HC Deb 20 July 1846 vol 87 cc1337-47

On the Motion that the Order of the Day be read for a Committee of Supply,


rose to call the attention of the House to the practice of flogging sailors, and to the manner in which courts-martial were constituted in the British navy. The severity of our criminal code had been very greatly ameliorated: the punishment of death, which was formerly inflicted for numerous crimes, was now imposed only in a few cases. He must point out one or two cases of ma- terial difference in the punishment for the same offence, as inflicted by the criminal law, and as enforced by the regulations of the navy. Stealing was now frequently punished by short imprisonment. The sailor was liable to be hanged for this offence. Many Chartists had been punished, of late years, by a three months' imprisonment for seditious words. A sailor, for the like offence, would be condemned to death. And let it be borne in mind how differently circumstanced were the two men. A sailor might have been seized by a pressgang, dragged from his home like a criminal, have all his prospects blasted, and under feelings of irritation from such treatment, might utter words of complaint which might be construed into seditious language. Such a punishment ought not to be allowed to remain on the Statute-book for another day. And under whose authority were such punishments inflicted by courts-martial, consisting of commanders and post captains, without any appeal from their judgment? The civilian might appeal for mercy to the Crown; but the sailor had no appeal. In the army there was protection against any violence or injustice. The punishment of flogging could not be inflicted without the sanction of a court-martial. The sailor was flogged at the sole will of the captain. In his opinion the time was come for according to the sailor the same protection as that vouchsafed to the soldier or to the person in civil life. All these severities were inflicted on men who, by an Act of George II., were declared, "under the providence of God, to constitute the wealth, safety, and strength of the country." By the Act he had referred to, a power was given to the Admiralty to make orders and regulations for the navy; and it was under this power that the flogging system was carried out. Under one of the sections of the Act it was declared that all punishments not mentioned in the Act, should be inflicted on sailors according to the practice of the navy; but it was in the orders and regulations he had referred to, that we must look for the establishment of the practice of flogging, and for the definition of the power under which it could be exercised. He admitted there had recently been instituted regulations which were a great improvement on those that preceded them. Previously, any commander of a ship could flog his men at his own will and pleasure: they could tie a man up for a trivial offence, and order the infliction of as many lashes upon him as they thought fit—a power, he conceived, that reflected no great credit on those that conferred it. But what was the amount of protection now afforded to the sailor under the new regulations against this most degrading species of torture—a torture that violated the best feelings of humanity, and that had broken the hearts and spirits of many of the bravest men this country had produced? Nay, it had done still worse; it had driven those gallant spirits who had fought and bled for their country into the service of the foe; and those very men were recorded in the history of the country as having humbled her flag, which no other Power had been able to do. He would ask the gallant Admiral (Sir George Cockburn) connected with the Admiralty to refer to the American war; and in support of what he now stated, he would undertake to authenticate a great number of instances in which the system of flogging had produced the consequences he had noticed. What were the present regulations about flogging? It limited the number of lashes to forty-eight; but he had been told by a naval officer who had seen as much service as any hon. and gallant Member in that House, and by others who had encountered the "battle and the breeze" in all their most imposing character, that forty-eight lashes inflicted in the navy were equal to, at the lowest estimate, 200 lashes on the soldier. Common sense pointed out that this must be so. The soldier was flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails composed of small twine, and the punishment was inflicted by a drummer boy. In the navy, the cat with which the sailor was flogged was made of thick cord, and it was applied by some brawny stalwart boatswain's mate, perhaps the strongest man in the ship. The commander stood by at the time of punishment to see that the man laid on with sufficient severity, though it made the blood flow from every pore. Not content with this, commanders—he had been told the circumstance by naval officers, and would prove the fact before a Committee—had ordered the mate to be changed between every dozen or eighteen lashes, that the flogging might be administered throughout with sufficient strength. It was not so in the army. There was another point: you could never see the punishment inflicted in the navy: you could hear the cries of the soldier, but not those of the sailor flogged on board ship. Now, under what circumstances did the commanding officer acquire power to flog? He acquired it in cases when complaint was made against a sailor. The officer in command was required by the Admiralty order to make an investigation into the complaint. The officer sat as judge; he decided on the merits of the complaint; and then, as it might be, he ordered the man to receive thirty-six or forty-eight lashes. The officer was called on to address a warrant to himself, giving himself power to inflict the punishment. Now, what was stated in the warrant was the name of the man, the length of his service, and the offence. But should the captain see the alleged offence committed, then he became judge, jury, witness, and executioner. He meant of course executioner of his own sentence. Naval Gentlemen in that House appeared to indulge in great merriment over this matter; but he recommended them to recollect that military men had taken up the subject of punishment in the army; and they deserved