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PREFACE. - Thomas Hodgskin, An Essay on Naval Discipline 
An Essay on Naval Discipline, Shewing Part of its evil Effects on the Minds of the Officers, on the Minds of the Men, and on the Community; with an Amended System, by which Pressing may be immediately abolished, by Lieut. Thomas Hodgskin, R.N. (London: Printed for the Author, by C. Squire, Furnival’s-Inn-Court, sold by Sherwood, Neely & Jones, Paternoster-Row 1813).
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In compliance with the general intention of prefaces, I shall give some account of my motives for appearing before the public, on so interesting and important a subject as the Discipline of the Naval Service.
At a very early age I went to sea, with my head full of stories of the valour, generosity, and chivalric spirit of sailors; I thought that at sea, I might have the boisterous elements to contend with, yet that I should always meet cordial assistance, and always be supported by the harmony of affection; much was I disappointed, at finding one universal system of terror; no obedience, but what was forced; no respect, but what was constrained.—For a long time I acquiesced in other people’s opinions on the subject, and, like them, I thought the bad character of the seaman required coercion to be corrected. But a little experience, a little reflection, and some little knowledge, taught me, that mankind were every where made alike; that the beneficent Creator of all had given to every man similar senses, and similar passions. That it was by the ideas acquired by the first operating on the last, either to restrain or augment them, that every diversity of human character was produced. That as the first of these are derived from the manners and customs of our fathers, and from our national institutions; that as our ships were manned with Englishmen, there must be some causes either in our naval institutions or the sea itself, that occasioned the bad character of seamen so much the subject of complaint, and so different from the character of my countrymen. To elucidate those causes, to eradicate the opinion that is entertained of the bad character of our seamen—thus to render coercion not necessary, and through making the naval service agreeable to the well-known feelings of our common nature, to do away the apparent necessity there exist for pressing, is the purport of the following essay.
To display to the public the abuses existing in the navy, has lately, to me, become an imperative duty: for, the absurdity of its laws and customs has deeply injured myself. My opinion of these is so irretrievably bad, that, in common with many others, I feel no shame at having fallen under their lash,—and but that they have deprived me of the good opinion of society, which is too generally built upon success; but that they have partially deprived me of the esteem of my friends; and, but that they have completely excluded me from that road to fame and fortune, the navy, in which my whole life has been past, I should not have felt punishment an injury. Having received so deep an injury from these laws, it has become a positive duty in me to attempt to alter them through the medium of public opinion; a duty equally strong with that which every man thinks it right to practice to relieve himself from a physical pain, by every possible means. When I look around me in society, and see the nations of the earth most celebrated for the rigour and despotism of their government, groaning under the most grievous calamities, while ours from her freedom has had safety ensured to her; can these calamities be possibly traced to any other cause than this despotism, which has destroyed every manly feeling; which, by unnerving the arm of the poor man (the legitimate defender of his country), has opened every pass to its enemies. Can the rise of despotism in any society be ever so well resisted as at first.—The first step it takes gives it additional power to take a second. It goes on thus increasing, till men’s opinions are bound up in its sanctity, and then it is irresistible.
