Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. V.: The Effect of Naval Laws and Customs on the Minds of Seamen; with an Attempt to estimate their Character: - An Essay on Naval Discipline
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CHAP. V.: The Effect of Naval Laws and Customs on the Minds of Seamen; with an Attempt to estimate their Character: - 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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The Effect of Naval Laws and Customs on the Minds of Seamen; with an Attempt to estimate their Character:
To enumerate all the evil effects of naval laws and customs on the character of our seamen, would be to mention all the well-known evils which accrue to man in any situation, from being subject to a system of slavery which the naval discipline, combined with pressing and unlimited service, manifestly and acknowledgedly is. Why, then, has the universal debasement of character consequent upon slavery not had its full effects upon our seamen? Or why are they not as pusillanimous as they are licentious, as cowardly as they are immoral? The question is easily answered. Their courage, for its inestimable value, has recived more general praise than any other virtue in any other portion of the community. It has alike been the object of the applause of the giddy multitude, and of the reflecting statesman. This system, also, has always been opposed by our national character, resulting from our national institutions, and by that courage, which has been said to be the heart and essential nature of an Englishman, or its effects would long since have been defeat, not victory; dishonour, not applause.
It is observable, that every nation possesses different customs, characters, and manners; and these are the effects of laws, institutions, and climates. Whether the difference arises from one or all of these causes, it is generally clearly traceable to circumstances independent of man himself.
It therefore becomes a question of importance to the community, how much of the bad character, imputed to seamen, arises from going to sea; and how much is the fruit of the naval laws and customs, particularly as this bad character is alledged as the reason for the continuance of the severities of discipline, which severities are manifestly the greatest hindrance to a voluntary service. The opinion that the character of our seamen is bad, appears to be founded on the quantity of punishment people know to be inflicted in the navy, without enquiring whether such infliction is just, without knowing or reflecting that it all takes place at the will of an individual.
There is one cause for the greater immorality of seamen, which wholly arises from going to sea. I think it may be expressed, by saying it is the want of an opportunity of virtuously exercising the social affections of the heart. It has been justly observed, that, “the evening meal, the warm fire-side, and comfortable home, lose half their, pleasure when we want an object of affection with whom to share them;” and losing half their pleasure, half the stimulus to that industry is gone, which comprises so many of the virtues of the lowest class of the community; from this class our seamen are taken. It is to me reasonable that a much more virtuous conduct may be, expected from that man whose interests are bound with society, through the affections of parents or relations, wife or children, than from a man who wants them all. With the probable destruction of these affections, arising from going to sea, before the eyes of legislators, it might have been thought one object of naval laws should have been, by all possible means, to have furnished proper objects for, and directed the affections of, seamen, to have made them citizens as well as sailors, and thus have ensured them a home in, and a love for, their country. But the men who have legislated for seamen have known them only in the sea ports, when they have for a moment broke lose from terror, and been seduced into vice by passions which they are unfurnished with principles to restrain.
They have never witnessed them braving every change of climate without a murmur; they have never seen them, when pestilence has converted our ships to hospitals, supporting themselves and sick messmates with mirth; they have known nothing of the cheerfulness with which they exert themselves when the name of an enemy is mentioned, nor of the impatient ardour with which they wait the moment of action. When naval men, who have known these things, have legislated for seamen, they have known little of human nature; they have seen sailors momentarily active under a severity of discipline; they have balanced the severity which has been active against the humanity which has been indolent, and they have ascribed to the first every virtue under Heaven. From such legislators laws have proceeded, which, instead of counteracting the probable destruction of the social affections from going to sea, have obliterated, through the means of pressing and unlimited service, every hope of ever enjoying them. After a man is pressed, he is not enabled even to see the legitimate objects of his affection for years; from the unlimited service and continued length of the war, he entertains no hopes of ever again returning to his native spot. Now to enjoy consideration there, to give the blessings of plenty to a wife and family, to rescue a father or a mother from indigence, are among the most conspicuous and ennobling motives for the acquisition of wealth, and the practice of virtue.
It was a just observation of Dr. Johnson’s, “that it is the business of morality to direct, not extirpate, the affections of the heart;” indeed they cannot be extirpated, they grow with our growth, strengthen with our strength, and are the natural result of the laws which produce life. When they want the means of virtuous gratification, and are not restrained upon principles of morality, they will be unlawfully gratified, which is one great source of the vices complained of in seamen. A sailor universally hears avarice condemned; the laws deprive him of proper motives for economy: hence the manner in which seamen squander their money. The unnatural restraint which is put upon their affections, leads to that promiscuous sexual intercourse which exists in our sea-ports, which disgraces our country, and which must be a subject of bitter regret to every man who reflects, that more than half of the virtues of the civilised world arise from a restrained intercourse with the sex, who knows the mental debasement arising to both parties from promiscuous gratification. If any man doubts it is a vice most destructive, I have only to wish him to see the brutal scene which takes place on board ships coming into port, with the prospect of receiving pay or prize-money; where drunken sailors and prostitutes are promiscuously mixed, swearing, fighting, and dancing; where any mind would be shocked that was not totally destitute of religion and morality. Yet, sailors shall not, on the morrow, feel one conscientious pang, one reflection of impropriety, though assailed by disease the effect of intemperance. Whence can arise this torpor of conscience at committing what, in their early life, many would have shuddered at hearing described; but, from all principles of morality and religion being eradicated from the seamen’s mind, by the authority of laws totally opposed to them, and by their total disregard on the part of those men whom, in all things, they are accustomed to obey and fear.
