HC Deb 17 March 1835 vol 26 cc1120-32
Sir James Graham

rose, pursuant to the notice he had given, to move for leave to bring in a "Bill to amend and consolidate the laws relating to the merchant seamen of the united kingdom, and for forming and maintaining a register of all the men engaged in that service." Also, for a "Bill for the encouragement of the voluntary enlistment of seamen; and to make regulations for more effectually manning his Majesty's navy." The right hon. Baronet said, that he should be inexcusable if, after the length of time during which the House had been occupied in the discussion of an important measure that evening, he should trouble them at any great length. He apprehended that no opposition would be made to the Motions of which he had given notice; and he would, therefore, detain the House as shortly as possible. He would make only one observation before he proceeded to the details of his measures, which was, that when he considered the difficulties of the subject with which he had to deal, he thought some excuse was necessary for his undertaking it, especially when he brought it forward without the adventitious aid of official authority, and even without knowing whether it would be supported or not; but, nevertheless, having stated to the hon. Member for Sheffield, on the Motion which that hon. Member brought forward on the subject of impressment, that he had a Bill in preparation which would tend to diminish the necessity of resorting to that means of manning his Majesty's navy, he felt it his duty, even as a private individual, to bring the subject before the House. The first Bill for which he should move was, to amend and consolidate the laws relating to merchant seamen. In substance and detail this Bill was similar to that which he had introduced last Session. That Bill went through its first and second stages, and to the Committee, but went no further. This first Bill was connected with the manning of his Majesty's navy; for as the merchant service of the country was the nursery from which the King's navy was to be supplied, it was necessary to protect merchant seamen; otherwise the numbers to which the State would look in time of necessity would be greatly reduced. This Bill, therefore, was essentially necessary for the protection of British sailors in the commercial navy. It would regulate the agreements made by sailors with their employers. When he had the honour of directing the administration of the Admiralty during the last year, he had reason to believe, that the merchant seamen often suffered very severely from the absence of any written agreements with their owners or masters; and he had, therefore, introduced a clause into this Bill, rendering it compulsory on masters and owners, that all seamen employed in the foreign or the coasting trade should serve only under a written engagement. Such was formerly the practice in the merchant service, and there were laws for the regulation of this matter, which time had rendered inoperative or obsolete. Having thus protected the seamen in their rights under these written agreements, the next thing he had done was to protect the master of the vessel from the breach of contract by the seamen; and he had, at the same time, endeavoured to prevent the reception of deserters on board ship, as well as to prevent the practice of suborning or enticing seamen to desert or neglect their duty by the crimps. He had next re-enacted certain laws relative to the employment of apprentices on board of merchant vessels, by enforcing, under penalties, the employment of a certain number in each ship, in proportion to the tonnage of his vessel, and by providing that, on her return from a foreign port, each vessel should be visited by an officer of the Customs, and the apprentices mustered, when, if the number was not complete, or the absence of any not accounted for, the owner should he liable to a heavy penalty. He had also provided, that no seaman should be left, as was now frequently the case, in a foreign country without a full payment of his wages, and without full proof also being adduced of the necessity which existed for leaving him behind. This matter had long called for some act of legislation, on account of the number of complaints which the British Consuls in all parts of the world were constantly sending home, of the number of British seamen who were so left, and who suffered great hardships, a practice which arose from the masters of ships breaking their engagements with their seamen, without paying them the wages due to them, and leaving them ashore, whilst they engaged other hands at a lower rate for the homeward voyage. The last part of his Bill was framed for the purpose of obtaining, what he hoped would prove to be, an efficient register of merchant seamen. He had experienced much opposition from the ship-owners to the measure which he introduced last Session for this purpose, without being able to entertain any strong hope of succeeding in his object of obtaining an efficient register, the provisions of his former Bill were onerous, the success uncertain, and the hope of founding on the register a complete system of ballot, at best precarious: he had, in consequence, adopted a suggestion which was offered on the part of the ship-owners, and availed himself of the provisions of a Bill which passed last Session on the subject of the Merchant Seamen's Institution.

