. He would propose that six-eighths of the prize-money should be allotted to the men, and two-eighths to the officers. The officers of the Indian army, when under the marquis of Hastings, had set a noble example in that respect, by giving up their prize-money to the men. He was quite satisfied, that by this and other means, such a change might be produced in the feelings of seamen towards the naval service, that volunteers might be obtained whenever they were required. Still, however, as an emergency might arise, he would provide against it, by having a register of seamen on the plan which was begun 150 years ago, but which was not prosecuted as it ought to have been. He would accompany that plan with a provision, that no seaman should be excused from the service of his country in the navy; just as no landsman was now excused from the service of his country in the army, he being liable to be drawn as a militia man, and to serve five years. He would now move, "that leave be given to bring in a bill to amend the 22nd of Geo. 2.ch. 33, and to make provision for the encouragement of Seamen, and for the better manning of his Majesty's fleet."

Sir F. Burdett

seconded the motion.

Sir G. Cockburn

thought he had some reason to complain of the hon. gentleman's want of courtesy, in not apprizing him that it was his intention to introduce into this great national question a personal charge against himself; in which case he would have been prepared to rebut it. He really could not recollect all the circumstances that occurred to him five-and-twenty years ago, but he remembered that it was about that time that a reform was beginning to take place in the discipline of the navy. Previous to that period, it was the practice for the boatswains and boatswains' mates to carry sticks, for the purpose of immediately starting any of the men. The only point that he recollected, with reference to the subject, was, that he had given instructions that that practice should be discontinued on board the ship which he commanded, and that a lieutenant who had disobeyed those instruc- tions, was compelled to quit the navy in consequence. If the hon. gentleman would bring forward any specific charge he would meet it. All he could say was, that he had never ordered any punishment except when he thought it absolutely necessary. The hon. gentleman asserted, that one reason for his bill was, that, at present, seamen were so ill treated in the navy, that they disliked the service. Some of the facts stated by the hon. gentleman led, however, to a very different conclusion. If, while merchantmen give 3l. 10s. a-month, sailors could be found willing to enter the king's service for 34s. a-month, it was a proof that that service was not distasteful to them. But the hon. gentleman in proposed a system of pensions to induce men to enter early into the navy. Pensions were granted at present. If a sailor, after 7 years' service (or before in some cases), was disabled by debility or accident, he received a pension. After a service of 14 years, that pension was increased; and should he have served 21 years, and for any considerable part of that time with so much credit as to be rated as a petty officer, he became entitled to a pension of 45l. a-year. The hon. member had entered into a comparison of the army with the navy in this respect. The fact was, that the sailors were better off than the soldiers. The army enlisted for life; the navy never did. At the end of a certain service the sailors were paid off; and it was no great proof of the dislike of the sailors to the service, that the men who were paid off; were generally the first to enter again. So unfounded was this alleged dislike to the service, that the owners of merchantmen in all parts of the world, had written to the Admiralty, to beg that they would restrain the officers of the navy from receiving their men; and in consequence of those applications the Admiralty had written to the officers on the several stations, not to receive men from the merchantmen to an extent that might distress them. In this last point they went further than they were required to do by law; for there was a statute which annulled all the engagements of a sailor with a merchant vessel on his entering on board a king's ship. The hon. gentleman also wished to take from the officers of the navy the power of punishing the men without a court-martial, and in that point to assimilate the navy to the army But, the hon. gentleman forgot that when the army was in the field, the commanding officer was invested with the power of arbitrary punishment; of punishment without any previous trial by a court-martial. Now, our ships were always in motion. A man of-war frequently went round the world by herself. In such cases it would be impossible to have a court-martial; and a man who behaved ill might remain a prisoner for three years, before he could be tried. Of this he was sure, that should the House take away this power from the officers, they would go far to destroy the discipline of the navy. The Admiralty had done every thing they could to prevent the improper exercise of that power. It was one thing to possess a power, and another to make an improper use of it. The Admiralty never sanctioned an excess of punishment; but always signified their approbation of those officers who managed their ships without punishments. These two considerations united had produced such an effect, that as many blank returns were now received, as returns stating the infliction of any punishment. This was a great advance. So necessary, however, was the power of inflicting punishment felt to be, even in the merchant service, that in the papers of that very day there was the report of a trial, in which one of the crew of a merchantman had brought an action against his captain for punishing him; but in which the judge had stated, that he could have no doubt that every captain of a merchant-vessel had a right to inflict corporal punishment on such of his crew as deserved it. Would the House take from the navy the power that was considered indispensable even to the merchant service? It was a matter of vital importance; for he was convinced, that to withdraw the power in question would be to shake the very foundations of our navy. With respect to impressment, there could be no doubt that it was desirable to do without the practice as much as possible; but in some cases it was inevitable. It was true, that all our seamen who had pensions were liable to be called upon in an emergency. But the business of a seaman was like any other business. Dexterity in it required that the hand should always be kept in. The moment a declaration of war took place, it was desirable that we should have the means of, sending out a fleet; and to effect this, it became necessary to lay hands on every seaman that could be found. It was quite impossible to put an end to the practice of impressment; unless the House would allow such a fleet to be maintained during peace as would enable us to go to war at any moment without disadvantage. It was impossible, that we could have, at a moment's notice, forty or fifty thousand men, without taking them from the merchant service. After correcting an error into which the hon. member had fallen, with respect to the thirty-sixth article of war, which allowed punishment by courts martial, but not by courts martial "only," as the hon. member supposed, he (sir G. Cockburn) concluded by expressing his hope that the House would show, by a majority, that they were satisfied with the way in which the navy was now managed, and did not think the proposed bill necessary.

