Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAP. VI.: The ill Effects of the Coercion used on board Ship, and of the Naval Laws and Customs on the Community at large; with some general Remarks. - An Essay on Naval Discipline
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CHAP. VI.: The ill Effects of the Coercion used on board Ship, and of the Naval Laws and Customs on the Community at large; with some general Remarks. - 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 ill Effects of the Coercion used on board Ship, and of the Naval Laws and Customs on the Community at large; with some general Remarks.
Though the effect of naval laws and customs is to engender pride and ignorance in the officers, and destroy the morality of the seamen, their worst effects are upon the community. These may be comprised under the heads of the vices committed in sea ports, of the destruction of our national character and discipline, and furnishing foreign nations grounds for an opinion, that, instead of being free, we are the vilest slaves. The first of these evils is clear to every man; sea ports are noted as the sinks of iniquity, and the contagion spreads from them far and wide. Vice is there so openly countenanced, so shamelessly committed, that no man can well go to a sea port without having his respect for virtue partially destroyed, by its open violation, and by the authority of example.
The destruction of our national character may not be so clear; it takes place in the following manner: For our countrymen to love their country, ought to form a conspicuous and valuable part of our national character; from this source to defend our constitution against what overpowering oppression might wish to dictate to it, is, doubtless, a great virtue; any thing that takes from our countrymen the wish to exercise this virtue, is destructive of our national character, of which this forms so material a part. This is peculiarly the effect of our present system of naval discipline; for no man ever voluntarily submits to pain. No other cause is assignable why our population, who love fame, and who have much curiosity, do not seek their gratification at sea, where knowledge may be acquired, and where honours and rewards are so abundant; why they do not go to the navy to seek a living, when a great part of them are subsisting upon ill-bestowed parish bounty. This cause is not so evident to the higher classes of the community, for they only know of the numerous provisions our country has made for disabled seamen, and know very little of the severe coercion in existence. Now the lower classes of society know nothing of the first, but have an exaggerated knowledge of the last; till convinced of this, from experience, I thought the coercion in existence was not sufficient to balance the love of fame and the fear of dependence. Upon an enquiry in the western and southern parts of England, the only places where I have had the opportunity, I found, that of twelve men of the working class whom I questioned, eleven knew of the coercive system, and but one knew any particulars of Greenwich hospital, or would believe that the old and the wounded seamen were ever taken care of; all had had friends pressed, and all shook their heads, as in doubt, when I described the provision made for the worn out and the wounded. How can it be otherwise? All the information the lowest classes possess is derived from deserters, who, of course, exaggerate all the severities of discipline, as an excuse for the infamy, which would deservedly follow, from abandoning the colours of their country; this is got to so great a pitch, that the people in every part applaud and protect deserters. Another source of information is derived from those strolling impostors, whom every man has seen droning about the country, exposing their wounded or amputated limbs, and who universally tell the people, to heighten their compassion, that they lost them in defending their country, and that this ungrateful country has now left them to beg or perish. With such a knowledge of the service, will any thinking being say, that our countrymen ought to resign the blessings of freedom, which they enjoy, and a certainty of a subsistence, though it may be dependent, to embrace such miseries, and so precarious and dishonourable a subsistence, as they believe it. The proper remedy for such an evil is to give the mass of the people more accurate information of the good things belonging to the naval service; and here injustice and short-sighted policy are deservedly punished. Had pressing been long since abolished, and limited service allowed, thousands of the sailors would have returned to their native spots, with the prize-money they have, on so many occasions, acquired; and that they would then have had a motive for saving. They could have told tales that would have fired the blood of every Briton to seek similar opportunities of acquiring glory; they would have spread, far and wide, the knowledge of Greenwich hospital, a retreat so honourable for old age, and so preferable to that which a great part of the community have to seek, and which is uncharitably, because sulkily bestowed by parishes; they could have told of the numerous rewards bestowed upon bravery, and where the service might have lost one seaman it would then have had a dozen able and willing Britons.