the thanks of the country for the reform they had effected. And he would tell hon. Gentlemen belonging to the navy that the public would very soon take up the subject of punishment in the navy, and would protect the unfortunate sailors who were tried and tortured without either jury or justice. He would remind the House how much more necessary it was to protect the sailor, who was isolated on board his ship, and had not the same securities against tyranny as the soldier. The soldier before being punished must be brought before a court-martial. The sanction of the Commander in Chief, if in England, or if in the Colonies the sanction of the Governor or Commanding Officer, was required before punishment could be inflicted. Flogging on board ship was carried on without any such salutary protection. If a sailor before the mast was found guilty of a fault or an error, magnified into a crime, he was punished without the formality of a court-martial. The sailor was condemned, perhaps in excessively hot weather, to traverse up and down the rigging, or to wear a wooden collar day and night, perhaps for a month; or he was possibly ordered to undergo the more degrading torture of the brutal lash. He could state a good deal more; but he thought he had given a pretty correct description of what usually took place on these occasions. He believed that every man who was acquainted with naval affairs must know that almost every mutiny that had taken place in the navy was in consequence of the system of flogging which was practised in that branch of the public service. He knew there were other causes for the mutiny of the Nore, but this was one of them. He wished to ask whether that system was necessary for maintaining the discipline of the navy? The general opinion of the captains was, he believed, that discipline could not be maintained without flogging; but many of the lieutenants, who attended more to the duties of ships of war, took a totally different view of the question; and their opinions on such a question were highly valuable. He maintained, that the punishment of flogging ought not, at all events, to be resorted to without a court-martial was held in the first instance; and as good materials were to be found in a ship of war to constitute a tribunal of that sort as there were in regiments of the army. What better court could be formed than assembling together the captain, the officer of marines, the first lieutenant, the master, and the oldest mate of a ship? Such a change in the system would give confidence to our sailors, because they would feel that something like justice would be done to them. Who were the men who usually flogged in the navy? Were they brave and gallant men who had won victories for us? No; they were a class of persons called martinets, many of them young officers, who knew not the character and often the duties of an old sailor. This, in itself, was a reason why such arbitrary powers should not be intrusted to individuals, no matter how high their rank might be. It was well known that Nelson abhorred flogging, and that he only allowed it on board his ship in extreme cases. Another great man—Napoleon—abolished the system in France, both in the army and the navy of that country; and his plan had been continued with advantage up to the present day. Flogging was also abolished in the Prussian army. Having, then, such high authorities on the subject, it might fairly be thought that the necessity of continuing the present system of corporal punishment was not so imperative as was represented. He knew that some necessity existed for severe punishments in order to preserve discipline; but the power to inflict them ought to be used only after grave deliberation, and then as sparingly as possible. In the American navy, men were never flogged without having been tried and sentenced by a court-martial; and there was not to be found in any service a more able set of men than in the service of America. He had mentioned before that the captains in the navy were, generally speaking, of opinion that flogging was necessary in order to preserve discipline; but the captains were the parties by whom offending sailors were judged. Sir S. Romilly, in his efforts to reform our criminal code, found his strongest opponents in the Judges of the land, not because they did not dislike the office of inflicting capital punishment, but because they conscientiously believed society could not be held together without it. In the same way, the captains were opposed to the abolition of flogging, because they really believed it essential to the preservation of discipline. Well, Sir S. Romilly succeeded in disproving the predictions of the Judges; and the milder punishments which he and the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government substituted for that of death were much more effectual in the prevention of crime. In America, where flogging was never inflicted without court-martial, the consequence was that our best men manned the American navy. By the navy list of the United States, it appeared, that of 6,500 men, but 900 were Americans, and these were chiefly petty officers. When he saw British sailors shunning the service of their country, he wished to alter such a state of things. He wanted to make the service attractive; and if the wages of the sailor were not sufficient, he was not the man to object to making them so. He thought the most economical course they could take was to attach the sailor to the British flag; and he was sure, if justly treated, they would fight under no other flag. Why were not the articles of war in the navy subjected to the same annual revision as those for the army? While officers of the army in that House were directing their efforts to the amelioration of their branch of the service, he did not find that the officers of the navy, though very ready for the defence of their class, were directing their attention to the amelioration of the condition of the sailor. The Legislature was improving the condition of the soldier. They provided the soldier with education: why did they not do the same for the sailor? He hoped, however, that the present Government would direct their efforts to this subject; and that this would be the last occasion on which he should have to bring it before the attention of the House.


