HC Deb 08 July 1835 vol 29 cc343-9

On the Motion of Mr. Charles Wood, the House resolved itself into a Committee on the Seamen Enlistment Bill.

Mr. C. Wood

then rose and said, this Bill had been a long time before the House, and had lately been transferred into the hands of the Government by the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Cumberland (Sir J. Graham). The object of the measure was to improve the condition of seamen employed in his Majesty's navy, and to render the service more agreeable to them than it was at present. Upon the subject of impressment he would merely say, that, having given the greatest attention to it, he did not entertain the slightest doubt of its legality, and he believed that it was necessary to retain some power of compulsory service, as indeed was admitted by almost every hon. member who had taken part in the discussion. The hon. Member for Sheffield (Mr. Buckingham) proposed a system of registration, as a means of manning the navy in cases of emergency. Upon the possibility of establishing such a system, he must, at present, decline giving an opinion; all he could say was, that the present Board of Admiralty would give their best attention to the subject, with the view of ascertaining whether it were in their power to establish such a system with benefit to the country. He was perfectly aware that in a Bill which had passed the House, a system of registration was established; upon that he would only say, that he very much doubted whether that system had worked well; one thing was quite evident, that on whatever system of registration the balloting for seamen was to be conducted, some time must elapse ere it could be introduced. He said thus much upon the subject of registration, because it was one which had occasioned great discussion in the House: he would only further say, that he would give all his attention to it, in hopes of putting a final settlement to the question. He held, then, the most distinct opinion, that the retaining, in some way or other, the power of compulsory service was absolutely necessary. No man would be more eager than himself to adopt any legislation that would render it unnecessary.; and he would also affirm, that it must never again be used, save in emergency. Though, therefore, it would be improper to give up the power of Impressment altogether, it was with the view of making the King's service as palatable as possible, that the Bill before the Committee was introduced. In looking back upon the suggestions that had been made as to the measure introduced by the right hon. Baronet, it must be a great satisfaction to the Committee to be informed, that there was not one which, to a certain extent, had not been attended to. The propositions with regard to encouraging the Merchant Service had been carried into effect by the Bill which had passed the House. With regard, also, to corporeal punishments, the strictest orders had been issued upon the subject, and the strictest supervision was exercised over the officers. With regard to any other comforts, a sick mess had been established, and an increased allowance of food begun. It had been regularly established as a rule, that throughout the coasts, no man was to be admitted into the Coast Guard Service who had not been paid off with a high character from the King's ship; and on entering the service he received additional pay, to a very considerable amount, which, of' course, was a great reward to the well-behaved seamen. These were measures which had been brought in during the last two years. The next subject of encouragement was the furnishing the seamen with adequate pay; for it was certainly, he agreed with hon. Members, unjust to make them serve for lower wages in the King's ships than they could procure in the Merchant Service; and he (Mr. Wood) believed that, considering the other advantages attaching to the Service, the pay of the King's ship was equal to that of a Merchantman. But he also believed, from all the information he had received from persons best competent to judge of the subject, that the great grievance complained of after impressment was, the unlimited service to which the seamen were exposed during war—the period was formerly twenty-one years. Upon that it was unnecessary for him to enlarge; it was well known to be the great cause of mutiny, from the time of the mutiny at the Nore downwards. That grievance the Bill remedied by the first Clause, which enacted that, unless by special agreement, the term of service should be five years, and that, at the end of that term the seaman shall be entitled to his discharge. A further complaint was, that the seamen were never certain when they should get off and go home to their families, inasmuch as they were liable, the moment they were discharged from any ship, to be pressed again into another. That complaint was, unfortunately, but too well founded; and there were instances of men, on returning from ten years' service in the East Indies, having been immediately sent out again. Under such circumstances, it was not unnatural that there should exist a strong desire, on the part of the seamen serving in the Navy, to desert, in order to guard against which it had generally been the practice not to allow them to put foot ashore. It was provided by the Bill, that, after the expiration of the five years' service, seamen should enjoy a protection against impressment for two years. In the event of a seaman's period of service expiring on a foreign station, the commander on that station would be at liberty to retain him in service six months longer, but in that case he would be entitled to one-fourth additional pay. The remaining Clauses were merely matter of detail. The improvements of the Bill were so obvious that he did not think it necessary to dwell upon them at greater length. It left the power of Impressment as it at present existed, dependent on the prerogative of the Crown; it remedied the great evils complained of by the seamen in the King's Service, viz., the unlimited term of service, and the uncertainty of returning home; and being perfectly willing to explain, if necessary, any further details, he begged leave to submit the Bill to the consideration of the Committee.