Sailors are, very generally, accused of a careless, thoughtless, indolence, which makes no provision for the morrow. It is universally said, they are like children, who want every attention. Is such a characteristic not a peculiar mark of every system of slavery? Who cares to provide for to morrow, when he knows that its enjoyment can be prevented by a superior? This has double force with seamen. From the constant perseverance on the part of the officers, to prevent reflection; from the constant neighbourhood of their superiors, who vigilantly watch every action, and, from that vanity natural to man, officers are not content with thinking for themselves, but they must think for, and direct all, the actions of the seamen, whether relating to the service or not. Is not this preventing them from exercising a virtue, and then finding fault with them for not possessing it? But conclusive arguments, that the bad character imputed to seamen is the clear operation of naval laws, are that our ships are manned with our countrymen, who have never been an immoral set of people, yet they become so after being in a man of war. That the sailors of merchant ships are not so bad as those in ships of war; that the drunkenness, which exists, is known to be derived from the encouragement it receives there; and that even on board ship, it is observed, that the man who has been brought up from his infancy in a man of war, is a worse character than the man just pressed; and, surely, if severity could produce virtue, it would be found in a man who has, all his life, been subject to its influence. If it had produced any thing but debasement of character, here it would exist.
Now the bad character of the seamen is the imputed cause for the continuance of the severity of naval laws, for the entrusting to a captain the power of punishment; and, I trust, it is fully clear that this bad character is the result of these laws and this power. And can any other character but such a one result to the man who has nothing to prescribe his duty but terror of human laws; these cannot take in every possibility of vice, nor can they at all times restrain the actions. When not under their influence, an irreligious man wanders solely by the guide of passion, present sensation is to him all in all; he heeds not, indeed; he has not reflection; he feels not conscience; and, alas! sailors are not to blame. Their accountability, as moral agents, is destroyed by the operations of these laws and customs, which permit them in no case to direct their own actions.
I have mentioned the only probable cause for vice, which is peculiarly the result of going to sea, to give strength to the opinion that there is little necessity for coercive laws to keep seamen in order; to enable us to form an estimate of their character, it will be requisite to bring into view some virtues which may be the necessary consequences of a sailor’s life. The most prominent is the awful circumstances in which seamen are very often placed. There is no occupation in life so productive of religious sentiments as that of a seaman’s: none that so much encourages that fear of God; which is the beginning of wisdom. For though on shore, we occasionally witness storms and tempests, (yet, from comfortable houses and other causes) to meet with injury from them is regarded as a phenomenon. When pestilence or partial famine visits the earth, its cause is so obscured to the body of the people by our rulers having, on all occasions, interposed, to assure them that every good was owing to their management, that when they suffer any ill, the people attribute it to them and the laws, and scarcely recognise in these things the punishments of the Almighty for their sins. Not so the sailors. They cannot, amidst the awful conflicts of nature, however ardently they may be striving to arrest their ill effects, let their minds stop short of a great first cause. Then no human beings or laws can intervene between man and his Maker. The strength of the strongest, or the arrogance of the most proud, then avail them nothing; all are for the time upon an equality. At such a time the fear of the Lord, a firm conviction of his superior power, and an ejaculation for safety fill the breast of the most obdurate. But these emotions are not suffered to continue. The laws and customs will not permit the fear of God to be the sailor’s motive for duty, they will substitute in its place the fear of man. A worse motive could not be applied to seamen, for the praise of society teaches them, above all other things, to despise it.
Perhaps the worst injury seamen suffer from the laws is, the destruction of religious hope, which must follow from its principles being destroyed: our superiors, inflated by unrestrained power, wholly forget that love for their fellow-creatures which the scriptures teach; and they learn, by their example, the sailors, to despise them.