Sir I. Coffin

opposed the motion from a conviction of its impolicy. He was not disposed to attach much credit to the hon. gentleman's opinion on maritime affairs, and would recommend him to remember, the old saying "Ne sutor ultra crepidam."

Mr. Robertson

said, that the want of discipline in the naval service more often arose from a want of qualification in the officers, than from misconduct in the men. He had been in a ship of the worst possible equipment as to crew; but in which the men had been kept in subordination without any corporal punishment.

Sir Joseph Yorke

protested, that the punishment inflicted upon seamen, arose solely from the necessities of the service, and that it was administered cautiously and conscientiously, and not according to passion and caprice. Punishment might be more formally inflicted by sentences of the courts of law, and the regular tribunals; but it was impossible it could be inflicted with more deliberation and decorum than it was upon the quarter deck of a man of war. The charges of cruelty and of caprice, amounted to an attack upon a highly-meritorious and gallant class of individuals, the officers of the navy. Were naval officers less sensible than other men of the influence of reason and humanity? And how but upon the notion of their insensibility could such a question as this be supported? As to the crews, he did not deny but some two-thirds were good: of the remainder he would from his professional experience declare, that so far from moral lectures about personal character operating upon them, they might as well talk to pigs. Some of them were as insensible as brutes, and bore their floggings accordingly; indeed, they were classed as formerly the hard drinkers were—there were the five-dozen men, as there had been the five-bottle men. His firm persuasion was, that the existing discipline, or at least the reserved power of inflicting it, could not be abrogated.