But our rulers have given a preference to Russians, Prussians, Germans, Frenchmen, Portuguese, &c. and have even carried this preference so far, that, in 1811, I knew Africans, who had been stolen from Africa, taken in a slave ship, afterwards cloathed, on board a guard-ship, and, without being able to speak a word of English, sent to man the British fleet, to fight the battles of our country. Such a thing is a burlesque upon a national defence. For the men, to whom our naval rulers have given this preference, the severities of naval discipline are admirably calculated. Accustomed, from their infancy, to regard their superiors as infallible beings, they bear, with patience and submissive obsequiousness, whatever they may inflict upon them, and a system of slavery for them has no pains. Hence, the undeserved good character, which Danes, Swedes, &c. have in the English naval service, as they are always observed to be quiet and peaceable; but an Englishman told, from his infancy, he is free, looks for the blessings of freedom; he writhes under the agony of this discipline, and wants but a little more knowledge to convince him, that, to resist it, is a virtue. This knowledge is fast coming to them, and he who then feels this oppression, and does not legally resist it, is a traitor to virtue and to freedom; he will be the incendiary, for he will encourage that oppression which must, if unresisted, end in destruction.
It must be obvious to every man, that a few crimes, amongst the lower classes, promptly excite our legislators to make laws to punish them, whose effects extend to all.
Upon this knowledge, I condemn the introduction of foreigners into our naval service; they are generally the refuse of all nations, an heterogeneous mixture of all the scoundrels upon earth; and these, with a few villains from our gaols, are sent to associate with men so alive to honourable feelings, or the desire of praise, as British seamen; and they have been a materially assisting cause in strengthening that bad opinion which exists in society of the character of our seamen; they have given an appearance of reason to the dreadful system of coercion established.*
The reason assigned for this admission of foreigners into our service, is the want of men; but if there be any truth in that main principle of Mr. Malthus’s admirable “Essay on Population,” I apprehend it cannot be controverted, and hope that I have not misunderstood it—That population depends upon food; that, in long peopled-countries, it is only restrained from increasing, by the incapacity of the country to produce or procure a greater quantity of food: it follows that, if our country has sufficient food to give to foreigners, it has the same to give to Englishmen, and it would surely be better to give it to them, since they must be attached, by opinion, to their country; since they are, in every point, more industrious subjects, more courageous sailors, and better men; while the others have nothing to attach them to our country, they are destitute of legal principles for fighting in our defence, and have no motives for virtue but fear. Nothing can prevent these men from returning to their native spots, whenever opportunity permits them, and our enemies will acquire all that accession of nautical strength. It may perhaps, be said, that if our fleet was entirely manned with our own countrymen, when peace took place our country could not support them all. I doubt it much; if they were discharged in small numbers at a time, there is sufficient capital in the country to employ them all, and more food could, probably, be procured in peace than in war.
Perhaps it may be said, that our want of these men is immediate, and that Englishmen would require to be born and bred up; but this, I conceive, furnishes the strongest objections that can be urged against the admission of foreigners into any part of our country; for, if they were not to eat the food which our labours procure, it would have been shared amongst Englishmen; consequently, a greater number than now exist would have been reared to manhood. Now, as the general repressing causes of population are vice and misery, for even in our country moral restraint represses but a small part of it, this admission of foreigners has caused a greater portion of vice and misery than would otherwise have existed in our country. As the end of legislation, and entrusting power to any men, is to promote the happiness and morality of all, our rulers, by the encouragement they have given to foreigners, have acted in direct opposition to that end for which they had power entrusted to them.
When the English character is so much superior to every other; when English opinions are so strongly tinctured with the love of liberty, and liberty is so valuable to mankind, true policy would have dictated a prohibition to strangers entering the country, and an encouragement to emigration; then English opinions, finding their way all over the world, all might have been, like England,—free; then would the wants of America, increased by her increasing population, have looked to England for supplies; then she would have been our best friend, though, perhaps, neither lying at our feet, nor reposing in our arms, but with us engaged in the same cause, and contending for the same end; then would the continent of Europe, enlightened by English knowledge, not have been subjugated by one enemy of mankind. I fear, amongst the advocates for pressing, and permitting foreigners to fight for us, are to be found men in the higher stations of society, who, while they assert there is a scarcity of men, retain a number, from useful employments to minister to luxury, and support an imaginary dignity. No man, who sees the herd of livery servants which infest the streets of London, and every part of the kingdom, can think that their masters are the men who complain of the want of men to fight the battles of our country; who deem it necessary to take, from his useful employment, the sailor, to force him from his wife and family, to rive every affection of his heart to defend them from oppression; I am not the enemy of this kind of luxury when the legitimate demands of the state for men are satisfied; when the people, who support these men in idleness, are not the advocates for compulsion and oppression.