When I confine my views to my own profession, and see the class of officers to which I belong submit to every deprivation however great, to every oppression however severe, because occasionally cheered by false hopes that can never be gratified, or chilled by fears of ill from their superiors power which can never befall them—when I reflect that their services are as necessary for the good of society as any others, and that if they were to exert a common spirit of resistance, oppression could not injure them;—when I see that submission to oppression is tacit applause and encourages it; and when I know, from history, that the very worst possible thing that could befall either my country or my profession, would be an unqualified submission to any one man, I must come to the conclusion, that patiently submitting to oppression (because it comes from a superior) is a vice—that to surmount your fears of that superior, and resist it, is a virtue. I must conclude so, whether I take utility as the prescribed end of my moral duties, or whether I go to the precepts of that religion that tells me to do justice and love mercy; the most sacred kind of justice is that which a man owes to himself, and to do that perfectly, will, in the end, be found most compatible with the real interest and good of society—such conduct may not please an avaricious governor, or a jealous superior, but it strictly accords with that utility which is the end of morality; it is virtuous and will ever remain virtuous, while virtue continues to be doing right, according to the extent of your knowledge, in hopes of enjoying eternal happiness. Since patience, under oppression, is a vice, and since our rulers seldom, in our profession, reward it in this life, no motive remains for submission to it, and I had resolved whenever oppression should hurt me strenuously to resist it. The occasion was unfortunately presented, and I complained of the injury done me, by a commander-in-chief, to himself, in the language that I thought it merited; he had unjustly deprived me of every chance of promotion from my own exertions, and that was robbing me of every hope. If this is not an injury, I cannot tell what an injury is; I can freely forgive the man, who, urged by the necessity of hunger, takes from me my money, but I never will cherish aught but indignation and resistance against the action of a man, who, invested with power for the good of his country, uses it for his own benefit, and breeds hatred against that country by exercising oppression, which the injustice of her-naval institutions permits. But in the navy, to complain in the words of freedom, which a man learns in our country, is sedition; to make use of the language of common sense, when unsanctioned by official forms, is mutinous and offensive; and the utterance of a philosophical moral truth is treason against the oppression, prejudice, and bigotry, that there reign in all the majesty of ignorance.
If I understand the good of my country right, it is promoting the greatest possible quantity of public happiness. This must have its foundation in justice, and cannot exist apart from moral truth; it is therefore necessary for its safety, (without which it is impossible there can be happiness), that its good faith should not be tarnished by its rulers, either to its own inhabitants or to others, it is therefore for the good of our country, that the rewards it has appropriated for our defenders should be given to them, and not diverted to other purposes by its rulers; that they should not be enticed to exertions by hopes, and then cheated of their rewards, for if they are, no motives remain for those exertions which are necessary for her existence, neither will they for the future be produced. As the same power (which through the agency of custom punished me for claiming a right of reward), inflicts numberless cruelties on the seamen, and suffers our governors to create a much greater number of officers than there is any occasion for.—My cause is every lieutenant’s cause, it is also the seaman’s and the country’s cause.
In thus presenting myself to the public, as a discontented and disappointed man, I am actuated solely by motives of candour and veracity;—I wish them to know justly how to appreciate my sentiments, and properly to discriminate what is derived from passion and what from reason. I know these virtues were never thrown away on my countrymen, and I have a proud conviction, that if they are pleased to enquire who I am, and what I am, I shall meet their approbation.
I do it not to move their pity; I ask them not to interpose between the individual and the government, but to abolish the principle that is doing us all infinite mischief. Were I a solitary individual, suffering under it, from knowing the intimate mixture of good and evil in all our works, I should bear it with patience; I should think it was the natural result of our numerous naval successes, and the pleasing reflection that I was deserving applause as a victim, for the good of my country would alleviate, if not destroy, the pain of disappointment. But no such reflection occurs, all the knowledge I possess combines to assure me, that in patiently submitting to oppression, I encourage what, if suffered to exist, must end in ruining that freedom which has supported us amidst a thousand difficulties, and made us the most gloriously conspicuous of modern nations.
In endeavouring to combat the existing opinions about the navy, I know I have a host of prejudices to encounter—military, arrayed by veterans in the habits of ignorance; and, unless public opinion should be already partly on my side, which I hope it is, I have but little chance of success. But a probability of being unsuccessful, was never with me a motive for abstaining from doing a duty, or I should not now have been making my sentiments known to the public; nor can I be deterred from doing this by my want of education, nor by my want of those many years of experience, which have permitted all the absurdities of which I complain. When education is grounded in wrong principles; it only leads to a multitude of errors. When experience has began with such principles, and when it has been restricted to one particular branch of knowledge, it only confirms errors, and shuts up the avenues of truth.
Neither of these deficiencies can convince me that I am unable to discover moral truth, or that actions denominated political, are not to be tried by the rules of morality. For, since the very hairs of our head are numbered, I cannot think that actions involving consequences the most productive of happiness or misery to mankind, can be destitute of that accountability, which is the foundation of morality. Now moral truth, by which a man can judge of these actions, is as equally necessary to the happiness of men, as food is to their existence. From analogy I conclude, that the same beneficent Creator, who has given us the latter in abundance with very little trouble, has bestowed the former with an equal or more bounteous hand. That like food it may be procured by every man of common capacity, with common industry, and that consequently I am as capable of judging of political actions as the men who do them, whenever I become acquainted with their motives.