Sir F. Burdett

said, that the subject was one of a highly serious nature, involving matters of great national importance. However brilliant the faculty of wit might be which any member possessed, it should not be displayed on so grave an occasion. To say the least, there was bad taste in being facetious upon questions which affected the sufferings of others. The best defence which could be set up for such jocularity was, that the speaker, like the gallant admiral who had just sat down, had been carried away by the flow of animal spirits, Now, as he understood the question, his hon. friend merely proposed to do that which had been the declared opinion of many able and intelligent men. The alterations which he proposed had been over and over again recommended, by captains, commanders, and other experienced persons; nor had one single statement of his hon. friend received the slightest answer. His hon. friend contended that there was no necessity to engage force on the side of government to man the fleets, if they would only proceed by the known motives of human conduct; namely, by holding out sufficient inducements for those who were to be invited to encounter the perils which hung upon the lives of those devoted to the maritime defence of the country. What was there to which any man could seriously object in this? And on what a mis-timed occasion did the argument of public economy, the only one which could be rationally opposed to it, occur? The ministers were pompous in their description of our growing resources and increasing mercantile prosperity. To hear them talk, one might be led to suppose that the Treasury was overflowing with wealth, and that the difficulty was in finding proper objects on whom to bestow it. When the House reflected upon what the government had thought proper to do, with respect to augmenting the salaries of the judges, and of another high personage; when they reflected that these augmentations were only the precursors of similar impositions upon the public, he was at a loss to conceive how they would support that government in their adherence to a system of impressment and of corporal punishment, merely to effect a result which they might effect by the more justifiable means of good conduct in the government of ships, and by paying the proper price of labour in the market of seamen's wages. At a time like the present, it very ill became that House to say, that the country could not afford the means of inducing men to enter the naval service by rewarding them according to the market price of their labour; but Out the government were obliged to seize upon the services of the most important class of the community, and to compel them to a course of duty at a less rate of remuneration than that which they could obtain from private employers. At a time of profound peace like the present, was it for the House to say to those who had performed the most arduous and perilous services for the country, that they were not to enjoy the common rights of humanity; that they were still to be dragged from their families, and compelled to serve by terror and punishment, when they might, like other servants of the public, be tempted to perform their duties by proper remuneration? What, then, did his hon. friend propose? He merely said, "Let me, after well considering the subject, show how you may get rid of all these evils, which every one of you must equally with myself deplore." There was nothing asked but the liberty of bringing the proposition before the House for their adoption or rejection. The gallant admiral had treated his hon. friend as if he was incapable of comprehending these questions of practice—as if he could not be supposed equal to an opinion upon matters of fact. His hon. friend had proved too often his power in that way, to make a formal justification necessary. Ministers knew, and so did the gallant admiral, that the head of his hon. friend was full of very useful facts; for he must have surprised each of them in their turn with the knowledge which he evinced of matters connected with their several departments. His hon. friend proposed to take from the officers of the navy the dangerous powers of coercion which they now held. Was it to be endured that a beardless boy, armed with a little authority, should have the power of ordering up a veteran seaman, who had served his country long and faithfully, and for some, trivial offence subject him to the most dreadful of all punishments. The hon. baronet said, that the 36th article of war was the only one acted upon; and that almost all the others ended with the word "death": but flogging, to a gallant and proud-spirited seaman, was ten thousand times worse than death; and nothing could more effectually show the necessity of some alteration in the system, than the fact, that thirty-five of the articles were so severe that they could seldom be acted upon. His hon. friend did not propose to do away with all punishment, he only wished that the system should be gradually ameliorated; that some control should be exerted over the passions of the officers; that some interval should take place between the offence and the trial, that there might be time for reflection; in short, he wished only that something like a military court-martial should be adopted, and that sailors should not be subject to the most degrading punishment at the whim and caprice of one individual. He proposed only a plan in a general way; and to this he did not see how ministers could object. An officer, who had long commanded an Indian ship, had publicly stated, that he had never found it necessary to resort to flogging. By suitable pay, and by holding out inducements to good conduct, he had always been able to keep his crew in the best order. As to the plea of the navy having a portion of wretches among them, whose principles and conduct could not be subdued without the roughest discipline, the answer was plain—they ought not to let such persons into the navy, any more than they were allowed to be in the army. For what was the effect of it but to degrade the honest, honourable, gallant men of our fleets to the low and brutalizing condition of discharged felons? God forbid that he should have any other view than that of giving equal advantages to the officers: the country could not find means to reward them in a way equal to their actions. The question was, whether the seamen of England ought not to be induced to enter the national service by a prospect of advantage; whether their situation, whilst serving, ought not to be made comfortable; and whether the means ought not to be afforded them of passing their old age in ease and security? The nation was quite rich enough, and it was bad economy to do otherwise. He had seen a treatise upon this subject, which clearly demonstrated to him that such a system would cost the country less in pounds, shillings, and pence, than the present grievous and oppressive system. In fact, they were doing nothing more or less than continuing in this country and upon its native inhabitants, that system of slavery from which they seemed so anxious to relieve the natives of Africa. This was, in itself, so preposterous, that he thought it needless to offer a word more upon this part of the subject. He maintained that the motion was calculated to produce a great deal of good, whether acceded to or rejected. It was now admitted that formerly there did take place in the navy, under pretext of discipline, acts of a most unjustifiable nature. He gave the Admiralty full credit for the steps which they had taken in the line of improvement; but it seemed to be with government as with certain other great philosophers, they required flappers to awaken them to the performance of their duties. Parliament might get a little good out of them, but they must not forget the flapper. Such was his opinion of the justice and fairness of the motion, that he did not imagine it would have been necessary to offer more than a single observation upon it. The gallant admiral opposite had, however, thrown so much of his own fancies into the subject, that the truth was, in a great degree, obscured. Nothing was stated which went to disprove that the prize-money as well as the wages of the seamen ought to be increased. He did not wish to deprive the officers of their share of pay and prize money; on the contrary, he would continue both to them to their fullest extent. Yet it should be recollected, that the officers had the field of honour as well as of promotion open to them, while the brave but humble seamen had but little chance of succeeding in the one, and hardly any of being noticed in the other. His hon. friend had complained of the looseness with which the 36 articles of war had been worded, and had observed that 35 of them carried with them the punishment of death. The gallant admiral on the other side argued thus: "true it is, that capital punishment is so awarded in 35 of the articles of war, and that they are not acted upon is a proof of our humanity, for death, death, death, is to be found in every one of them, and therefore you may trust to us in other cases." To this his answer was, that he would not unnecessarily trust such a power to any individuals. And he would say to that gallant officer and his friends near him: "If you will not have the laws of Solon, we will not have the laws of Draco, which are so bloody and cruel that we cannot act upon them, and we require in their stead some system guided by reason and justice, and which shall be sufficient to meet the exigencies of the case in question.