By that Act, the owner or master of each vessel was bound to enter on his ship's muster-roll every man there employed, specifying his classification and the amount of his pay. Now, instead of the regulation which his bill of last year contained on this matter, he should substitute one which compelled each master of a merchant vessel to furnish a half-yearly return of the muster-roll, which the above Act ordained should be kept, and that, on the arrival of his vessel from a foreign port, these returns should be delivered to the visiting Customs' officer. This practice would, therefore, not be so onerous to the masters or owners of ships, as that proposed last year would have been; and if it were properly observed, and the returns made punctually, the result would furnish an exact registry of the merchant seamen. These details formed the whole of the provisions in the first of his measures. During the last Session he had entertained sanguine hopes, that an exact register of merchant seamen might have formed the basis of a measure by which the means for enforcing the compulsory service of merchant seamen in the navy might have been secured by ballot on a principle analogous to that in use, for providing militiamen to serve in the land forces, and that some such plan might be substituted for the practice of impressment. He had thought, upon a cursory view of the subject, that an analogy existed which might justify some such measure; but, upon a closer examination, and after more mature deliberation, he was convinced that it could not be brought to bear, for the seamen would either be able to evade the operation of such an Act, or else, if it were enforced to the full extent to which the circumstances must render it necessary to carry it, the practice of impressment would become much more onerous and oppressive, under another name, than it now was. In the first place, the supply of men for the land-forces was inexhaustible, whilst the demand was comparatively limited; whilst in the merchant service, the supply was scanty, compared with the wants of the King's service in war. The ballot for the supply of the land-forces was made upon the very spot where the men themselves resided, and they were no sooner nominated than they could be called into service. The merchant seamen were so circumstanced that, on a rough computation, no less than two-thirds of the whole body were constantly on the water, and, therefore, it was impossible that their services under the ballot could ever be available when chosen by that method, at the moment when their services were suddenly required. Those seamen who were at home would, therefore, be compelled to serve as proxies or substitutes for the great majority of their brethren who were abroad, and he had, therefore, rejected this plan of ballot altogether, because it had all the disadvantages of impressment in a severer form; and it would cause those disadvantages to fall with undue hardship upon a very small portion of those who were liable to its operation. What, then, was the measure which he had to propose? It was this:—he proposed, in the first place, frankly and openly to avow the right of the Crown to the services of merchant seamen in the event of war; for, inasmuch as all the landsmen, not excepted by professional, or other acknowledged reasons for exemption, were liable to be balloted for to serve in the land-forces, so all merchant seamen, being exempt from the land-service by virtue of their occupation, came properly within the limits of the King's right to their services for the naval armament. He proposed, however, to limit the exercise of this right much within the bounds to which it had been suffered to extend; in the first place, the duration of this compulsory service he proposed to limit to the period of five years, which term of compulsory service on board a King's ship, should for ever free a seaman from the liability to be impressed. But whilst enacting this measure, and whilst thus asserting the prerogative of the Crown, he must say, that he thought it was the duty of the House, with due regard to the feelings of the seamen, and to the declared opinion of the country, to exhaust every other source of supply for the navy before recourse was had to compulsion; and he, therefore, had introduced a provision which rendered it necessary, before the King's proclamation for impressment was issued, that a period of grace should be allowed to the seamen, during which time all volunteers for the five years should receive double bounty. During the last war the bounty was 5l., and he, therefore, proposed that it should be 10l. in these cases; and not only should the volunteers receive this encouragement, but they should be entitled to count every year served in war as two years of compulsory service with respect to their claims for pensions, so that for five years of voluntary service during war, they should count ten years of service towards becoming entitled to their pensions which now could only be obtained after a full service of twenty years, whether in peace or in war; and farther, that if, at the expiration of the five years of compulsory service, they again volunteered to serve for five years more, they should be entitled to receive a second bounty. He also proposed to have a clause by which a seaman who should have become entitled to his pension should, if he chose to continue in the service, receive both his wages and his pension. The present arrangement prevented the seaman from drawing his wages if he drew his pension; and the consequence was, that the service lost a great number of its best men, who, on becoming entitled to their pensions, retired; whilst he believed that his Bill would secure the services of all those men who were fit for duty.