Truth, by men interested in obscuring it, has been said to lie hid in a well; I believe it is more frequently buried under a mountain of learning of human absurdities or human passions, but it is even there clearly discoverable to common sense, aided by common application. To oppose truth to a long existing prejudice is of more real value to mankind than winning a thousand victories. And this sentiment, aided by an imperative sense of duty to myself, is sufficient to make me stand forth unconnected with any man, unsupported by a single individual, the advocate of truth; under its banners, I hope to conquer; for its sake alone, I wish to be victorious.—I have no party to support; I am too humble an individual to have a political existence; yet, I am alike above the frowns of power, or the giddy applause of the multitude. I contend with confidence, for the goodness of my cause assures me I cannot be discomfited.
To display this truth in a forcible and pleasing light, is what my habits, as sailor, forbid me to hope. To expect fame from a correct or animated language, the neglected education consequent upon early going to sea, tells me would be folly; indeed, nothing could excuse my intruding myself on the public, whose attention must be occupied by so many writers of genius and of learning, or of deviating from the long settled habits of officers; but the importance of the subject, the connection it has with my professional habits, and the apparent ignorance of the better informed clasess of society of those modes of coercion in existence on board men of war, which beget hatred in the minds of the lower classes of the community, and which only require to be thoroughly known, to be immediately amended by that humanity and love of justice, so conspicuous in other parts of our country.
In commencing a work of this sort, so opposed to all the reigning prejudices of the sea; I remembered the Italian proverb, that a work well begun is half finished, and I think if I can only draw the attention of the public to the subject,—there are men of genius and abilities, men of honour and philanthropy enough to take up and advocate the seamen’s long neglected cause, and conduct it to a happy issue.
Much it wants advocating, for it is of vital importance to the safety of the country; her soldiers may acquire her glory, they will enhance her reputation, and make her more estimable among the nations of the earth; but it is from her seamen and her ships she must hope for the solid comforts of protection. Whatever adds to their love of their country, must be of the greatest benefit, and nothing can be more pernicious than whatever destroys it.
Sentiments of avowed discontent have frequently been seen amongst the seamen; yet, so confident has experience been of the efficacy of its discipline, that it has never been thought of as the cause. The word is wrapped round with a hallowed sanctity, and the navy has been so eminently successful in defending our country, that the evils which exist in it, have been thought essentials of its constitution to ensure it success. They have been regarded as sacred by the eye of prejudice, and no one has hitherto dared to condemn what all have been backward to examine.
The negligence of not enquiring into, and reforming the cause of this discontent, cannot be too much condemned. While our rulers have established boards of revision, whose cares have extended to the saving of a nail, not one thought has been given to form the moral character of our seamen; scarcely one endeavour has been made to attach them to their country, but by pains, penalties, and toils; as if what every man knows to be pain, could, by a decree of erring man, be made to the seaman a pleasure.
I have seen the discipline of the French armies and I have read of the despotism of the French emperor; I have witnessed, and heard of the calamities inflicted on negroes; but with the exceptions of our seamen being better fed, better clothed, and not allowed to be murdered,—what I have seen them suffer, exceeds the cruelties of Buonaparte to his army, exceeds all that the negroes have had inflicted on them: nothing could support them under their sufferings, but a great and noble consciousness, that they are the saviours of their country—that it is visibly their efforts alone, which prevent despotism from overshadowing the earth, and destroying that liberty they were in early life taught to indulge a love of, and which they still regard as sacred, though no longer permitted to taste its blessings.
To rescue our seamen from these cruelties, is, therefore, becoming every man of humanity; and, as while men labour under despotic oppression, they never can think well of themselves—to release our seamen from it, is the peculiar business of every advocate of virtue; for the first step to dignity of action is, that men should think well of themselves.