It must now, I trust, be evident, that the evils of naval discipline on the community are not less than on the individuals who compose the service. They may be comprised in a few words: From discipline being so repugnant to our other national institutions, and our national character, it produces a hatred in the minds of the community for that service which can alone save the country from ruin; which has led her to the height of glory, and which will ever continue to be her main dependence and support.
There is another effect of the present system which particularly deserves the attention of every lover of his country. The length of the present war has kept sailors so long from home that they have ceased to have any other than their ships; they are so completely cut off from civil society, that they are no longer citizens, but are become entirely sailors, accustomed to a blind and rigid obedience; they could, conveniently, be made an instrument in the hands of an arbitrary prince, or an ambitious minister, to exalt themselves above the constitution. Limited and voluntary service is the effectual check to this evil; then the seamen will become bound to their home; they will have some regard to their country’s interest, because sensible it involves their own; they will cease to be tools, and become valuable servants.
The evils of this system, as it affects foreign nations, are the dislike and hatred which they must have to our country. The lowest classes of foreigners have no means of knowing the English nation, but through the medium of our fleets and armies: surely, the knowledge acquired from them of our national character must prejudice them very much against us. The effects the army may have I am not so capable of judging of; but what they see of the navy must produce, instead of love, hatred; instead of admiration, terror; instead of a wish to imitate us, a determination to avoid our modes; they see sailors on shore, broke momentarily loose from terror, committing all sorts of offences and debaucheries, or they see them on board ship, exposed to punishments the most severe and cruel; they, probably, see naval officers, corrupted by the possession of power, unrestrained by morality, guilty of every enormity; and, if attempted to be stopt, if they meet with any thing short of the obedience they have been accustomed to, using violence to accomplish their ends. There is nothing in such things to produce love, but there is much to excite hatred. The higher classes of foreigners know the value of English liberty, but they will not impart it to their people, because they are sensible it would subvert that power which they, at present, enjoy; it can be, therefore, with no justice foreigners are frequently accused of not sufficiently admiring and imitating the English character. Ireland may, in some measure, be regarded in this point of view, as a foreign nation, lately sharing with us part of the blessings of equal laws. The lowest class of her people know little of their neighbours, but by sailors and soldiers; and the knowledge derived from them will never attach them to us; but, had a system of limited service been in existence, I think it can scarcely be calculated how much benefit Ireland would have reaped from the return of thousands of her population, divested of their prejudices, increased in their knowledge, and, probably, with some wealth. Having now finished the account of the evils which occurs to me as arising from naval discipline, as acquainted with all its parts, it might be expected I should exhibit its goods. I cannot find one; if any can exist, why are they not now visible? Our navy has long been triumphant, and habits of order have long been known to be necessary, and are partially established, yet punishments continue as much as ever; we have seen that they are more numerous in the navy than in civil society. I trust it has been distinctly proved, that morality, which can be the only legitimate object society has any possible right to employ coercion to produce, can never be the result of this system; and I now assert, that it is not less destructive of this morality than it is of real discipline. It is from this opposition to real discipline that I condemn the present system; it is from its being built upon principles directly opposed to the religion and morality we are taught, in early life, that I so truly detest it; it is from its effects tending, like the effects of all systems of slavery, to destroy that national character which has made us pre-eminent among nations; it is the great inconsistency of at once attempting to make two such opposite principles, as the love of fame, and the fear of capricious man, the motives for arduous exertions, that I so vehemently denounce the present system. Let its supporters either explode morality or give up this system; either, at once, reject that religion which dictates our actions, or follow its laws; either, consistently, make us all slaves or all free.
Did every man but suffer the truth to come home to him, that without willing slaves there could be no oppressive tyrants, he would feel an individual responsibility upon himself to resist every species of oppression; was he to trace the consequences of submission to unjust authority, he would see there can be no greater morality than in resistance. I know no authority in our country so unjust as is displayed in the foregoing pages; and I can conceive no greater morality than in surmounting imaginary fears and resisting it.
[*]The foreigners sent in the prize of the Diana and Semiramis, who in 1811 murdered their officers; a boat’s crew of foreigners who did the same at Cadiz about the same time; and the late instance of the ship Adventure, may serve as examples.