Mr. Buckingham

said, that he should trouble the House with but few observations; and these would be chiefly expressions of congratulations and of praise. Those hon. Members who knew the deep interest which he had taken in the Question of manning his Majesty's navy without recourse to impressment, and the Motions which he had brought before the House in the two preceding Sessions on this subject, would readily believe him, when he said that he had watched the progress of this Bill with intense anxiety. When it was first introduced into the House by the right hon. Baronet, the Member for Cumberland, and late first Lord of the Admiralty, (Sir James Graham) it contained so much that was objectionable that he felt it his duty to state his determination to oppose it. In its original shape, it was a Bill professing to offer new inducements to voluntary enlistments, but under that title, really enacting impressment, and giving to that revolting practice all the sanction of a statutory power, which it never yet had, and which he hoped it never would possess. Even when the Bill was transferred from the hands of the right hon. Baronet to the present Government, he (Mr. Buckingham) felt it his duty to declare that unless purged of these defects, he should still feel bound to give it his decided opposition, whether moved by the Government or by any private individual; because he never would for a moment consent to such an enactment as would give to impressment a statutory recognition as a part of the law of the land. Since the Bill, however, had been in the hands of the present Government, he was bound to say, and it gave him great pleasure to bear this testimony, that they had evinced the most anxious desire to meet the wishes of himself and other hon. Members who cooperated with him in maintaining the just rights of the British seamen. In this spirit of generous and liberal concession, all those parts of the original Bill which went to enact impressment as a lawful power, and give to it the force of statutory authority, were expunged, to such an extent that the Bill did not now contain more than one half of the clauses which were embodied in it; and indeed it was now, what it had never been before, a Bill of encouragements, bounties, protections, and inducements, corresponding to its preamble and its title as a Bill to encourage the volun- tary enlistment of seamen for his Majesty's Navy; and which, he firmly believed, would if acted upon in the spirit as well as the letter, render impressment wholly unnecessary in any conceivable case, for the purpose of obtaining the requisite supply of men. The hon. Gentleman, the present Secretary of the Admiralty, had thought it his duty to state to the House that though the Government had consented to expunge all those clauses which either authorized or warranted impressment, he himself still entertained the opinion that impressment was a legal power vested in the Crown, as a prerogative to be used only in cases of the greatest emergency, and that though he was most anxious to do every thing which should render it unnecessary ever to have recourse to that power, yet he was unwilling to part with that power for cases of great emergency, until some tried and efficient substitute should be found for it. If these were the convictions of the hon. Gentleman—and he (Mr. Buckingham) saw no reason whatever to doubt their sincerity—then it must be clear to the House, that the concessions which he had made in expunging every part of the Bill which either authorized, or warranted, or recognized impressment, were the more valuable and the more deserving of praise. In the same spirit of frankness, however, he (Mr. Buckingham) felt bound to state to the House his unaltered conviction that impressment was as illegal as it was cruel; and that its injustice was not more manifest than its utter inefficiency to produce the end desired was capable of being made manifest. As, however, the Bill before the House did not contain even the word impressment, and made no allusion whatever to the practice, (though the former Bill began with declaring it to be the law of the land, and conducive to the honour and welfare of the country, which he most strenuously denied), so he thought it quite unnecessary to raise that question for debate at the present moment. He was willing to meet the Government in the same fair and conciliatory spirit, in which it had met him: and to let the prerogative rest, for the present at least, as a dead letter, in order to see how the system of bounties, inducements, and rewards would operate; and in order to pave the way for that system of perfect registration, and ballot, or service by rotation, which might be engrafted upon it, to be had recourse to when volun- tary enlistment might fail; and to the consideration of which the Government had now publicly pledged themselves to devote their attention during the recess. He was convinced, indeed, that impressment never could be resorted to again, either afloat or on shore, without being resisted by seamen and landsmen alike; and therefore it was that he hailed as a national advantage every step taken towards providing other and better means of manning the fleet. The Bill before the House was, he firmly believed, a sincere and honest attempt to provide such means. He was, therefore, perfectly willing to give it a fair trial; and, indeed, he should consider himself a most unreasonable person if he were not satisfied with this. But though he gave this measure of relief and reward to the seamen his most cordial and unqualified praise, and should rejoice as much as any man to see it passed into a law, he would venture at the same time, in the most friendly spirit, to urge on the Government the importance of following out their declared intentions, by devoting themselves during the recess, to the consideration of the system of registration and ballot, so that the period of peace might be advantageously occupied in preparing a system that should make us ready to meet war, if that, calamity should ever again occur, so that impressment might never more be heard of, except as among the records of the history of the past.

Mr. Aaron Chapman

said, that he had seldom been more gratified than by hearing the provisions of the Bill described. The permission to return home would reconcile men to the service. Impressment might be necessary on the sudden breaking out of hostilities; but the encouragement which this Bill held out to sailors would induce them to come forward voluntarily and enrol themselves in the defence of their country.

Captain Alsager

said, that having been engaged in the merchant service for thirty years of his life, he might presume to say that he knew something of the feelings of British sailors, and he begged to express their gratitude for the benefits which the. Bill held out to them. At the same time he could not but regret that the power of impressment had not been entirely abolished. He had known instances in which that power had been harshly exercised. Upon occasion when he entered the Chan- nel, homeward bound, after a long voyage, he was boarded by a king's ship, who took from him four men. When off the Lizard another man-of-war boarded him and took away four more men; and when off Beechy-road he was boarded for the third time by a king's ship, who took from him every man capable of serving in the navy, and the captain, on leaving him, advised him (as we understood) to make the best of his way into port. Thus was he left with a crew consisting of only a few men and some boys to conduct into port a vessel worth 150,000l. It would be most desirable to introduce, if possible, some provision into the Bill to prevent the recurrence of such a proceeding as that which he had described.

Captain Berkeley

said that if any officer on board his Majesty's navy had acted in the manner described by the hon. Member, he was liable to be tried by a Court-martial, as well as to an action from the owners of the merchant vessel. He did not believe that such a circumstance as that stated was ever known.

Captain Alsager

I rise to order. The circumstance happened to myself. The commander of the king's ship was Captain Page, and his vessel the Caroline. I was coming from the East Indies.

Captain Berkeley

said, he did not mean to impugn the veracity of the hon. Member, but merely to deny that such proceedings were common on the part of naval officers.

Sir Thomas Troubridge

concurred in what had fallen from the hon. Member who had spoken last, and added that it was not the practice for captains in the command of his Majesty's ships of war to distress merchant ships, and he was satisfied that the case related by the hon. Member for Surrey (Captain Alsager) must have occurred under very peculiar circumstances.

Clauses were agreed to, and the House resumed.