To abolish pressing, would be worthy all the eloquence, and all the abilities of a Chatham; it is even more worthy the exertion of Lord Holland, than the laws on libel — it demands more of the morality and patriotism of Mr. Wilberforce, than the abolition of the slave trade; its bad effects were confined to a few, and it was a dreadful stigma on the country. Pressing is a greater stigma, and has a dreadful effect on the morals of all.
To abolish it, strictly accords with that excellent sentiment of Mr. Stephens, which said, that to suppose men degraded, made them, in fact, become so; and thus they were made a disgrace to that society, which, but for a cruel injustice, they might have adorned.— Vide his speech on the Benchers of Lincoln’s-Inn Bye-law.
If the nation, with Mr. Stephens, will apply this sentiment to the feelings of our seamen, they may feel as assured as he felt when he applied it to himself, that the result would be an increased dignity of character.
The general principles of the following pages are also agreeable to the sentiments of another honorable member of the House of Commons, who said, that “to applaud depravity, is to abet it—is to encourage an evil, whose extent is indefinite, and whose progress is uncontroulable.” And what higher applause does a captain of the navy seek, than the approbation of the admiralty.
When this has been bestowed upon the means used to establish order in the navy, it has applauded cruelty the most depraved, and the most replete with evil effects on the nation.
In condemning the means used on board ship, to accomplish order, it is my wish to convince the understanding of the discriminating, not to stir up the resentment of the oppressed; to awaken the justice of our legislators, not the anarchy of tumultuous people; to show that injustice is as impolitic as it is immoral; that if it is pursued, its end must be as destructive of national prosperity, as it is now of individual happiness and real national glory.—One other purpose of this essay is, to afford an opportunity to the advocates of the necessity of pressing and coercion to come forward and convince us of the existence of this necessity. I require my opinion persuaded, not my sensations compelled. We have long enough been governed in the navy by terror; it is time we surmounted our fears, and listened only to the dictates of reason for the motives to action. I desire to hear what the present system can give us, as a compensation for our real national glory which it destroys; for the slavery, hatred, and vice, which it occasions. I wish to know what can be bestowed upon us that is of equal value with the moral energy of character, which is the peculiar production of liberty, and which this system entirely prevents.
They cannot point out any advantages of this system, or, if they can, they will not; they think so despicably of human nature, that common men cannot, in their opinions, comprehend the exalted policy there is in injustice. When they are troubled to find any advantages themselves, it cannot be wondered at that others should not see them.
Let me now apologize to the public for the imperfections this work contains; it is a hasty composition, my individual interest, every feeling I possess, every hope of earthly happiness is so centered in knowing the public opinion of naval discipline, that I think the time would be ill bestowed I could employ in collecting respectable authorities for the principles I have advanced, in seeking facts to support them, or in polishing the language that conveys them. It probably might have added to my reputation, but it would materially have promoted my sufferings.
Though the composition is hasty, the opinions are not. Every day’s experience of my services in the navy, has added to my conviction of their truth; they have been gradually growing up with me ever since I first went to sea; but the expediency of making them public, has only lately become so apparent through the medium of my own sensations of painful suffering;—an incident that added to my convictions, that it is time the public should know these things, was the attempt at murder on board his Majesty’s ship Union—unacquainted with all the circumstances connected with it, except through the letters that appeared in the Plymouth paper, it would be rash to pass a judgment upon it. From the known high character of captain Lindsey as a disciplinarian, it is not too much to say that it was purely the result of discipline, that sudden feeling which was attributed to the man, as his motive belongs to religious enthusiasm, or the ardent feelings of liberty goaded by cruelty to despair, careless of existence and hopeless of success. And, but that Christianity has enlightened the world since the time of Brutus, it is not improbable this action might have deserved to have been classed with his.
Another incident that has hastened the publication is, the capture of his Majesty’s ship Guerriere.
The fond believers in a moral energy of character springing from liberty, may, in the following pages, find a more efficient cause for her capture, than the loss of her mast.
If, in the following pages, I have appropriated the language, or sentiments of others to my service without acknowledgement, the diversified and occasional reading, which has been mine, and must ever be the sailor’s lot, prevents me knowing to whom they belong, and must therefore be my apology.