hoped his hon. Friend, who had given him much pleasure by the tone of his remarks, would recollect that the present Board of Admiralty had been only constructed on Monday last. The question to which he more particularly referred had not yet come before them; but he hoped that the question of naval punishments would be brought under their consideration. It had been found impossible to restrict the use of summary punishment altogether. Taking the admission of the hon. Member, that there must be a system of punishment where a large number of men were brought together in one vessel, it was clear that the good sense of the hon. Member would tell him that summary punishment must exist. As for himself, he must say that a greater curse to the service never existed than the old system of arbitrary punishments. But, if the hon. Member would look into the question as it stood, he would find that the improvement in the naval service had kept pace with that in the civil and other departments of the State. He found from a return which had been made the other day by his direction, that in 1839, when there were 34,000 men in our naval service, there had been 2,000 punishments; but that in 1845, when the establishment consisted of 40,000, there had been only 1,200 causes of punishment. He was prepared to state that the greatest disposition existed at the Board of Admiralty to check the system of arbitrary punishment, and that it equally prevailed among the admirals of the various stations. He had seen instructions which had been recently issued by Admiral Parker in the Mediterranean, showing the strongest inclination on his part in the same direction; and he could state that there was every intention at the Board of Admiralty to regard excessive punishments on board of any ship as discreditable to the officers in command. In the principle laid down by the hon. Member for Coventry, as to any ill-judged parsimony in our naval service, he entirely agreed. There would be large sums necessarily required for various experiments in this department; and he was sure the hon. Member would offer no opposition to their progress from any feeling of false economy. A return of punishments in ships for any one year must be fallacious, for it was evident that an officer taking command of a crew collected at haphazard, might be obliged to use frequent punishments in the course of the first year, to bring them into proper discipline, which would be altogether unnecessary on subsequent occasions. In conclusion, he could only repeat, that the feeling of the board was to regard excessive punishments on Board any vessel as discreditable to the officer in command.


wished to ask if there was any intention of proposing the reconsideration of the articles of war. He had frequently brought the question before the House; and on the last occasion the articles had been condemned by every one in the House, including the naval officers. They ought to do everything in their power to draw our men from abroad to enter their own service; and though there had been, as he admitted, an enormous amelioration in the condition of the navy of late years, yet he hoped the Admiralty would see how much further they could go, and how far they could modify the system in accordance with the spirit of the age. He thought there ought to be returns of the punishments of the various ships in the service. In some they would find that one-half or perhaps three-fourths of the crew had been flogged, while in another they would see that not one had been subjected to such punishment. Surely this ought to be remedied. No service could be better taken care of than our navy, as regarded diet, clothing, and cleanliness. It was evident, then, there must be some cause to keep the men away from it. He thought a court-martial of three officers would be an improvement on the present system of arbitrary punishment, and might produce similar good effects to the allowance of a certain time before punishment was inflicted, which had been made in consequence of speeches in that House. He wished the returns of punishments would be laid before the House; and he would venture to say if they were made, that nine out of ten of these martinets would be found not to be their best naval officers. If there were but a few officers who followed this system, let them at least be known to the public.


said, that as no hon. Member connected with the Admiralty had got up to answer the question and remarks of the hon. Member who had just spoken, he felt it his duty to do so. When the hon. Member for Coventry said there was no law for the infliction of summary punishment, he was mistaken. There was a decision of Lord Stowell on this point, in the case of a merchantman, in which the learned judge laid it down that the captain had such powers.


explained that he had not said there was no law on the subject, as he knew that the Act of George II. gave full power to the Admiralty to make certain regulations to which the force of law was thereby given.