Sir George Clerk

thought, that the hon. mover ought to have laid before the House some specific plan of amendment in our naval system, before he ventured to propose that which had been truly designated as a question which involved the whole interests of the navy. This he had not done, and therefore he should oppose the motion. The hon. baronet proceeded to point out the mistakes made by the hon. mover, with respect to the articles of war, and contended that even if the whole act of Geo. 2nd were repealed, still the captain would, by the common law possess the power of flogging his men, for the preservation of discipline. He next adverted to the inconvenience of holding a court-martial in a ship upon every offence of disobedience, drunkenness, or petty theft, committed by the sailors, and observed, that if such a system were established, the number and severity of the punishments would be much increased. At present, the captain inflicted punishment upon his own responsibility, and subject to the opinions of the board of Admiralty, who inspected the monthly returns with great caution, But, let the punishment be once inflicted by court-martial, and the case would be altered. The captain would not be responsible, and as the offences complained of were almost always against the officers on duty, and not against the captain himself, the officers would take care to punish the offenders in every case. It was proposed to delay punishment. It was at present delayed more than twenty-four hours after the commission of the offence" and then it was attended with the greatest solemnity; the ship's company were called up, the articles of war were read, and the punishment was then publicly inflicted. It was said by the hon. baronet that beardless boys had the power of inflicting such punishment. He could only assure him that no such case had come to the knowledge of the Admiralty, and that if it had it would have been visited with deserved severity. He had never heard any man assert that corporal punishment in the navy could be safely abolished; and if so, to whom could the infliction of that punishment be so safely intrusted, as to the captain, who acted upon his responsibility, and under the immediate eye of the Admiralty? Confinement was recommended in preference to punishment within a proper time; but even this would conduce to the injury of the health of the prisoner, and deprive the vessel of the benefit of his services. Again, it was said, that the seamen in king's ships, might be paid as merchant seamen were. To this he would answer, that if the wages given in a man of war were to be increased from 34s. to 40s. per month still the merchant service would have the preference, as the men in merchant ships would enjoy a greater degree of liberty than the discipline of our navy could possibly allow. It had been observed, that returns from the " Bulwark" and other ships, shewing that no corporal punishments had taken place in them for some time, was an argument in favour of the abolition of corporal punishments altogether; but, as well might it be argued, that because there was no capital offence to be tried at the assizes in any single county, therefore all capital punishments should be abolished. With respect to the retired allowances to seamen, the hon. member appeared equally at fault. The fact was, that after twenty-one years, whether worn out, or disabled, or not, a man was entitled to a retired pension of 1s. 6d. per day; and if a petty officer, his allowance would amount to 45l. a-year. In answer to the observations about the prize money, he begged hon. members to consider the risk at which a captain of a ship made a prize. Should that prize not be allowed, he and his family might be ruined, He hoped that the House would not, upon arguments such as those advanced by the hon. mover, interfere with a system under which our fleets had achieved such immortal victories.

Sir F. Ommaney

said, that the hon. mover had persuaded the House to repeal the combination laws, and now every town in the kingdom swarmed with insubordinate workmen standing out against their employers. He complained of the injustice done to all the gallant officers of the navy by this motion. As to prize money and wages, it was quite plain that the seamen and petty officers had more by half than they could spend. At a sea-port, half the houses were engaged in selling gin and rum to the sailors.

Mr. Hume

in reply, observed, that the very able speech of the hon. baronet (sir F. Burdett) left him scarcely any thing to add. He, however, wished to observe, that if allowed to bring in his bill, he would lay before the House such documents as would make a case to satisfy those who opposed him upon this occasion.

Mr. Sykes

bore testimony to the evils occasioned by impressment. Murders, assaults, and other offences, were frequently caused by it. A workman in his employ had left his axe at a distance, and two of his sons having played with it, the one cut off two fingers from the right hand of the other. The father was greatly grieved, but at length he consoled himself by the reflection, that the boy, when grown up, could not be impressed into the navy.

The House divided: For the motion 23; Against it 45; Majority 22.

Allen, J. A. Hutchinson, C. H.
Bernal, R. James, W.
Blake, sir F. Lushington, Dr.
Burdett, sir F. Monck, J. B.
Cole, sir C. Newport, sir John
Evans, Wm. Palmer, F.
Forbes, sir C. Rice, S.
Glenorchy, lord Robertson, A.
Graham, sir S. Warre, J. A.
Grattan, J. Western, C. C.
Grenfell, P. TELLERS.
Hobhouse, J. C. Hume, J.
Hurst, Rt. Sykes, D.