Such were the leading provisions of his second Bill, which he had every reason to believe would render the naval service more popular and offer a great inducement to the free tender of voluntary service; whilst, at the same time, he must observe, that holding out every temptation to volunteer into the sea service, and thus obviating all the chief evils of impressment, he still carefully reserved that power, in case it should become a matter of State necessity, to resort to it. It was, for the House to decide upon the important matters involved in these Bills; he should, for the present, detain them no longer, but content himself by expressing his entire readiness to afford any explanation on future occasions which might be demanded of him with respect to these measures, the vital importance of which it was impossible to over estimate; since they were intimately connected with our maritime power, and involved questions on which rested the naval superiority of Great Britain; the anchor of her greatness and sovereign power. The right hon. Baronet then moved for leave to bring in a Bill "To amend and consolidate the laws relating to the Merchant Seamen of the United Kingdom; and for forming and maintaining a register of all the men engaged in that service." Also a Bill "For the encouragement of the voluntary Enlistment of Seamen, and to make regulations for more effectually manning his Majesty's navy."

Mr. George Young

said, that he should have so many opportunities, in future stages of these Bills, of discussing, at length, their details, that it was not his intention, at present, to trouble the House further than to express the heartfelt gratification, with which he had heard the announcement of these measures by the right hon. Baronet opposite. He must also hear his sincere testimony to the fact, that the right hon. Baronet had taken the right path towards attaining that which with him had always, he believed, been a near and dear object, namely, the abolition of impressment. During the last Session of Parliament, he had stated, when the measure for the introduction of a system of registration was brought forward, that if it were unaccompanied with other substantial measures, it would neither be satisfactory to those affected by it, nor would it conduce to the object which it had in view. The right hon. Baronet had, however, now accompanied his measure of registration with another measure, in an intelligible form; and, together, they would go far to accomplish the desires which must animate the breast of every well-wisher to his country. It had recently been his lot to be placed in contact with a large body of seamen, and to have discussed with them, with frankness and without reserve, the whole subject of Impressment; and, it was impossible for language to describe, in adequate terms, the manliness of style, so peculiar to the British Seamen, with which they declared their readiness to serve His Majesty, even under the compulsion of Impressment, in cases of emergency, provided the period of their service should be limited in duration, and that such limitation was accompanied with other regulations in matters which, for some years past, had been in process of amendment, at the board presiding over their departments. He should have the greatest pleasure in giving his best attention to the details of these Bills, and in furthering the objects which the right hon. Baronet had in view, by their introduction.