Another conspicuous cause why much coercion is not necessary, is the fame which has so liberally been bestowed upon the seamen, and which makes them peculiarly sensible of praise; of course, it might be substituted with advantage for coercion. It is this love of praise, and the general success of the navy, that makes desertion so much less frequent than it otherwise would be; or, indeed, that makes seamen serve at all. A succession of defeats that should take from them that estimation society now holds them in would, I apprehend, more than half unman our fleets, as the most vigilant watch could not prevent desertion. To eulogise their courage springing from this source would be superfluous; it is known to every man; it has caused joy upon the countenance of every friend to social order, and is indelibly engraved in the bosom of every enemy of their country. But this courage never was the produce of terror; then release our sailors from its operation; give them reason to love their country; abolish this abominable system. Let us confide our defence to a population notoriously willing to fight, and our country will be strong in the love and strength of its inhabitants, standing as she does, exalted in the world from her nobleness of character, the object of praise and admiration to every thinking man; all, evidently, must love their country. The sailors partake strongly of this sentiment, and how strongly let others judge, since the oppression that is exercised upon them is not sufficient to conquer it. Every place they visit gives them additional reason to love their country, for they see the immense advantages it possesses; they cannot help comparing its immense trade and its populous towns with the half-cultivated and half-peopled places they frequently meet with; and who can avoid feeling a pleasure in belonging to it. From charity having, in our country, been much an object of praise, and from sailors having little use for money, I believe it to arise that sailors have been so noted for their generosity and charity. Their hearts are never shut at a solicitation from distres, though reason may not direct them how most effectually to bestow their bounty. Instances of this are too numerous to need any relation of them; yet I cannot withhold two that happened very recently. When the subscriptions were set on foot for the relief of the widows and children of the people who had perished in the Saint George, Hero, and Defence, the sum recommended to the seamen to subscribe was two days’ pay each. I saw one of them come forward, and, in that open manly way, which is the peculiar characteristic of conscious rectitude of intention, said, “I wish, sir, to give ten days’ pay; I cannot make any use of my money here (i. e. on board ship), and there is no better way of employing it than in relieving distress.” He was not permitted, however, to give more than his two days’. The approbation the remainder of the people evinced was a decided proof, that all knew the value of such feelings. I believe it is also true, that it was the sailors them-selves who first set the subscription on foot in his majesty’s ship Argo.
The other instance was a sailor, who saw, just as he was leaving a town in the west of England, a poor woman, with two children, apparently half famished, worn out with travelling, and exhausted with carrying a child. Too poor to buy her a shelter, she had taken up her rest upon a heap of earth: he immediately enquired her distresses, encouraged her with hope, and shared his purse with her. While he was busy in relieving her, a dignitary of a church, whose essence is charity and love, came that way; he gave the sailor and the woman a smile of contempt, and, like the Levite, passed by on the other side. Two ladies came next, whose souls, it is probable, heated into sensibility by a novel, would have shrunk into themselves, with the bitterest exclamations of regret and pity, at the cries of a lap-dog or a kitten; but when a fellow-creature was in distress, they looked upon her, and passed by on the other side. What a contrast was here; for, of all other beings, surely clergymen and women may be expected to be the most charitable, but they left it to the rough honest sailor; yet, the possessors of such feelings are thought to be bad characters, and to need compelling, by destructive terror, to do their common duties. Surely these instances do not want a comment; they do not require me to assert, that men, who can perform such actions will, if they are permitted, seek the praise society bestows on successful courage.
Another cause why sailors might be better than the rest of the community is, that going to sea imposes a restraint upon many of the passions, and no man can there escape the conviction, that they all may be subdued. A firm conviction of this kind is a good base for virtue; for the frailty of our nature is too frequently made the excuse for the commission of every crime. If sailors were taught to continue those restraints upon principles which necessity now obliges them to submit to, the task of governing their passions would be easier to them than to other men. I have already observed, that, from the vices connected with avarice, they are eminently and conspicuously free. In no other part of the community have men so good an opportunity of getting rid of those prejudices of early education, which, unnecessarily, make man the enemy of his neighbour; there it is that the Englishman, Irishman, and Scotchman, set together at the social meal, that the grog and the purse belong to all, none want while the others possess. At sea, every man is engaged in prosecuting the same-end, and the interest of all is the same: this begets a similarity of feeling and opinion; and possessing these is the surest bond of union and of every society; and that they are friendly with each other, is a proof that they do not want the social affections; they only want them properly directed. At sea it is that curiosity, whose gratification is knowledge, may be almost satiated; and it may be justly observed, that if the sailor was not prevented from reflecting, he would, compared with that class of the community he belongs to, be an intelligent man.
On the whole, the character of the seamen may be summed up, by saying, that they are courageous, because our countrymen, and because they ardently love fame: that from this, which is the most conspicuous passion of their nature, they dislike work, because work has been made infamous; that they are licentious, because they want the opportunity of gratifying their social affections, and the principles that ought to restrain them are taken from them by the laws; that they are indolently careless, because not allowed to reflect; that they are given to drunkenness, because habits of it are encouraged as an indulgence, and occasionally tolerated as a pleasure; and we may add, that, if rationally governed, they would be the best race of human beings.