Lord Stowell had declared the power ought to be given to the captain of a merchantman, as it was necessary for the safety of his ship; and surely there was no one in that House or out of it who would not wish to see the captain of a man of war possessed of at least equal authority. In extreme cases the discretionary punishment was at present limited to forty-eight lashes; and in the instance in which Lord Stowell gave judgment, the captain gave thirty-six lashes, after a long confinement. He would read a recent minute issued by the Board of Admiralty, which would be a sufficient guarantee that no great punishment could be inflicted without proper responsibility. The hon. and gallant Member read the document, which contained a great number of restrictive regulations prescribing the particulars to be observed in the returns of the causes of the punishment so inflicted, and the evidence on which it had been adjudged. With respect to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Montrose, he could tell him that there would be a great increase of punishments if it were acted upon, and naval courts-martial appointed in all cases that seemed to inquire its infliction. He believed it was the wish of every captain to do his best to prevent punishments in his own ship, and that they often checked the complaints of their officers when displeased with their men. The sailor lookod up to the captain as his father and protector, and regarded him as his best friend. He was very happy to hear from the hon. Member that our men were going into the merchant service, for he knew from experience that they would soon be glad to return to the navy, and not to leave it in a hurry. When there seemed a probability of war with America some time ago, the English sailors on board the American vessels all left them—more particularly in the case of the Chesapeake, when 200 or 300 men immediately quitted her and came over to England. It had been admitted much had been done by the late Admiralty to improve the service, and he hoped that the same spirit would be exercised by their successors.


was prepared to go with the hon. Member for Coventry as far as his remarks respecting the difficulty of getting men for our ships were concerned. He knew ships to have lain at Spithead from one to eight months before they could get men, and would venture to say that if we wanted to man a few ships of the line at present, we should have to wait five or six months before we could do so. The men in the merchant service had a greater horror of the navy than ever they had, and it was absolutely necessary to take some steps to do away with it. As to the articles of war, he quite agreed with the hon. Member for Montrose. They were the most absurd, ridiculous, and bloody articles that ever belonged to any service in any country, and he hoped the Admiralty would take them under their consideration.


said he had only been one week a Lord of the Admiralty, but he could venture to assert that it would be impossible to carry on the business of the navy without the power of summary punishment. He thought, however, it would be their most prominent duty to consider the question, and promised it should receive every attention from the Board to which he belonged.


hoped the Admiralty would scrutinise the various quarterly reports of the captains in commission, and reward their services with an eye to the proportion of punishments on board their several ships. A great improvement had taken place in the discipline of the service, in consequence of the observations in that House. He hoped that improvement would be continued, and that they would no longer see men punished on the spot. He deprecated the idea of appointing courts-martial for the punishment of petty offences. Half the men in the ship might be under confinement at the same time, and the places to which they would be consigned were of the most disagreeable character.


said, he could not understand why there should be a difference in the discipline of the army and navy in this particular, and that the right of trial by court-martial allowed in the former should not be permitted in the navy. It appeared to him that the reason why corporal punishment was so necessary in the navy was in the fact of the men being paid too low. He thought that they should get rid of the system of pressing men into the service, and place them un- der sufficient pay, before they could have the men contented with their lot. He would like to know whether the discipline of the navy in France was worse than in this country. If he were well informed there was no flogging in the French navy, no more than in their army; and yet he believed their discipline was remarkably good. He trusted the Ministry would at once mitigate the existing system of punishment in the British service.


said, he could not compliment the hon. Gentleman on the temper in which he had brought forward his Motion. He denied that there was any class of Her Majesty's subjects more contented than those who had the honour of serving in the navy. Unless the power of apportioning punishment rested with the commanding officers of ships, great difficulty and inconvenience would arise in maintaining discipline; and he believed, that if the power of awarding corporal punishment were done away with, there would be great danger of the discipline of the navy being subverted. He recollected an instance that came within his own knowledge of a vessel in which flogging was not practised, when all the well-conducted hands on board requested that the punishment might be inflicted on those who deserved it.