Mr. Buckingham

said, that as the House had done him the honour and kindness to give him a considerable portion of its attention on this subject, at a former period, he should not now occupy its time for many minutes; but he felt that he should not do his duty to the House, if he did not express his satisfaction at the general view of this question which had been so clearly and so ably laid before the House by the right hon. Baronet. There was no doubt that we must look to the mercantile marine, as the great nursery of the British navy, and that the means by which His Majesty's fleets must be manned, in case of emergency, must consist in an improvement of the condition and regulations of that branch of maritime pursuits, and an efficient system of regis- tration by which their number and quality might be correctly known. He hoped that when the Bill was printed, and laid before the House, it would be found to contain some provisions to make the registry efficient; for, if it should be left to the merchant seamen to register themselves or not, as they themselves pleased, he was quite sure that, unless some strong declaration that impressment would only be resorted to in cases of invasion, or other great emergency, they would entertain a strong objection to a system of registration. To make registration efficient, he conceived it ought to be made compulsory; and to effect this, nothing could be easier than to provide against any commander of a merchant ship receiving or entertaining on board any seaman who did not produce to him a certificate of his registration. This certificate would, at once, serve as a character to the holder, and a means of employment in time of peace. The right hon. Baronet, in passing from the subject of the consolidation of the laws relating to the merchant service, had entered upon the subject of impressment, and had demanded a recognition of the King's prerogative, in the right to impress in time of need. On the last occasion that the subject was under discussion, he (Mr. Buckingham) had admitted (and his motives in so doing had since been much questioned) that right, and that the King was entitled in time of need, to the services of all his subjects, either at sea or on land; and he would say, that if one class more than another felt themselves insulted by the supposition even that they would shrink from such a duty, that class was the British seamen. Show them existing dangers, and something approaching fairness in treatment, and they would readily come forward at their Monarch's call. By the proposed measures, however, impressment would lose all its sting, by the limitation of the duration of service, by the increased bounties to be given to volunteers, &c. and though it might be called by the same name, it would become a very different thing. He rejoiced that the subject still remained in the hands of the right hon. Baronet opposite, who had met the propositions submitted last year, upon the subject, with so much amenity; and he trusted that the right hon. Baronet's proposition, though now those of an individual Member, would meet with the cordial attention, the assistance, and the sanction of his Majesty's present Government. He (Mr. Buckingham) should reserve any further observations until the future stages of the Bills, and in the mean time, he should retire this evening, from the house, proud in the assurance, that the interests of British seamen were to be taken into consideration, and that they would not be the only class of his Majesty's subjects who could be dragged from their homes without limitation to their service, and he believed that the body would almost hold a jubilee in celebration of these announced measures of emancipation.

Mr. Baring

said, he was glad the right hon. Baronet had undertaken to bring this subject under the consideration of the House. He was sure, that no Member could have brought it forward with a greater certainty of obtaining the confidence of the House, and of every Member of his Majesty's Government, and, consequently, with a better prospect of making the measure efficient and beneficial. He hoped that all the benefit would be derived from it which these circumstances promised. He was sure that there was no person old enough to examine the history of the last war, but must see that it would be impossible for this country, in the event of another naval war, with the present habits and feelings of the people, to repeat the mode of manning our navy, which was practised at former periods. Every man must feel this impossibility, not only on account of the great abhorrence with which the system of impressment was regarded, but because the first gun that was fired, must involve us in a war with that country, with which, of all others, it was most desirable that we should remain at peace—he meant the United States of America; for it was impossible to expect that any nation, possessing a feeling of independence, or having a character at stake, would submit to the measures that were resorted to with so much rigour, during the last war. This was, therefore, not a question of speculation, but a question, which it was of importance, that the country should look in the face, and it certainly was desirable that whatever changes were expedient, should be made in a period of profound peace. Amongst the many obligations which the country owed to the right hon. Baronet, for the services rendered by him in the departments of which he had had the administration, there was none equal to what would be due to him, if he could succeed in producing a Bill acceptable to all parties interested. Of course, the details of the measure would have to be looked to by the various departments with which such subjects were connected, particularly the Admiralty, and that branch in which the duty of taking care of the interests of the merchant seamen devolved upon. It would be necessary to see that no more restrictions were introduced than were necessary; but the country must be aware that some provision for registration must be adopted, and he was sure that such a regulation would be willingly submitted to, for the purpose of avoiding the greater evil, and securing that which he believed was uppermost in the mind and feelings of every one in the country—namely, maintaining that naval supremacy, which had always been the boast of England.

Captain Berkeley,

as holding his Majesty's commission in the service, felt it to be due to the right hon. Baronet to tender his thanks for these measures, and to express his readiness to go hand in hand with him in carrying them into full effect.

Captain Gordon

wished every possible success to the measures, but at the same time, he could not conceal from himself that registration was a subject of great difficulty. He rejoiced, however, to find from what had just fallen from the right hon. Gentleman who had just spoken, that the assistance of his Majesty's Government would be afforded, and that, therefore, the subject would receive the support of both sides of the house.

Mr. Aaron Chapman,

as the representative of a seaport, congratulated the House and the country, that the period had arrived when a measure so essential, so politic, and so necessary for the naval service, was about to be carried into effect.

Mr. Alderman Thompson

was ready and willing to render every assistance in forwarding the objects which the right hon. Baronet had in view. He, however, must observe, that the Bill relating to the registration and to the merchant service would, of necessity, entail a burden upon the shipping interests, to which he could only agree upon receiving the equivalent relief afforded by the abolition of impressment. He must, therefore, make it a condition, that both measures should pass together into laws. He felt peculiar satisfaction on learning that the right hon. Baronet was to have the sanction and support of his Majesty's Government, and he rejoiced that the country might fairly look forward to the abolition of a system which was opposed to the principle of its institutions.

Admiral Adam

observed, that he had said, last Session, that he was prepared to hear the arguments brought forward, and to see the effects of the measure which his right hon. Friend, the Member for Cumberland, intended to bring forward, before he, as a naval officer, would vote against impressment, because he knew that circumstances might arise when it would be necessary to resort to impressment for the purpose of manning the King's fleet, in order to resist the foreign foe. Until some efficient measure for manning the fleet could be substituted, we must not throw away impressment. But, knowing the disadvantages of that system, he hailed with satisfaction the measure of his right hon. Friend; and the amelioration and amendment it had undergone since the last Parliament, with great care and attention to the details, he had no doubt that the measure would conduce to put an end to the grievous evil of impressment for the King's naval service. He desired this, not only as a citizen of this country, but also as a naval officer, because be knew that the old adage was true, and that "one volunteer is worth two pressed men." He would beg leave to call the attention of the House to the amelioration of the system of impressment which had taken place towards the end of last war. At first, men were kept in their ships, from five years to five years, and from ten years to ten years, and they had not the means of visiting their friends when they came to England, after an absence of many years, but towards the end of the war they received a portion of what was due to them, and were allowed some weeks absence. These relaxations had produced the best possible effect.

Sir Philip Durham

said, that no First Lord of the Admiralty had ever made greater improvements in the service, and with more economy, than the right hon. Baronet. He thought highly of the right hon. Baronet's measure regarding registration, and hoped it would succeed, but was happy that he had not given up impressment. The gallant Officer opposite said he preferred one volunteer to two pressed men, but he himself always preferred one pressed man. In time of war, the most able, the most hearty, and the most useful men, were the Pressed men, and, in four hours after they were pressed, went to work with cheerfulness and good will. He was glad the right hon. Baronet had not given up impressment, although, at the same time, he hoped that recourse would not be had to it. He was delighted that the rising generation would have an opportunity of getting rid of the obnoxious system of impressment, but he could not give up the idea that a pressed man was as good as a volunteer.

Mr. O'Dwyer

was understood strongly to dissent from the proposition, that there existed, by the constitution, a prerogative right in the Crown to impress men for the naval service. No such right, he contended, existed, except only in such cases as might render it necessary for all the subjects of the realm to take arms.

Sir Matthew White Ridley

felt great gratification upon the introduction of these measures. He also could fully corroborate the statement which had been made by the hon. Member for Tynemouth, inasmuch as he had himself held an interview a short time since, with a large body of seamen, from whom he distinctly understood that, however great they felt the evils of impressment, they would, even under it, ever be ready to enter into a temporary period of service under the Crown. This was highly creditable to the parties concerned. He thought the system, however, ought to be abolished, and he therefore fully participated in the satisfaction so generally expressed upon the introduction of measures, which would have the effect of relieving the service from so prejudicial a course of proceeding.

Mr. David Barclay

expressed his approbation of the proposed measure — a measure which he believed would he highly satisfactory to his constituents, who were deeply interested in the matter.

Mr. Ingham

maintained, that the prerogative of the Crown involved the right of impressment, and that for the protection of the country, the monarch could call for the services of all lieges in the land. The question had been laboriously investigated some years ago, and the opinion of Mr. Justice Foster fully established the existence of this prerogative. He had recently met a large body of men, engaged in the merchant service, and was struck with admiration upon bearing the manly, judicious, and loyal spirit, with which they discussed the obnoxious subject of impressment, and admitted its necessity. He congratulated the House upon the proposed Bills, which, in his judgment, were calculated to make the King's service popular.

Leave given to bring in the Bills.